Friday, September 21, 2012

A Recovered Mormon’s View: Why We Don’t Want a Mormon President

This blog was never intended as a platform for politics (its aims are higher), but for this post I’ve decided to venture outside my comfort zone. And if you read all the way to the end, you’ll find the Writing Journey woven in, in what I hope is a meaningful way.

I’m qualified to say s
omething about the topic at hand because I was born and raised Mormon, a descendant of generations of Mormons on both sides, and spent many of my formative years in Utah’s ultra-Mormon heartland. I left that religion behind at the age of thirty, half my life ago. I’ve been actively “in recovery” ever since, and will be until I die. My spiritual/philosophical outlook has evolved toward what today is called Nonduality, in which the dualistic distinctions of conventional theologies are seen to be illusory, all aspects of the Whole (see additional links below).

I have not studied Mitt Romney nor his platform. I don’t need to learn about him as an individual, because I already know: there is no Mormon I would ever want as President. This is not because of some chip on my shoulder or hatred of Mormons. Many beloved family members and old friends are practicing Mormons and I respect their right to make that choice. I just don’t want any of them as a national leader. I’d prefer politics and governance to be free of ties to any religion, but since that is not the case, my civic duty is to speak up about the religion I know best.

It’s easy to point with well-reasoned skepticism at the bizarre fundamentals of Mormonism: angels, golden plates, Native Americans descended from Israelites, etc.; not to mention the LDS church’s historical/social difficulties: polygamy, racial discrimination, denial of gay rights. I’ll leave that task to others. My thoughts here have more to do with the psychology of being a Mormon, and come not from a science angle but from personal experience.

Mormon children are taught from the earliest age that they belong to “the only true church.” Only Mormons (men who have been ordained to the priesthood; no women) have the actual authority to act in the name of God Almighty on the earth. All other churches, Christian or not, are wrong to one degree or another, and possibly even evil. The worldwide Mormon missionary program is dependent on the deeply-held belief of young men and women that they have more spiritual wisdom than any non-Mormon they will meet. Faithful Mormons are certain that they are superior, anointed (perhaps due to valor in the spirit world before their birth), God’s chosen people. It’s easy to understand why a Mormon politician would refuse to talk about religion; he could easily make a slip that would betray the astounding arrogance that is part and parcel of his faith.

I’m not saying that arrogance is inappropriate for a President. While I’d prefer a combination of strength and humility, there is likely to be some arrogance in the mix of attributes that brought the person to the position. The problem is the worldview. To harbor a certainty of the inferiority of the Other, even diplomatically masked, is to put our nation in ever deeper danger from those who find it easy to hate us. Witness the terrorist recruitment program initiated by the G.W. Bush regime in the name of Homeland Security.

A Mormon who is a true believer will stand up in front of a congregation in Testimony Meeting and claim to have had a “burning in the bosom,” a form of personal revelation that gives them “sure knowledge” of such things as the nature of the Godhead, the truth of the Book of Mormon, the authentic prophetship of founder Joseph Smith or whomever is the current Mormon leader, or even the divine calling of the USA to be leader of the world. “Without a shadow of a doubt” is how they often put it, with no admission of the nearly irresistible power of emotion to convince us of things we wish to believe. Mormons are taught to parrot such phrases as a way of cementing their loyalty (as in ”I pledge allegiance...”). The things they claim to “know” are simply not empirically verifiable facts. I am not a strict empiricist, but I do expect an attempt to be accurate with language. The truth might be “I feel,” “I believe,” “it seems to me,” or “my gut tells me.” But to claim “sure knowledge,” as the best Mormons must, means one of two things: you are lying or you are deluding yourself. Those are not qualities I want in a President.

