Whither Spring?


What’s on my mind these days is spring, SPRING! shouted in capital letters into the milky-white March sky. My call and response goes like this:

Dale: Spring, are you there?

Melodious Spring replies: I’m here. I’m on my way.

Dale: Jeez. Can you hurry? Tulips, daffodils, warblers—PLEASE!

Laura Rock Art Cape York Australia-645518-rock-art-thomas-georgeAm I the first human on my knees beseeching the heavenly spheres? Not likely. How reassuring, how intimidating and yet AWE-some must it have been for our primordial ancestors to converse with the vast Divine. How comforting to feel the abiding presence of cyclical time, the predictability of seasons, the endurance of species assured and unquestioned, the shifting angles of the sun and the pull of the moon felt in one’s bones.

TCOL ppbk_hi-res And I have to admit to another reason I want it to be warm and inviting everywhere. The new paperback edition of The Conditions of Love will be sprouting on bookshelves come May. In the book world, paperback editions are truly thought of as a new life for a book. May this be so for TCOL, and may it reach many new readers here and abroad. I’ve just added links to the pre-order pages for the paperback on my home and book pages, if the mood strikes you. [Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink.]

But back to Spring! As far as I can tell, in the Midwest its span has been shrinking for decades. Last year the ice wasn’t out on our north woods lake until mid-June, almost a month later than usual, the chill air suddenly bolting into summer. This rapid-shift forty-to-eighty degrees seasonal pattern forces buds to mature and unfurl with unprecedented quickness. lake_ice_melt_sunset11_7463 Gnats and no-see-ums whirl in knots while islands of ice still pattern the woods. The change in weather is kind of freaky, gut-deep alarming, as is the disappearance of frogs in our shallows. But what to do except shrug, sigh, stay green, pray?

Delayed or not, at least we still have seasons. Just this morning I hung a bird feeder filled with fresh thistle seed and the next time I looked, two lovely goldfinches, a bright yellow male and a muted female were plucking at seeds.

Spring feels like a season of surprises, maybe because it lifts the mind into imagining possibilities. sunflower-crow-kathleen-a-johnson That the rose bush will sprout its pinky buds is no surprise, but what volunteer weed or flower will pop up near the spruce? Two years ago my front yard was adorned with giant sunflowers of varying russet and gold hues undoubtedly sown by crows from a nearby farm. The whole concept of renewal, of starting again, of rebirth ushers in hope that has thinned during long, gray winter days.

Spring is going to be a busy time for me, an exciting time. I’m so honored to be one of the keynote speakers at University of Wisconsin-Madison Writer’s Institute Conference (April 4-6). You can view the program here. I’ll also be meeting privately with students and teaching a poetry workshop.

In May, I’ve been invited to be the featured speaker at the Friends of the Madison Public Library’s 17th Annual Book Club Café on Thursday, May 22 at 7 pm. This will take place in the gorgeous Olbrich Botanical Gardens amid tea and desserts.

I’ll be writing more about these later. For now, I’d like to recommend a poem very much of the almost-but-not-quite-yet season by my friend and one of my favorite poets, Jack Ridl, “Here in the Time Between.”  Here’s a tease from it:

Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into

the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. . . .

Remedies for the Evil Eye

demoneyeAround Valentine’s Day this year, I received several emails of the chain letter variety asking me to forward a cheery aphorism to five friends in exchange for the beneficence of good luck.

Good luck. Bonne chance. Buona Fortuna. Mazel Tov. Who wouldn’t want to commend themselves to the favor of the gods, especially since the opposite of good luck is bad luck, or as my superstitious grandma admonished the malevolently lurking Kein En Horah, the evil eye.

As it turns out, the concept of the evil eye is present in just about every culture. (See Alan Dunde’s fascinating book and interview on the subject.) In Hindi the evil eye is known as Boori Nazar.  Mal de Ojo in Spanish. The Italians say, Mal Occhio, and in Arabic the word is Ayin Harsha.

evileye1But whether natives refer to this deadly gaze as “stink eye” or “rotten eye,” whether the antidote is a prayer, a chant, a bracelet or charm, the message is to be vigilant and protect oneself from the invisible threat.

