Here you’ll find musings on the necessity of solitude, re-thinking perspectives, new paradigms for relationship and intimacy, living creatively, guidance for hard times, questions about what’s essential and some of my own poetry. May you pause long enough to listen and so recognize your own heart-wisdom and beauty in these reflections. Enjoy!
Image: Marc Chagall
To honor Women-in-History, I offer you this terrific list of eighteen wildly diverse book recommendations made by The Rumpus, an online literary magazine. Women from around the globe in the arts, politics, activism, poetry, literature, education and more are represented. Inspiration abounds here, so dig in.
Scroll down to this month’s Further Reflection, titled Know Your Resident Genius, for an experiential writing prompt. We don’t have to make headlines to live as sources of light, courage and inspiration, right? Without further ado, I give you this plethora of phenomenal women:
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont, illustrated by Manjit Thapp
In this luminous volume, New York Times bestselling writer Julia Pierpont and artist Manjit Thapp match short, vibrant, and surprising biographies with stunning full-color portraits of one hundred secular female “saints”: champions of strength and progress. These women broke ground, broke ceilings, and broke molds. Open to any page and find daily inspiration and lasting delight.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister—a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, and equal in genius, but whose legacy is radically different. This imaginary woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed. If only she had found the means to create, argues Woolf, she would have reached the same heights as her immortal sibling. In this classic essay, she takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give voice to those who are without. Her message is a simple one: women must have a fixed income and a room of their own in order to have the freedom to create.
The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou by Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published to widespread acclaim in 1969, and Maya Angelou garnered the attention of an international audience with the triumphs and tragedies of her childhood in the American South. This soul-baring memoir launched a six-book epic spanning the sweep of the author’s incredible life. Now, all six celebrated and bestselling autobiographies are available in this one-volume edition.
Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women by Bella Abzug
Bella Savitzky Abzug was an American lawyer, US Representative, social activist, and a leader of the Women’s Movement. In 1971, Abzug joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan to found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Here, the former congresswoman details the make-up of the women’s vote and its importance in the then-upcoming presidential election.
Infinity Net by Yayoi Kusama
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is one of the most talked-about artists working today. This remarkable memoir reveals her to be a fascinating figure, channeling her obsessive neurosis into an art that transcends cultural barriers. Kusama describes arriving in New York in 1957 as a poverty-stricken artist and later becoming the doyenne of an alternative art scene. She tells of her relationships with Georgia O’Keeffe, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and the reclusive Joseph Cornell. She candidly discusses the obsessive visions that have haunted her throughout her life; returning to Japan in the early 1970s, Kusama admitted herself to the psychiatric hospital in Tokyo where she lives today, and from which she has produced the seemingly endless stream of artworks and writings that have won her acclaim across the globe.
Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly, whose given name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran, was a pioneer of investigative journalism. Of her many exposé assignments for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, her voluntary (and undercover) journey into the “lunatic asylum” on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island is perhaps the most well-known. She, without much difficulty, fooled various doctors and authorities into deeming her insane and admitting her to the asylum, from which she reported.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope. This commemorative edition includes a new foreword by Lorde-scholar and poet Cheryl Clarke, who celebrates the ways in which Lorde’s philosophies resonate more than twenty years after they were first published.
The World I Live In & Optimism: A Collection of Essays by Helen Keller
These poetic, inspiring essays offer insights into the world of a gifted woman who was deaf and blind. Helen Keller relates her impressions of life’s beauty and promise, perceived through the sensations of touch, smell, and vibration, together with the workings of a powerful imagination. The World I Live In comprises fifteen essays and a poem, all of which originally appeared in The Century Magazine. ”Optimism,” written while Keller was a college student, offers eloquent observations on acquiring and maintaining a sense of happiness. These essays reflect the author’s remarkable achievements, as expressed in her honorary degree from Harvard, the first ever granted to a woman: “From a still, dark world she has brought us light and sound; our lives are richer for her faith and her example.”