In Mormon mythology, they were a persecuted people, innocents tormented by sinners. But historical evidence plainly shows the dark sides of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other early Mormon leaders, so it takes powerful denial to maintain that they were gentle, inspired saints. LDS history is not unique in being checkered with violent and illegal misdeeds, but rank and file Mormons are never given the whole picture. They are fed a whitewashed official story and are not to look elsewhere for a balanced view. Anything that indicates there might be holes in the official story is rejected as the devil’s handiwork. The sweet old grandfathers who run the church are, of course, unimpeachable, because they are in daily contact with heaven. This is the kind of authority-worship Mormons are conditioned with from the cradle. When I imagine a US President having such a high capacity to live in denial, I think of... well, Richard Nixon, who was “not a crook.”

Arrogance, denial, and the need for “sure knowledge” are all products of fear. When Mormon children are taught to “be in the world but not of it,” told stories of their ancestors’ persecution by wicked people, and sing hymns about the safety of their kingdom in the mountains, the coded message they receive is that the society “out there” is deeply threatening. We are all hardwired by evolution for fight or flight, so in civilized society when buried fear meets its object, aggression and defensiveness come out sideways. Primitive nastiness is masked as normalcy; truth goes blurry. Mormons are also taught that it’s a virtue to engage the world with shiny happy faces like the Osmonds, so they are often masters at dissembling. Beware the Chief Executive who fears, perhaps even hates, the very people he governs.

For a Mormon President, the statement of ultimate responsibility Harry Truman is known for, “the buck stops here,” would not apply. No Mormon President can be his own master, because he is subject to the rulings of the latest in a long line of elderly white businessmen, the “Prophet” who leads the LDS church by direct revelation from God. It might be said that this is no different from electing a Catholic President, a servant of the Pope. I would have to agree; I don’t want a Catholic President either. But I also speculate, based on observations of Mormons and Catholics throughout my life, that most Mormons have a deeper, more complex father/child relationship with their prophet than most Catholics have with the man in the fancy hat. For faithful Mormons, it’s an infantile love, like a four-year-old girl who adores her daddy, trusts him implicitly, will do anything he asks. Make no mistake: electing a Mormon President means electing his shadow boss.

A favorite story in Mormon Sunday School, taken from the Book of Mormon, is a first-person account by the young hero, Nephi, of how he beheaded a drunken man in the streets of Jerusalem, in order to obtain the book of law he needed as his family fled (eventually to land in the Americas). He justifies this murder by claiming that God told him to do it, for the good of his people. The clear lesson being delivered to the children in Sunday School is that God’s will in the present overrules the laws from the past, and is not to be disobeyed no matter the circumstance. A faithful Mormon can justify absolutely any behavior as long as he is convinced, by himself or an ordained authority, that he is acting with God’s blessing. If Mitt Romney feels in his heart (or hears a voice in his head whispering) that God has called him to lead the nation, any manner of lying and manipulation is perfectly okay, it’s God’s will.

Essentially, the Mormonism program is aimed at dismantling people’s ability to be true to themselves, to their own innate moral code. The recompense is the warm, fuzzy feeling of having easy answers to difficult questions. This is true of all organized religion, but the LDS Church has a unique, sentimental insularity, a sweet “family bond,” that makes its brand of conditioning more difficult to disentangle, and few people choose the long hard road to awakening.

Mormons will no doubt claim that I am over-generalizing. Of course I’m aware that there is a sizeable contingent of Mormon progressives (I was once among them), and that there are even dissenters risking excommunication for liberal ideas. I recognize that every Mormon is an individual who comes from a family with its own unique dysfunctions; that each is thus susceptible to a different degree to indoctrination that poses persuasively as love. And who knows, maybe Mitt is not the faithful Mormon I’ve described above. Maybe he’s his own man, a free thinker who chooses Mormonism as a religious community without actually believing in its principles. If so, I find that disingenuous, evidence of an underdeveloped consciousness, and I still don’t want him anywhere near the Presidency.