My own grandmother was forever spitting (feh, feh, feh) —into her hand, into the soup!—as a way of protecting us against evil, her equivalent of throwing salt over her shoulder or knocking on wood. My mother, too, was infected with this legacy and forbade us to walk under ladders or put shoes on a bed. I used to smirk at their contrivances and the ignorance they implied, but you can be sure I was simultaneously susceptible to their warnings and secretly awaited bad luck to befall me for my irreverence.handeye  Like many  superstitious folks, my family engaged in a mish-mash of rituals that adhered to no one religion or ideology, but helped stoke the ever-present hope of keeping bad luck/bad spirits away. If evil was a superpower lurking outside the realm of humankind, bad luck was its twin. In both instances, the intention was, in today’s jargon, self-empowerment, a way to battle forces beyond one’s control. Like Job, I think they were attempting to understand the inexplainable and with the courage of innocence shape their destinies.

But maybe, just maybe, the irrational isn’t so…well…crazy. Something deeply primitive and instinctive resides in the old reptilian parts of our brain coexisting in a parallel universe with our rational, smarty pants frontal cortices.

FreudFreud wrote brilliantly on what lurks within in his 1919 essay called The Uncanny that blends psychoanalysis and aesthetics.

From another perspective, Jung expanded our understanding of the unconscious by exploring the necessity of a symbolic life. Jung, among others, understood that there are ways of knowing outside the realm of our conscious, linear-thinking minds and that superstition is one symbolic way we humans act on and give meaning to this knowledge.

Myth is another.

Art—poetry, painting, dance—another way.

CrossTo concretize what we fear is very helpful! How else, unless by objectifying our fears and symbolizing our hopes, could we know how we feel about the invisible world? Try to imagine for a moment Christianity without the symbol of a cross, or Nazism without its swastika.

evileyexxDo you use anything to ward away evil spirits? Any evidence that it works?










In Memoriam

Farewell Maxine Kumin and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Two major artists died in recent days, one from an overdose of heroin, the other at the end of a long and well-lived life. Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor of extraordinary depth, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin seem, at first glance, to represent two poles of artistic sensibility. I find myself reflecting about the relationship between an artist and his or her life, and the myth of latent madness that still clings to the intensely creative among us.

I once had a Jungian analyst friend say to me that when the gates of the imagination are opened, one cannot predict if angels or demons or both will sail through. True enough. But isn’t it also true that depending on temperament, social conditions, and pure luck, some of us come equipped or grow skilled at battling even the fiercest demons? Why some survive and thrive despite enormous suffering continues to capture my attention.SEYMOURCAPT-001

Hoffman’s work shows an actor capable of embodying the dark recesses  of the human psyche, those shadowy aspects of our nature that we deny, ignore, or hide in shame.

In the Sunday New York Times Week in Review of February 9th, Serge Schmenmann writes:

Since his death, there have been many articles about his life, his love of theater, his extraordinary talent. None of them can fully explain why he used drugs, but they do give us some sense of the intense emotional and physical exertions required of someone who fully lives not only his own life, but also the life of each of the people he portrays. All who saw Mr. Hoffman in different roles were astounded by how fully and convincingly he became the other person.

Maxine Kumin, poetMaxine Kumin lived and died on her New Hampshire farm among her beloved family, horses and garden. She was 88. An accomplished horsewoman, in 1998, Kumin was thrown from a carriage she was driving and suffered severe injuries, including a broken neck. Though miraculously she recovered, the end of her life was lived in considerable pain. She kept writing poems and prose. Her memoir Inside the Halo and Beyond addresses her accident and the experience of recovery.

Clearly Ms. Kumin was a survivor, though we dare not guess why she and not Philip Seymour Hoffman lived into old age. It’s not as though she dismissed the tragedies inherent in the human condition, or that she herself did not suffer. But perhaps her closeness to the natural world with its beauty, predictable rhythms, glorious surprises, and cycles of renewal acted as an antidote and a container for the inevitable misfortunes of sorrow and loss.

Both these artists deserve our unqualified praise not only for their enormous talent, but also for their willingness to accept public scrutiny and the risk of personal vulnerability for a life dedicated to craft and illuminating truth.

