Thursday, January 23, 2020

Constant State of Change

From one of my art journals from 2016. I created the journal by gessoing an old atlas that had been Rob’s. 

“...[E]very aspect of life is in a constant state of change” (p. 1). I reread this from the opening of The Art of Resilience: One Hundred Paths to Wisdom and Strength in an Uncertain World by Carol Orsborn. I read this book off and on in the weeks following Rob’s death. Someone, and I am embarrassed to say I could not remember who, sent this to me and then I noticed the taped paper in the inside cover. Two women I work with. 

Rereading the book Nearly four years after Rob’s death finds me in a different place. It’s as if I am reading the book for the first time as I have forgotten most of it, if not all. What I have mostly learned from being reflective is that grief and shock are entwined. Without this written record, I would remember little in the way of detail. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Not Being Careful

Rowing (M.A. Reilly)

I walked past an older woman whose husband was helping her to remove a jacket. She leaned heavily on a cane. When I pulled my car out of a parking lot, I saw this same couple slowly walking into the doctor's office I had just left. They held hands and seeing them made me spontaneously cry.

Sometimes the soulfulness of love undoes me. It was almost as if I was looking at a future I once thought probable. 


Mary Oliver writes, 
Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love. 


It’s easy to get burdened by what might have been. Oddly, it is love that lightens despair. To have been loved and to have loved without choice is a gift. 

As Rumi reminds, we knew each other well before meeting. We were inside one another all along. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Equal Rights Amendment


I was fortunate to grow up as a teenager during the 1970s when feminism was rising. I took my first women’s studies class in the late-1970s at college. It was a history I did not know.

During 1982, I would wear a button that read, ERA YES each day as I taught high school English. It was my first year at the high school in a more rural section of New Jersey and like all English and PE teachers there, we did lunch duty every day. During one of those days, a school administrator stopped me to ask if I was taking a survey. I must have looked confused so he clarified. “Are you asking the kids which laundry detergent they prefer: ERA or Yes?”

No, I’m wearing this button to support the passage of the equal rights amendment.”

The ERA is brief, yet powerful statement that if passed would afford women equal protection under ten Constitution. The word, she, does not appear anywhere in the Constitution.

Here is the full text of the Equal Rights amendment:

Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The House vote in 1983 would fail. 35 states had ratified the bill. 38 were needed.


I was reminded of this as I watched the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I heard the term, feminism spoken about and mentioned on the radio and on Twitter usually by women who mostly seem to have been tenagers during the Reagan presidency when the ERA was not ratified.

Last year I attended a lecture given by Sally Roesch Wagner about the history of feminism in this country. She provided a rich history of feminism and for the hour I sat in that audience I was filled with a hope that equity might be possible. That hole was fueled recently by the bite last Wednesday in Virginia.  There a vote on these ERA occurred 1.15.2020. Virginia became the 38th state to pass the measure. Finally, 38 states passed the measure. Trump’s (un)Justice department killed that hope when they decided that the measure could not go forth as it was dead.

Now states will need to challenge the ruling in court.

Will the USA ever see an equal rights amendment included in the Constitution?

Monday, January 20, 2020

Trauma-Informed Writing: Why Writing through Grief and Other Trauma Matters

Watercolor, Reilly, 2017.


I open a recent issue of JAAL and the first article, "Humanizing the Practice of Witnessing Trauma Narratives," by Rossina Zamora Liu has me thinking about the partial stories I heard by Board of Education members a previous night. Several were recounting  time spent with young girls in high school who have experienced trauma.  There were large spaces in the retold stories; partial expressions of what remains unknown, unspoken. How to get told the stories that must be told is a salient question.

Liu (2019) who founded and facilitated the Community Stories Writing Workshop (CSWW), at a local shelter house explains that through personalized correspondence, she helps "writers negotiate the layers of vulnerabilities that come with revisiting painful memories." (p. 347).  She says she does so with the "hope to illuminate the importance of recognizing writers’ emotional labor as a humanizing practice of witnessing (Paris & Winn, 2014) trauma narratives and how we, as writing teachers, might reposition ourselves from that of presumed authorities on writing to that of “worthy witnessing” (Winn & Ubiles, 2011, p. 296) of writers’ drafts—if they grant us admission" (p. 347). Each week homeless adults gather for 90-minutes at the center to write.

Reading the article,  thinking about the recent conversations, as well as the thousands of pages I wrote in the months leading to my husband's death and the years that have followed, I wonder how we might leverage writing workshop for trauma-informed work.


Stories have always mattered. Telling stories in the months after Rob died surely kept me grounded as it afforded me a process to work through the terror and then the sadness of grief.  Liu succinctly states, "Writing helps us uncover our past, labor with it, and move toward other possibilities" (p. 347). For  me it was part word, part image that helped. Creating helped me to make sense of what was largely inexplicable.

How might we afford the gift of expression to young girls at high schools? What might that process look and sound like?  

Sunday, January 19, 2020

#PoetryBreak: The Well of Grief

The Well of Grief

     - David Whyte (2019)

Those who will not slip beneath
     the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water,
     to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
     the secret water cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
    the small round coins,
          thrown by those who wished for something else.