It’s Up to the Women by Eleanor Roosevelt
“Women, whether subtly or vociferously, have always been a tremendous power in the destiny of the world,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in It’s Up to the Women, her book of advice to women of all ages on every aspect of life. Written at the height of the Great Depression, she called on women particularly to do their part—cutting costs where needed, spending reasonably, and taking personal responsibility for keeping the economy going. Whether it’s the recommendation that working women take time for themselves in order to fully enjoy time spent with their families, recipes for cheap but wholesome home-cooked meals, or America’s obligation to women as they take a leading role in the new social order, many of the opinions expressed here are as fresh as if they were written today.
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo
The intimate life of artist Frida Kahlo is wonderfully revealed in the illustrated journal she kept during her last ten years. This passionate and at times surprising record contains the artist’s thoughts, poems, and dreams—many reflecting her stormy relationship with her husband, artist Diego Rivera—along with seventy mesmerizing watercolor illustrations. The text entries in brightly colored inks make the journal as captivating to look at as it is to read. Her writing reveals the artist’s political sensibilities, recollections of her childhood, and her enormous courage in the face of more than thirty-five operations to correct injuries she had sustained in an accident at the age of eighteen.
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Sappho, translated by Anne Carson
Of the nine books of lyrics the ancient Greek poet Sappho is said to have composed, only one poem has survived complete. The rest are fragments. In this miraculous new translation, acclaimed poet and classicist Anne Carson presents all of Sappho’s fragments, in Greek and in English, as if on the ragged scraps of papyrus that preserve them, inviting a thrill of discovery and conjecture that can be described only as electric—or, to use Sappho’s words, as “thin fire… racing under skin.”
Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder edited by Max Sherman
Revered by Americans across the political spectrum, Barbara Jordan was “the most outspoken moral voice of the American political system,” in the words of former President Bill Clinton, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. Throughout her career as a Texas senator, US congresswoman, and distinguished professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, Barbara Jordan lived by a simple creed: “Ethical behavior means being honest, telling the truth, and doing what you said you were going to do.” This volume brings together several major political speeches that articulate Barbara Jordan’s most deeply held values.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique gave a pitch-perfect description of “the problem that has no name”: the insidious beliefs and institutions that undermined women’s confidence in their intellectual capabilities and kept them in the home. Writing in a time when the average woman first married in her teens and sixty percent of women students dropped out of college to marry, Betty Friedan captured the frustrations and thwarted ambitions of a generation and showed women how they could reclaim their lives. Part social chronicle, part manifesto, The Feminine Mystique is filled with fascinating anecdotes and interviews as well as insights that continue to inspire.
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem had an itinerant childhood. When she was a young girl, her father would pack the family in the car every fall and drive across country searching for adventure and trying to make a living. The seeds were planted: Gloria realized that growing up didn’t have to mean settling down. My Life on the Road is the moving, funny, and profound story of Gloria’s growth and also the growth of a revolutionary movement for equality—and the story of how surprising encounters on the road shaped both. From her first experience of social activism among women in India to her work as a journalist in the 1960s; from the whirlwind of political campaigns to the founding of Ms. magazine; from the historic 1977 National Women’s Conference to her travels through Indian Country—a lifetime spent on the road allowed Gloria to listen and connect deeply with people, to understand that context is everything, and to become part of a movement that would change the world.
Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom by Pussy Riot
On February 21, 2012, five members of a Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot staged a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Dressed in brightly colored tights and balaclavas, they performed their punk prayer, asking the Virgin Mary to drive out Russian president Vladimir Putin from the church. After just forty seconds, they were chased out by security. Three members of the collective, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, known as Masha, Nadya, and Katya, were later arrested. As their trial unfolded, these young women became global feminist icons, garnering the attention and support of activists and artists around the world. Pussy Riot! is an essential document of this galvanizing historical moment. It includes letters from prison, courtroom statements, defense attorney closing arguments, poems, the infamous punk prayer, and tributes by Yoko Ono, Johanna Fateman, Karen Finley, Justin Vivian Bond, Eileen Myles, and JD Samson.
Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai
In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country. Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come.