Here is a poem I find quintessential Kumin from her book The Long Approach. If you would like to read more of her work, please visit her website: http://www.maxinekumin.com/



By Maxine Kumin

I want to apologize
for all the snow falling in
this poem so early in the season.
Falling on the calendar of bad news.
Already we have had snow lucid,
snow surprising, snow bees
and lambswool snow. Already
snows of exaltation have covered
some scars. Larks and the likes
of paisleys went up. But lately the sky
is letting down large-print flakes
of old age. Loving this poor place,
wanting to stay on, we have endured
an elegiac snow of whitest jade,
subdued biographical snows
and public storms, official and profuse.

Even if the world is ending
you can tell it’s February
by the architecture of the pastures.
Snow falls on the pregnant mares,
is followed by a thaw, and then
refreezes so that everywhere
their hill upheaves into a glass mountain.
The horses skid, stiff-legged, correct
position, break through the crust
and stand around disconsolate
lipping wisps of hay.
Animals are said to be soulless.
Unable to anticipate.

No mail today.
No newspapers. The phone’s dead.
Bombs and grenades, the newly disappeared,
a kidnapped ear, go unrecorded
but the foals flutter inside them
warm wet bags that carry them
eleven months in the dark.
It seems they lie transversely, thick
as logs. The outcome is well known.
If there’s an April
in the last frail snow of April
they will knock hard to be born.


On the Question of Otherness

Of late I’ve been thinking about how the past influences us, sometimes even haunts us. Most of us are aware that our childhoods shape and groom our adult selves, but how many of us realize that beyond our personal pasts we’re also influenced by the lives of our ancestors? I mean the actual events that happened to them—the sorrows, joys, fears, and ways of coping, which through some mysterious process, become ours.

The lucky among us are the recipients of stories passed down through the generations, but others of us search in vain for clues about our backgrounds and have only our imaginations and dreams to rely on.

Last weekend I was asked to speak at a local temple to discuss the influence of my secular Jewish upbringing on my writing, a subject I’d never explored before, or even really thought about until now. The assignment has sent me on a discovery process in which I hope to examine my own brand of “Jewishness”— how I might view the world through the values and perceptions and judgments passed down to me through the religion/culture, and how these, in turn, inhabit my writing.

During my childhood we attended a reformed synagogue. Our rabbi, young and handsome (I did have a crush on him!), was a liberal and intellectual humanist sort of guy who might well have been a Unitarian minister or the leader of an Ethical Culture congregation. I liked him well enough, but he was not the wisdom figure I craved.

I can see myself as a child already on the search for answers to the Big Questions, already a seeker and too interior for my own good. Also, I had a mystical bent. Movies like The Song of Bernadette starring the young and radiant Jennifer Jones set in motion in me a surge of longing to be a nun.Jennifer Jones in the Song of Bernadette I was hooked on movies in which a young woman (often pregnant and unmarried) sought solace in a church. Alone and on her knees, she’d pray to a statue of Mother Mary, whose face was preternaturally kindly and serene.

Before the actress rose from her knees, who would slip into the pew beside her to ease her burden and offer wise words—none other than Spencer Tracy or James Cagney or Robert Young in the costume of a priest! It seemed to me then that church was a place you go when in trouble and always, always, always find succor and help.Scene from the movie Boystown.

Those movies might have been pure romantic schmaltz, but they spoke to me in ways I couldn’t explain. It might have been the cathedral settings, candle flames casting shadows over the altar, Christ’s mournful face, or it might have been the sense of hush and holy evident on the awed or sorrowed faces of the congregants. In any case, the reformed synagogue, by contrast, was for me devoid of a sense of mystery, and my Sunday school lessons more a matter of learning Jewish history, mostly Old Testament stories about battles and exile and who smote whom, than instructions for the soul.

But I was not Catholic. And my upbringing, though not religious, was wholly Jewish in outlook and demeanor. The values imparted to me had to do with the importance of education; Torahloyalty to family; care for the downtrodden; and a sense of the tragic—the Job question—that is, the inevitability of suffering as fate. My character, Mr. Tabachnik, in The Conditions of Love, exemplifies these values, but it wasn’t until I began to ponder how my “Jewishness” (as opposed to Judaism) has influenced my writing that Mr. Tabachnik’s role as Eunice’s moral compass hit me.