Here’s a brief aside before a minor shift in gears. All the above is not to say that I am a supporter of Obama. In my opinion, the current manifestation of the two-party system is nothing but empty spectacle, gladiators battling in the Coliseum to keep the bloodlust of the masses pumped so high they forget their own minds and hearts; so they forget to demand what they really need. Viable third and even fourth parties are an absolute necessity before this false Us/Them duality, this rabid team-think, can be unseated from its ruling position in the psyche of Americans.

As a fiction writer, I am, among other things, working out my childhood issues through my literary creations. It can’t be otherwise. In my collection of linked short stories, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, Mormonism is a sub-theme that I explore through several characters. It is most prominent in “Baptism,” a story narrated by a Mormon teenager about the death of his adopted brother, a Navajo boy (or, to the Mormons, a “Lamanite”). It’s a coming-of-age tale, but also looks at the ambiguous nature of good deeds: is Daniel’s religious businessman father a kind patriarch, and/or was his dedication to profits the cause of the death of Willy’s mother?

In “The Saxophone,” there is a “fallen” Mormon character, the young male protagonist’s mother. Her response to a failing marriage is a raging religious hysteria made extra crazy by her alcohol addiction. Substance abuse in Mormonism is a secret, but by no means non-existent.

At the end of “Echoes,” a five-part, five-narrator story, we learn that a character who had been introduced in a previous story has met a pair of Mormon missionaries and has been baptized. In a family crisis, his son in a coma, Sid has apparently discovered that Mormonism fits his need for religion. We learn about that need earlier, in the story “This Handful of Pebbles:”

As the gas station attendant fills his tank, Sid swipes a squeegee across the windshield, through which he can see Marv waiting. He needed to get out of the cramped space of the car for a moment to unfog his mind after Marv's babbling. He feels a flutter of regret that he had, on an impulse motivated by loneliness, invited Marv to come along.
But now, clarity is beginning to come: he knows what he wants and doesn't want. He doesn't want stupid explanations of God that are like poetry, all murky and ungraspable. He wants plans, structure, bullet points. It began to dawn on him when he saw the Exxon sign and felt himself pulled to stop in front of this pump. The only God he can believe in is like a CEO, a topnotch executive at the pinnacle of an efficient hierarchy, who disseminates knowledge like memos down through an organization of worthy managers, and whose laws and promises are well-defined, unquestionable, and so very comforting.
Before getting back in the car, he dials Emily on his cell phone, hoping she'll be okay with a visitor. She doesn't answer. He decides to head for the hospital anyway, with Marv tagging along.
Driving, one of his unpredictable rushes of inner quivering begins to arise, but he steels himself against it, fists firm on the wheel. There must be no doubt, only sure knowledge. How could God be God without a solid program, repeatable processes, reliable metrics? Obscurity is unacceptable when everything is falling apart, his son on the edge of death, everything shattering. He has to have answers, lucid and concise. Like the windshield, now that it's clean: clear glass through which he can see anything coming. How else can he know that he's safe?

Hmm... Sid will make a good Mormon, but his marriage to Emily may not survive.

From my childhood, there is much that I am grateful for. And there is no way to separate out the strands of Mormon influence. But there is a long, thoughtful process of learning to be self-aware, and that is the trek I am on: a human journey first, that happens also to be a writer’s journey. It means many many hours of talk therapy, plus a great deal of attention paid to the Observer inside, who teaches me that I am not my baggage. If Mitt Romney were on a similar path, I’d have more respect for his ability to govern.

Next, beyond the psychology and the writing, is yet another trek, one short step into the nondual Now. Religion and politics fall away, no more important than the breeze or a drop of rain. But I’m focusing here on the 60-year journey that has brought me to where I am today, and that’s how I know that whatever this nation chooses as its future on election day, I will at least have carefully considered, and spoken, my personal truth.


More about Nonduality:
Science and Nonduality (a yearly conference)
One: Essential Writings on Nonduality (a good book) (all things nondual...)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Writing Authentically Etc. Etc. (plus video!)