White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
by Brenda Wineapple
White Heat is the first book to portray the remarkable relationship between America’s most beloved poet and the fiery abolitionist who first brought her work to the public. As the Civil War raged, an unlikely friendship was born between the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary figure who ran guns to Kansas and commanded the first Union regiment of black soldiers. When Dickinson sent Higginson four of her poems he realized he had encountered a wholly original genius; their intense correspondence continued for the next quarter century. In White Heat, Brenda Wineapple tells an extraordinary story about poetry, politics, and love, one that sheds new light on her subjects and on the roiling America they shared.
Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad translated by Sholeh Wolpe
For the first time, the work of Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad is being brought to English-speaking readers through the perspective of a translator who is a poet in her own right, fluent in both Persian and English and intimately familiar with each culture. Sin includes the entirety of Farrokhzad’s last book, numerous selections from her fourth and most enduring book, Reborn, and selections from her earlier work and creates a collection that is true to the meaning, the intention, and the music of the original poems. Farrokhzad was the most significant female Iranian poet of the twentieth century, as revolutionary as Russia’s Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva and America’s Plath and Sexton. She wrote with a sensuality and burgeoning political consciousness that pressed against the boundaries of what could be expressed by a woman in 1950s and 1960s Iran. She paid a high price for her art, shouldering the disapproval of society and her family, having her only child taken away, and spending time in mental institutions. Farrokhzad died in a car accident in 1967 at the age of thirty-two. Sin is a tribute to the work and life of this remarkable poet.
For Further Reflection: Know Your Resident Genius
Bring to mind a woman, living or deceased, who is a source of inspiration, guidance and strength; one who has opened your mind. It could be someone you know, or a woman from history, the arts, literature, mythology or sacred texts.
Conduct a written interview or write a letter to to your sister-muse woman. Find out more about her, ask questions. What does she have to say to you about your creative freedom, for instance. Whatever your questions or concerns, when you write from her perspective, sit in a different chair and use a different pen so you can reverse roles. Write to yourself as her, in her voice.
The guidance, wisdom and creative force you’ll discover emerges from within your innermost being. Name it and claim it. Enjoy!
Do what you must, but never put anyone out of your heart.
The first draft of this came to me during a workshop I facilitated, “Heartfelt Words: Lamps in the Dark.” I was outraged about yet another insane action by the president. I’d no thought to write a letter to him or little Donny. I was surprised by where this writing exercise went: it took me to deep empathy for a child. Here goes:
Dear Mr. Trump,
I’m writing letters to people who could use heartfelt words. Lamps in the dark, if you will. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t choose you when I sat down to write. I was gazing quietly at my notebook. Suddenly my pen scribbled your name on the virgin paper. Surprise! That happens when the mind can wander freely, when thoughts aren’t lined up like combat soldiers ready to fire off the next missive.
I don’t need to be a psychic to know you’re a troubled, hurting man, Mr. Trump, haunted by scars. I know, too, the commercial face you employ, like a death mask, won’t budge on this point. Denials aside, your blustery behavior betrays you. I’d wager a bet that contact with emotional pain is too much for you to bear. The result? Joylessness, hardness, a loss of feeling, such as empathy, which cannot take root in a hostile environment.
Please, stay with me here. Strange as it seems, I want to offer warm words to the boy you once were, exiled little Donny, whose bereft ghost wanders the chambers of your heart. Here is my letter to him:
What a fine boy you are! I know you’re hungry for a look from your daddy that says, “You are more precious to me than all the tea in China, son.” And you wish your mommy would read “Charlotte’s Web” to you at bedtime, whisper, “I love you, darling,” then kiss your head softly as you fall asleep. You adore your daddy. All you really want is the happy feeling of your small hand held in his.
I’m sorry you’re so alone. It’s scary how Big Donny huffs and puffs and blows up. He badly wants people to like him. Having money and even being president doesn’t make him happy. He marches around in that big house and never sees you, even though you’re within him at every moment.
But I see you, Donny. You want is to play hide-and-seek with pals, snuggle with your mommy, throw the ball with your daddy, eat popcorn and watch “Lassie.” What a smart boy you are! I see you, Donny, and I love you.