Another issue that arose as I was preparing for the temple discussion was my Jewish father’s dream of assimilation, his desire to disappear into the New World Promised Land presided over by the Horatio Alger myth of a friendly universe where anyone can be anything if he works hard enough. But like other immigrant populations, he was burdened by a sense of otherness that was impossible to shake.

My father had one way of looking, acting, and talking that he adopted for the outside world, but he slipped on another persona at home. At ease and unobserved, his gestures and even his language changed. Off came the suit and tie, wingtips, the gray fedora, and out of his mouth came words like goyim and shiksa, or a spew of Yiddish jokes. As a sensitive childmosescartoon, I noticed his quick change-artistry and was puzzled and maybe a little hurt by the discrepancy, sensing the shame behind it.

The dream of assimilation is really an impossible dream since it entails denying a past and an ancestry that cannot be cast off. Every family has its secrets, but perhaps immigrant families and minorities carry the added burden of disowning on the outside what they are on the inside, or in some cases attempting to dissolve their former identities completely. I remember visiting the FBI building in Washington, DC when I was ten and seeing pictures of master criminals who’d erased their fingerprints with acid. Those people too, though for different reasons, were fugitives from their own identities.

The unspoken, the unsayable, the hidden: our ancestors’ secrets come down to us, sometimes through dreams or sometimes by examining our own quirks and proclivities that find a resonance with the past. I suppose it’s not surprising that each of my characters has secrets and a back-story that shapes and influences how he or she acts in the story-present. As the plot unfolds, ghosts from the past haunt the present. As in art, so in life!

Who doesn’t sometimes feel as if they were standing outside a charmed circle, an outlier? But what does it mean to belong? Sharing the same values with the larger culture? The same religion? The same dietary preferences? The same physiognomy? Does feeling like an outsider come from the inside, a view of oneself that has difference at its core? Or is one made to feel Other by the reflection of our peers? Our family?

So many questions! The answers are a work-in-progress. But for now, here’s a short list of books that explore Otherness. I’m sure there are hundreds of others. Please feel free to add your own suggestions and comments to the list.


Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Beauty and the Beast by Charles Perrault

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Catcher In the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Conditions of Love – THE MOVIE!

Marshal Zeringue recently asked me to “dreamcast” my thoughts about a movie version of The Conditions of Love.  It’s been great to have the opportunity to imagine characters I love embodied on film. Mern, one of my central characters, is over-the-moon happy about the attention. It’s also been fun to hear readers’ picks for the actors. Here is what I came up with:

Once upon a time, movies shaped my education. Fiction held first place as a guide to life’s vicissitudes, but the classic movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties I watched repeatedly on our old Admiral TV provided another type of education. The actors of those films had a presence that refused to fade after the movie ended. Their characters and the situations they managed were archived in my mind as cautionary tales to be revisited when the occasion arose. In The Conditions of Love, Mern is also infatuated with movie stars. SDS-014 Her greatest ambition is to go to Hollywood (the Hollywood of the fifties) and be discovered at Schwab’s drugstore like Lana Turner. One of my favorite lines in the novel is when she tells a friend, “Why be Betty Crocker when you can be Betty Bacall?”

With nostalgia in mind, here are my choices for actors to play in a film version of my novel.

MV5BMTIyMzkwOTA2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjAwNTQ2._V1_SX640_SY720_For Eunice, my narrator, as a young girl, Natalie Wood as a child star. Eunice in her older years, Lauren Bacall.

As Mern, Eunice’s quirky and sometime malicious mother, Shelley Winters age 25.MV5BMjExNjMzNjQ3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMzcxMDI2._V1_SY317_CR15,0,214,317_

As Eunice’s charming and dangerous father, Frankie, a young Frank Sinatra.

MV5BMTc3MzgzMjE4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTU3NDgwMw@@._V1_SY317_CR11,0,214,317_As Rose, the mysterious woman who rescues Eunice, Colleen Dewhurst or Ida Lupino.

As Sam, Mern’s devoted boyfriend, Karl Malden.