"All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." --Ernest Hemingway

What’s the relationship between “true” and “authentic?” Maybe Papa Hemingway secretly felt that he never wrote a true sentence, that his life was a lie, so the shotgun beckoned. Maybe.

“True” is too high a standard. “The truest sentence you know” is much kinder, more forgiving, because a writer’s truth is relative and ever-changing. I’m not precisely the same today as I was yesterday, and I’m an entirely different person this year than I was twenty years ago.

If I want to write “authentically,” what else can I do but write the truest sentence I know, right now?

If Hemingway’s writing style could be assumed to follow his dictum about truth, then my friend Janet Steen’s very fine essay in The Weeklings, “Strip It Down,” would seem to go along with him: simple declarative sentences are somehow more “true.”

I don’t agree.

Okay, Janet wasn’t making a claim about truth; she was just stating her current preference for straight talk. But there are factions out there who love to turn personal taste into dogma, and this is one of the popular ones: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Another one: “First Thought, Best Thought.” I’ve heard my friend Marta Szabo, co-director of the Authentic Writing Workshops, espouse that idea and I’m sure it has been a powerful force to help many of her workshop participants break free of the inner critic. That is a good thing, for them.

But again, I don’t agree.

And a giant among gospels is this one: “The Author Must Be Invisible In Service Of The Story.” I’ll wager you’ll find that nugget buried somewhere on every writer’s site across the vast interwebs.

Sorry, I don’t accept it.

Forgive my contrarian pose; you get the picture. What I’m saying is that there are no aphoristic definitions of better, more true, more authentic writing. There are no rules. There are only individuals.

I’m certain Janet would not argue with me: Simple sentences may be more true for some writers, but others need the ins and outs and sidetrips and detours to accurately, even profoundly, map their own minds on the page.

No doubt Marta would allow for this: Revision may destroy one writer’s spontaneous truth, but for another it will, like a sculptor’s chisel, reveal the real beauty hidden in the stone. Or, to over-extend a simile, add more bits of clay onto the basic shape until a perfect likeness emerges.

And must story always trump style? Of course not. That's like saying that Cezanne should have just used a camera to make his images so we could see the damned peaches like they really look! For me, a big part of the pleasure of reading is knowing that I am inside the mind of a writer with her own unique way of expressing thoughts. I like getting to know the author just as much if not more than the characters. Art is about the artist first, the subject second.

Which ties to the words of Fred Poole, founder of the Authentic Writing Workshops, when he says that all art is autobiographical and that the workshops he and Marta offer are all about getting at “who a person really is.” And better yet, that writing authentically can create a new, perhaps even subversive, definition of reality....  But why am I paraphrasing?  Hear for yourself, in these two simple little videos I had the pleasure of putting together. Only four minutes each, so watch them to the end!

Part 1: 

Part 2:

Friday, June 1, 2012

Aah, Memory... a Review of "And She Was" by Alison Gaylin

Full disclosure: Alison Gaylin is a friend of mine. We see each other at parties, our daughters are friends, and we were in a writing workshop together over a decade ago when her first novel (the Edgar-nominated Hide Your Eyes) was in development. I was very pleased to feature a short story of hers in Volume 3 of Prima Materia, the Hudson Valley literary annual I used to publish. And when I invited her as a guest speaker in a Lifetime Learning Institute class I was teaching at Bard College, I was intrigued to hear about the premise of her latest book from HarperCollins, a “novel of suspense” called And She Was.