Your new friend, Krayna 🙂
It’s tragic Mr. Trump, dangerously so for the whole planet, that you’ll go to the grave never acknowledging vulnerable Donny. I’m sure this makes you squirmy, but before you run off, consider this: No amount of bravado, popularity or empire building replaces the compassionate warmth of a tribe who loves you, guides you, and teaches you to steady yourself in this spinning world. I so wish you knew the radiance of such love. Now that would be newsworthy!
To whom would you write a letter or poem with heartfelt words? You can write to humans, as well as members of other species, the earth, a part of yourself. Let your imagination guide you. Consider sharing what you wrote with someone else.
Offer the light of compassion and hospitality, wherever, however and to whomever you can. No matter how meager your offer may seem, do it anyway.
A man lies prone in a sleeping bag at the entrance to my office. Shit, I think, cuz it’s quite cold today. I call out, “Good morning! Hello!” Eyes fly open, a young man scrambles to rise, long dreads swinging. I ask his name. Crying, he says Joe. (I’ve changed his name for purposes of privacy.) I say, Joe, sorry to alarm you. I’ve got clients coming. He’s already packing up. After I open the office, I return. Do want to use the bathroom? He declines. Doesn’t want the trail mix, Kleenex or tea I hold out to him either. As this is unfolding, my client, who’s been watching from her car, slowly makes her way to the front door. I signal it’s ok, and in she goes.
I stand there quietly. Finally, he says he’s exhausted and haltingly relates a disturbing story. Someone slipped what he suspects was methamphetamine into his girlfriend’s drink the night before. She became violently agitated. He called an ambulance and thinks she’s at the hospital. Imagine the scene, the chaos, the fear. In the end, he takes the Kleenex, trail mix and mug of hot tea. Yes, he knows about the warming station around the corner.
Do you want me to call the hospital, Joe? He has no phone. No, that’s ok. Then, although words seem insufficient at such moments, I say I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. He thanks me, walks off with his bundles, still crying. I watch him leave, feeling sad and helpless over his situation. Breathing, I know how little I know.
I think of Joe every single morning when I wake and every night before I go to sleep. Along with Jane, George, Mack, Chris and other homeless women and men I’ve met. And all their dogs. In the quiet hours, I bless them with love.
Was the bit of hospitality I offered enough? Not if I want to be sure he’s warm, fed and comforted. I gave what I could in the moment. There’s no way to square this. We can respond to distressed people in messy situations with tremendous compassion and love. And yet……
I don’t know what compassion counts for in Joe’s world. I’ve reckoned with this fact and don’t argue with it anymore. Feeling helpless is not a crime or a failure. Withholding hospitality, now that’s another story.
How do I deal with this? I turn to what fosters the capacity to move with rather than against experience. I turn to the creative life, to poetry, contemplation and solitude. I find this gives rise to vision, humor and authenticity. Good medicine to counteract the fear that doesn’t make contact with the other.
Imagine being an Aikido-Spirit, taking what life presents not as a personal affront or judgement, but rather as a dance in which feeling and action happen on behalf of the whole. Thus everything becomes useable energy. The infinite range of outcomes isn’t in our hands.
All I know is that a heart of compassion and hospitality counts, no matter how meager the offer looks. Beyond that, I don’t know. Which reminds me of an old fable:
A farmer had only one horse. One day his horse ran away. His neighbors said, “I’m so sorry. This is such bad news. You must be so upset.” The man just said, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
A few days later, his horse came back with twenty wild horses following. The man and his son corralled all 21 horses. His neighbors said, “Congratulations! This is such good news. You must be so happy!” The man just said, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
One of the wild horses kicked the man’s only son, breaking both his legs. His neighbors said, “I’m so sorry. This is such bad news. You must be so upset.” The man just said, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The country went to war, and every able-bodied young man was drafted to fight. The war was terrible and many young men died, but the farmer’s son was spared, since his broken legs prevented him from being drafted. His neighbors said, “Congratulations! This is such good news. You must be so happy!” The man just said, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
I love the liberating truth of this story. I-don’t-know-we’ll-see allows a singular focus on outcome to be supplanted by the freedom to creatively respond to what’s called for here-and-now. It counts that we keep our divine appointment with love and humor alive, day by day, moment by moment. May it be so.
Love, blessings and kindness without end, Krayna