MV5BNDYzNzE3NzI5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDg5OTI2._V1_SY317_CR20,0,214,317_As Fox, Eunice’s older lover, Richard Burton in his youth.

Happily, there have been some film folks sniffing at the book and if anyone’s looking, here are some contemporary actors I think would be smashing in the film:

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Mern.

Daniel Day Lewis as Fox. (If only Jeremy Irons was a tad younger!)

MV5BMTU1MjAwODc3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODYyOTUxMg@@._V1_SX214_CR0,0,214,317_Philip Seymour Hoffman as Sam.

Juliette Binoche as Rose.

John Hawkes as Frankie.


MV5BMTc4NzM4NzMwMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTgyNzkzNA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Young Eunice, Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame; the older Eunice, Naomi Watts.











Marshal’s blog collects similar “dreamcasts” from various authors about the “movie versions” of their books.  Check out the list on the left of this page.

On Writing Blogs

Dear Esteemed Friends and Curious Visitors:
Sorry to be so long away! My apologies if you’ve visited this site and found nothing new. I’d been hoping to write a new blog piece at least twice a month, but look what’s happened! Nothing new here since October and the list of things I WANT to write about grows longer and longer.

Mali4a-Believe me, it’s not for lack of subject material that I’ve been quiet. Quite the opposite. I care so much about so many subjects that I find it difficult to sit down and write a simple piece about, let’s say, coming-of-age novels or the inspiration of fairy tales. Both of these topics are hot on my list to be explored as are Lessons on Limitations: An Education By A Re-homed Golden Retriever; Becoming A Public Author; The Wisdom of Book Groups; Mothers and Daughters: Old Myths, New Realities. Sound good? Stay tuned!

cabininwinter2Just writing out the titles makes me want to drive up to our cabin nestled in the serenity of the Northwoods and dig in. I’m the sort of writer who doesn’t know what something means to her until she thinks about it for a while, or as the great 19th C poet Rilke suggests, until I live with the questions. “… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/295Rilkea (Letters To a Young Poet, Marie Rainer Rilke 1903)

Sometimes I wish I could simply dash off a few short paragraphs without much effort but very rarely does this happen. I take to heart that other writers have a similar, laborious process. To paraphrase the British writer E. M. Forster in his wonderful book about the craft of writing Aspects of A Novel: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”EM-Forster2

Exactly! Some of us have to figure out what it is we want to say, and then go about the task of creating sentences to convey our thoughts. After that comes the editing and refining, something I do meticulously (obsessively?) well as a poet. I am a vigilant refiner! (It strikes me now that for some people, writing a blog may be more similar to having a conversation than to writing an essay. I’m a good conversationalist, snappy even, but that quickness doesn’t translate to my writing style.)

ClocksThe biggest problem is Time and not the kind measured by a clock. I’m talking about Time as Space, dream-time or walk-in-the-woods time in which an interlude of fifteen minutes can feel like an hour. It’s the kind of time this writer needs to enter into her thoughts, the kind that has depth and recesses, the kind of time that encourages stillness and contemplation. Couldn’t we all use a little more of it?

At a holiday party last week I was seated across the table from a poised and eloquent thirteen-year-old who was already quite accomplished in the theater arts. She had just written her first novel and was working on something new. We got to talking. “I never know what I’m going to write about until I start writing,” she said. I nodded. “I like to discover what I have to say,” she said. ”Yup, it’s all about discovery,” I said, secretly chanting me, too!

GishJenI love this from Gish Jen’s book, Tiger Writing: The novel knows more than the person writing it.(http://www.gishjen.com/)

I don’t know how my teenage friend came to understand so early in her life that trusting one’s instincts is a necessary foundation for pursuing a creative life, but I imagine the enthusiastic support of her parents have something to do with it. An optimistic temperament doesn’t hurt either.

I’m writing this from my studio. Outside, the sun is hidden behind a sky the color of milk. The falling snow is hypnotic and unrelenting. I can feel myself slipping into reverie. It’s a familiar feeling, difficult to describe because the sensations in my body are subtle and linked to an anticipatory sense that something mysterious is about to happen. (You’re eight years old, in a park, watching a squirrel disappear into a hole in a tree. Where has it gone? You imagine a labyrinth of tunnels, the squirrel’s bedroom complete with a canopy bed and candlestick on the night-table. You stand there blinking and waiting.)