From the publisher’s website:

...Gaylin’s And She Was introduces a remarkable new protagonist: Brenna Spector, a missing persons investigator afflicted with Hyperthymestic Syndrome, a rare disorder that enables her to remember every moment of every day of her life. A twisting mystery, both chilling and surprising, And She Was sets the haunted investigator on the trail of a missing child who vanished more than a decade earlier—a case with disturbing echoes in Brenna’s own scrupulously remembered past.
No question, And She Was lives up to its advertising. As each chapter ended, I found myself having difficulty closing the book. I stayed up too late several nights. Alison has a truly enviable knack for the cliffhanger that keeps the reader hooked as tension mounts, and she handles the intricate plot with finesse, like the consummate professional she is. The truths that were finally revealed in the climactic scene genuinely surprised me. And the sugar on top is her smart and funny narrative voice (not to mention the title nod to one of my favorite Talking Heads songs). This is a novel that will most certainly please fans of the suspense genre.

So... now is when this review jumps the tracks and I show my weirdness. I confess I’m like the oddball reader who, out of 52 reviews on Amazon, was the only one who said “Really liked the main character, but didn't care about the mystery.” In other words, Brenna’s struggles with her inner life and her relationships are far more compelling to me than any crime and detection plot could be. This is about my personal tastes, not Alison’s skill. Hyperthymestic Syndrome... wow, that is really fascinating to me, and not in a textbook way, but in a human way.

Aah, memory... so bittersweet, such a friend but so unreliable. It’s one of the ultimate mysteries, and brain science just doesn’t have the answers. What exactly is this strange thing that each of us lugs around as it gets bigger every day? Thank heaven we have an automatic mechanism that lightens the load: we forget. Or most of us do. The few people with genuine Hyperthymesia (now called HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory) forget very little. Imagine---no foggy blanks, no sensory loss, no dulled emotions in recalled events. Almost nothing, including pain and joy, is missing from the vast catalog of moments they’ve lived since their condition became active. The first person to be diagnosed with hyperthymesia, Jill Price, says “It makes me crazy.” Indeed. How could it not?

Brenna Spector is both blessed and cursed by this gift of super-memory. She uses it like a video recording to “see” crucial crime-solving information from the past, but she also suffers as she re-lives painful personal events. These were my favorite scenes in the book, and their success is largely due to the fact that Brenna is a fully-developed, three-dimensional character as well as a likeable protagonist. Her inner conflict with a freakish memory is rich ground from which to draw a story, and I congratulate Alison for having a great idea and jumping right into it (by the way, readers roundly commend her book as superior to the TV show Unforgettable, which I’ve never seen but which depicts a character with the same condition).

So for me, the hook was the mystery of memory. I want to ask for more... not more facts, but more questions, more dilemmas, more exploration of Brenna’s inner world. “Whodunit” be damned. Granted, that is not what thriller readers want, so my request is plainly unreasonable. In any case, I plan to read the next novel in Alison’s Brenna Spector series, and I fantasize joining Brenna in facing questions like the ones in these next few paragraphs:

Memories within memories within memories.... Imagine a scenario in which a person with Hyperthymestic Syndrome or HSAM is remembering in great detail an occasion in the past, during which she was also remembering in great detail another occasion in the deeper past... and so on. How would one experience such an infinite regression? What if an experience like that dramatically interfered with Brenna’s ability to function in an important moment of conflict?

Evidence shows that people with HSAM have not only more recall, but more accurate recall than the rest of us. Nevertheless, a human is not a machine. What is remembered can be no more accurate than what is originally perceived, and all perception is open to interpretation in the moment. What would happen if another person’s memory, or better yet, video or photographic evidence disputed a “fact” that Brenna’s memory told her was absolutely true? What would this mean to a romantic relationship if both parties remember an important event differently, but one has a supposedly valid reason to believe she is always right? Would discovering the untruth of a memory that was key to one’s self-concept, one’s “story,” shatter the foundation of the self?

A related question regards the malleability of memory... the “misinformation effect.” Memory can change over time and with new input. For example, most of us aren’t entirely sure whether we remember actual events or the photographs or stories of those events that we’ve looked at or heard in the years since. Given the assumption that a person with HSAM is less vulnerable to this effect than the rest of us, what if a concentrated effort was made by an evil-doer to distort Brenna’s memory (“retroactive interference”)? In other words, what if she has to face the fact that her famously perfect memory could actually betray her?