Saturday, January 18, 2020


“An Offering” (image I made from the side yard of my home ).
I keep remembering specific rooms in the house I lived in for 18-years. In some ways, I am still living there. I’m here, in my new home and suddenly realize that I am daydreaming, picturing myself walking from the kitchen to the hallway in a house I left nearly three months ago. Or sometimes as I look out a window here, I am remembering the view out the back side window to the woods that edged a side yard. How many images of those woods did I make across those 18 years?

The familiar is soothing. The known comforts.

I have lived in my new place since Halloween. It’s unsettling  how unfamiliar it remains. I can count on a hand the number of times I have gone downstairs to the basement. I have yet to even see the attic. It all feels temporary.

A home is a way of being in the world that is tied to the familiar. David Whyte (2015) writes that “taking a new step always leads to a kind of radical internal simplification, where, suddenly, very large parts of us, parts of us we have kept gainfully employed for years, parts of us still rehearsing the old complicated story, are suddenly out of a job.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Ten Books That Changed My Life

Voyeur (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

I was tagged in a post on facebook by Chris Kenny a year ago to post ten books that changed my life across the next ten days.  I took a look at the books he had posted and was reminded how much I love books and people who share and also deeply love all kinds of books.  I then et the idea settle in.

Sometimes I am slow.

Ten is hard. Here's the imperfect list, a year late.

Day 1 (Christmas Day)

Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales

I did not know language could slip and slide and sing until I first heard Dylan Thomas read A Child's Christmas in Wales. I wanted to write like him. I wanted to make sound impressions. I wanted language to fill my mouth. I still do. I still try.

Day 2 

 Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level.

Rob gave me a copy of the book a Christmas morning far too long ago to remember fully. I read it in a sitting and have spent the last twenty years or so rereading it.  I have gifted this book more times than I can count.

Day 3

Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

This book shaped and continues to shape me, especially as I age. I read it first in high school. I read it out of obligation and would return to it a few years later--somewhat unfettered and was surprised at how much I could hear as I had so much space opening inside.

I blogged about the book here: We Are Too Full of Knowing 

Day 4

Toni Morrison's Beloved

This was the last book I taught to more than 100 senior high school students six months after it had been published.  I remember what my students thought as we all struggled together to make sense of Morrison’s story, of America’s story.  I recall feeling deep shame as we uncovered what was not in the history books that filled classrooms no more than a few feet away.

Day 5

Rumi's The Essential Rumi


This year Rob and I would have been married 30 years. Perhaps then a book about love seems all the more appropriate.  No one in my life has ever loved me as he did. Through and with him I learned to want to become a better person.  That's the heart of marriage: to compose better selves.

Is there nothing as grand as love?  It would be a few weeks after Rob had died that I would open this book and find a page folded and a slip of paper in it on which Rob had left me a note.

Some gifts move in and out of time.
They form us.
It's not always the book that makes the book matter.

Day 6

Kate Chopin's The Awakening


I can still recall the sting of wind and the hours snow fell. It was January and school was called off due to snow. I cannot remember why I happen to have a copy of Chopin's The Awakening, but I did. I had recently turned 27 and would divorce a year later. It  would be this book that would set that course in action.  As I read the story of Edna Pontellier I grew short of breath, recognizing a possible future on those pages. Edna and I were of a similar age. I did not want to drown myself, but did feel stymied, lost, limited, too certain. Surely, life with all its fullness and uncertainty waited just around a bend and staying put would be akin to walking into that bay of water alongside Edna.

Leaving the known, the overly familiar, is always hard and takes courage.
Staying though is like death.

Day 7

James Joyce's Ulysses
Ordinary Angels (M.A. Reilly, 2009)
I really tried to read this. I tried several times and it would not be until I met Rob who had read the novel and studied it that I read it from start to end. Years later, Rob, Devon and I would spend a day where this novel opens. The same place Joyce wrote parts of the story. The stairs that wind up Martello   Tower  are worn and narrow. Instead of the book, I placed an image I made later that day as the swimming hole nearby. It was late September and we were bundled up. The locals less so as they swam.

Day 8

David Whyte's Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

I return to this text often. It is ingenious: a poetic dictionary and then some.  Whyte provides an essay for 52 words.  Here is the opening fro the word, solace.

SOLACE is the art of asking the beautiful question, of ourselves, of our world or of one another, in fiercely difficult and un-beautiful moments. Solace is what we must look for when the mind cannot bear the pain, the loss or the suffering that eventually touches every life and every endeavor; when longing does not come to fruition in a form we can recognize, when people we know and love disappear, when hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.

I have read and reread this book so many times. Each time feels new.

Day 9

Kevin Young's Brown 

I don't remember how I first heard of Kevin Young's book of poetry, Brown, but I do remember reading it from cover to cover and being moved so much that staying in my skin was a challenge. His poems took me back to college (decades ago) and brought me to the present moment.

It's the way h sees and sounds that I most admire, want to emulate.

Here's the closing poem: "Hive."

Day 10

Mary Oliver's Dream Work

When Rob died I selected the poem, "Wild Geese," to be printed on the Remembrance Card.  It fit. The poem's large sense of belonging to the world conveyed what I could not say at the time. Rob was all about the generosity of living.

I read this book the year I met Rob in graduate school. It was fairly new at the time and I marveled at the way Oliver's poems were so simple and yet, profound. I return to this volume often.

What books move you? What books help you to see differently?  What books have changed your life?