I’m veering too much toward suggesting plot points now, but forgive me one more. What if evidence based on Brenna’s memory was challenged in court and, despite its truth, a skillful expert witness shot her testimony down? Someone like Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who has changed the course of many trials by showing empirical proof of the fallibility of memory. Read more about eyewitness memory as well as the “homunculus fallacy” from Marc Green PhD here.

Perhaps the most esoteric, and possibly for me the most compelling, of the questions about memory is: where is it stored? “The brain” is an an entirely unsatisfactory answer. Experiencing a memory is no different in the brain from experiencing actuality: for every sensation or perception, a little storm of electro-chemical activity is all there is. We have no way to prove that objective reality actually exists.

Experiments have shown that memory is not located in a particular part of the brain, but rather in the brain as a whole. It’s like a hologram: slice it up, and the entire picture is still found in every fragment. Respected neuroscientist Rudolph Tanzi points out in a set of videos with Deepak Chopra that the brain in fact does not have storage capacity, but rather appears to act as a type of retrieval tool, bringing memories from the "past" just as it brings imagination from the "future
" into our present consciousness... from “somewhere else.”

Rupert Sheldrake, the controversial doctor of biology at Cambridge, has long posited that memory does not reside in any particular region inside the skull but instead in a kind of energy field surrounding and permeating the brain, what he calls a “morphic field.” The brain is the decoder, making sense of the inflow of data produced by the interaction of each person with their environment. Memory is “nonlocal.”

Sheldrake’s ideas connect with Carl Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious, as well as with the Akashic Records, the ancient Vedic concept of a
"library" containing all the experiences and memories of human minds for all time, encoded invisibly somewhere our science has not yet accessed. 

In addition, memory study rubs shoulders with the work of other cutting-edge scientists: Holonomic Brain Theory by physicist David Bohm and neurologist Karl Pribram (read The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot), and more recently Quantum Consciousness (Orch-OR) Theory by physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Also, Biocentrism by Robert Lanza (the book co-authored by our Woodstock neighbor, astronomer Bob Berman). These explorations assert the primacy of Consciousness rather than Matter. They delve into areas easily labeled “philosophical” and even “spiritual,”  which in my opinion is where the best science should always be going: into the Mystery.

The questions don’t stop. This thing called “I”---is it just the sum of my memories, or something more? Could memory be just a device created by the ego to give the illusion of continuity so we aren’t overwhelmed with existential panic every morning when we are reborn into existence? What about the borderline between dreams and memories---if one becomes the other, how can I tell truth from fiction? If my memory is stored in an energy field around me, and my field mingles with that of someone close to me, couldn’t we share memories? In cases of past life regression, is it actually the subject’s own memories being recalled, or something received like a radio signal from the nonlocal, non-temporal morphic fields or akashic records? And so on....

Well, clearly I’ve gone far off the track of a typical book review here. But that’s how my mind works. What does it all have to do with And She Was? Alison Gaylin’s creation Brenna Spector is set to be the heroine of at least two more novels. Fiction is the arena in which emotion delivers ideas, stamping them into us like an embossing tool on leather. Brenna’s affliction challenges our thinking, exaggerating universal human struggles just enough to act as a mirror in which we see ourselves more clearly. She is the fictional counterpart of those real individuals whose unusual minds lead us to new wisdom. May her stories go deep, last long, and be wildly popular!

(Alison, if you’re still with me at this point, thanks so much for the wellspring of exciting questions and ideas!)

Friday, May 11, 2012


Writers know that there is a special challenge in capturing with words the richness of a fleeting moment. To do it well and truthfully is damned hard. Sometimes it’s tempting to just avoid the detail and breeze by with a high-level summary. Of course, too much avoidance and the work will seem dead, a lie. Because what’s missing is the very thing that life is made up of: moments strung together like beads on a necklace.

Some moments are full to the brim with drama; they are complex, multi-faceted; they could take pages and pages to parse. Others (most) seem comparatively barren. But even the empty moment is far more pregnant than it appears, once we begin to look closely.

The enlightened masters tell us that any moment, the Now, can open up like a blossom to transcend time and space. I don’t doubt that, but I also know that such an experience is beyond the capacity of language. As writers, we toil on the plane of the mundane, but that shouldn’t prevent us from exploring as deeply as possible, treading the very boundaries of the inexpressible.

The old saw, “show, don’t tell,” which I don’t take as gospel at all, is probably good advice here, but what about the multitude of unshowable inner realities any human is experiencing at any given time? Poetry may be the best tool for this job: the sudden epiphany called out of nowhere by the perfect unexpected collision of words. But I’m a prose writer. I’m interested in how moments are captured in sentences, in the flow of a narrative.

I’m also a visual artist, and I’m interested in the foggy borderline between our preconceived notions of what is important or beautiful and that other place: the neglected, the bland, the everyday.

So “Moments” is also the name I’m giving to a rather casual, free-flowing art project: short spontaneous videos shot with my little Bloggie camera, with no editing except for trimming head and tail. As in writing, a video can put a selected moment on a pedestal by giving it a beginning and an end, slicing it out of the never-ending flow that we experience as actual life. That very act of differentiation illustrates the omnipresent Now by showing us its opposite: a fragment. In this project, I'm looking for a balance of random banality and ephemeral beauty, something that might fit the Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi.  

Wabi-sabi puts forth the wisdom that greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details, and that beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Based on observation of nature, it teaches us these three truths: all things are impermanent, all things are imperfect, and all things are incomplete. Leonard Koren says, "Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of conscious­ness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace."

Here are my first three video moments (about 1 minute each). I don’t expect these to be “extraordinary,” but for me, they do point toward that “altered state of consciousness” that can turn a stone to a jewel, a thoughtless routine to an act of mindful aliveness. Perception is reality.

Moments: Eric Dolphy and Me, Crossing the Rhinecliff Bridge

Moments: Sunrise on the Cell Block

Moments: Playing in the Park

Doing something similar with language is an entirely different proposition. In storytelling, it is not usually the banal moments that we choose to elevate by exploration. Or is it? Here is a moment within a moment, narrated by a sax-playing alcoholic in recovery, in my story “Blues for Jane.”
I get dressed; Jane doesn’t move.  I feel something, maybe good, tough anyway, leaving her flat.  This is not the first time.  She stands there naked, not sure what to do with her hands so she hugs herself, a tall girl with big sad eyes, looking at the wall, at vacation romance fading, a film’s end, black.  I button my shirt, slow fingers moving up like I’m playing a ballad on worn brass keys.
I remember there was a little of her look, the lonely part of her look, in those wide eyes the night I first saw her in the little club on Second Street in Jersey City, watching me solo.  Those eyes were lighthouse beacons piercing the smoke, headlights in the fog bearing down on me, a truck, a train of trucks, roaring like wind through misty midnight straight at me, me and my rambling solo, and suddenly I was caught, pinned in the glare, so self-conscious, every fingering suddenly suspect, my stance pretentious, my breathing so obviously faulty, and I closed my eyes and prayed, closed my eyes and fell away from that wide pure stare into the rhythm, and breathed, and finished okay.  As Joey began his piano riff, I opened my eyes to meet hers, wide again but with a little smile, a shy smile, no more trucks in the fog, just a girl, and she clapped her hands, and I made a small bow, and then I watched her move through pools of light and smoke, moving like a young racehorse, all legs, long legs rolling from the hip joint, the young awkwardness of big feet, big hands, big shy head, eyes down as she moved through the dimness in long steps, all odd grace, all awkward pieces joined into smooth flow, big eyes glancing at me once more from the bar, and I knew I’d see her after that set, and after that night.
Now, here, my hand is on the door.  She’s looking away.

“Blues for Jane,” besides being in my collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, will be appearing this summer in an anthology called Tribute to Orpheus II, from Kearney Street Books.

If you’re a writer (or even if you’re not), I’m interested to hear your thoughts about the challenge of capturing moments -- especially those that would seem to have no inherent importance, but which, through the subtle power of suggestion and ambiance, enrich a story, define a character, or elucidate a theme.


(For more video moments as they arrive, see

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Not Like Other Mafia Novels

For the first time, my very small publishing effort called Bliss Plot Press is the publisher of a triple threat for one title: ebook, audiobook, and paperback editions of the novella Saraceno by Djelloul Marbrook. The vicissitudes of everyday life dictate that part-time publishing is for me a slow-motion process: ebook in 2010, audiobook in 2011, and now the paperback. But it’s a fine-looking little volume, if I do say so myself. I designed both the cover and the interior but I need to give much credit to Marilyn Marbrook for not letting my frequently lapsing attention neglect the highest standards, especially in typesetting and page format. Here is the full cover, and the title page is below.
But enough about me and my product; let’s talk about the content of Saraceno. This is not a “crime novel” nor is it a “thriller” nor is it an easy fit into any other of the silly categories with which today’s publishing industry straitjackets itself. This is a story about people who bring to mind the line from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie:” To live outside the law you must be honest.

Of course, honesty does not absolve one of murder. Absolution is not a concern here, but redemption is. I am not typically drawn to stories of crime and criminals, especially the violent sort, preferring to explore worlds (inner and outer) that are closer to my own. In Saraceno, most of the crime and violence take place “off screen,” leaving the pages open for investigation of the finer yearnings of the heart; of the universal benefits of human connection.

Billy Salviati (given the dark power-name “Il Saraceno” by the godfather) grows in this story, from a damaged young man leaving prison, through a murderous career as a favored soldier in the don’s army, to a higher state of awareness and spiritual freedom. His redemption is the result of two influences intermixed, each of which alone is never enough. They are: his own internal flame that flickers around a calm, watchful center; and the generous, perhaps undeserved, love of other people whose paths he intersects.

His best friend, the godfather’s grandson, on a parallel path toward his own true nature, arrives first and stays. Later we meet a lady bartender whom Billy lets into his life. But central to the book and to Billy’s transformation is Hettie Warshaw, an elderly Auschwitz survivor who opens to Billy an entirely new world. Her Hell’s Kitchen apartment is a fabulous museum stuffed with artifacts, books, maps, the wisdom and beauty of the ages, and on the roof is a rose garden. The place becomes Billy’s refuge, and it changes him.

Today, my context for the story is provided by a YouTube video I found to be dramatically paradigm-changing. It features Dr. Bruce Lipton, former medical school professor and research scientist giving a lecture called The New Biology: Where Mind and Matter Meet. I’m focusing on Part 2 (95 minutes). At the risk of drastically oversimplifying Lipton’s far-ranging message, here’s the relevant bit. At a cellular level, we live in a constant vacillation: Growth vs Protection. That binary fact is expressed at the emotional or consciousness level as Love vs Fear. In an environment where the default choice is the opposite, Billy chose Growth and Love, and that made all the difference.

And a final note: Saraceno is not like other Mafia novels for two reasons. Marbrook, an award winning poet, writes with an unusually powerful command of language that lifts both content and reader. And also because visible on every page is the author’s open-hearted affection for his characters, these humans with serious blemishes who are worthy of love simply because they share this world with us. That’s the quality of fiction I want to read, and to publish.

For more information about Saraceno and Djelloul Marbrook, read my blog entry from a few months ago. But even better, get the author’s fascinating backstory from this great press release: Mafia? What Mafia?.

Purchasing information is at Bliss Plot Press.