And now I have an idea. I want to stay in touch with you, dear visitors, but until I’m able to write longer, thoughtful pieces, I’ll put up short posts—excerpts from a book I’m reading or something of my own—writing I hope will interest and inspire.

Memory takes up a lot of room in a writer’s toolbox. Here’s an elegiac poem I wrote awhile ago in honor of my father. He died in 1978 in a car crash. Over the years I’ve caught glimpses of him out of the corner of my eye—the same gray overcoat, the same slope of the shoulders, the same easy stride—the only thing missing his fedora.FredCropped3
What is it about the holiday season that brings back ghosts? And not just the ghosts of others. Our own past taps us on the shoulder and says, Remember who you were!
Here’s my poem.


I’m sitting on my bed with Father, thirty years dead.
He’s wiping his wire-rims
linen hanky plucked from a back pocket
like chiffon from a magician’s sleeve—
he’s wearing his lopsided grin.

Outside the wind is March’s anthem,
but inside we’ve broken and entered
memory’s mind. “Are you lonely?” I ask.
He shrugs and puts his glasses on.
Whatever he’s come for tonight he won’t say.

Which was always his way: Mr. Clown, Chaplin’s
Kick-Up-Your-Heels son,
jokes to ward off the cinderblock silence
building inside him,
his eyes so grave I’d have to look away.

I always did. To the blotched galaxy
framed in the bedroom window, one or two orphaned stars
you had to climb on the sill to see.
But the stars weren’t bright enough
to outshine my father’s sorrow.

How old was I then? Five? Six?

Once, snuggling in beside me,
I waited for him to reveal
The Something so sad and terrible
it dragged down the corners of his eyelids,
and made his voice catch like a gate latching shut.

But there never was a story
for the primal sorrow, his heart attack
still years away. Perhaps

he was about to warn me
how he’d come from a long line
of broken-hearted men. Perhaps he saw
that loving him had already shaped the woman
I would become,

and he wanted to call me back
from my future.
But he never said anything
more than it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.
Barbarians in the streets.

My Interview With Stephanie Bedford for The Capital Times


The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Here’s my interview with Stephanie Bedford of The Capital Times appearing just a week before the Wisconsin Book Festival. The timing is perfect.

EVP Coffee

We actually chatted a few months ago at our local EVP coffee house. Being a fiction writer herself, Stephanie and I got into wonderful conversations about fiction, about being a mother and a writer, about being an introverted person who suddenly moves into the public domain.

What I am discovering about this last issue is that I LOVE being with and talking to readers. It’s an intimate act to share a book with someone, an act that is almost like sharing a secret. It creates a bond.

Washington Island Literature Festival
Washington Island Literature Festival

Now that I’m on the road and meeting more readers of TCOL, I’m quite humbled by their astute questions and observations not only about my book, but about life. I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t books provoke us into thinking about all sorts of things—including our own lives?

If you’d like to read the details of my Cap Times interview, please click here:http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/madison-poet-s-debut-novel-is-engaging-unconventional/article_583ab0ee-9c48-57aa-8461-5add81dbfdcd.html

My Social Media Dilemma


Right from the start of my writing life I fell into the habit of writing everything out in long-hand on a yellow legal pad using a black Pilot pen. This was the ritual: I’d make a pot of tea (my favorite is Pai Mu Tan), grab my legal pad and pen and in slippers and robe tread the short distance through the garage—past garbage cans, rakes, shovels and bikes—to my writing studio. The brief jaunt represented crossing a threshold, shedding my domestic for my creative self.snoopy

Without glancing at my dark computer screen, I’d nestle on the bed by the window and stare into the arms of a dogwood or the yard beyond, where summer or winter if I was up early enough, I might catch a glimpse of some ever-busy bird. The literal closing of one door and the opening of another activated the genies of thoughtfulness and introspection…and soon my pen would move across the page.

When I say “ritual,” I’m not kidding. If I understand the word correctly, it means “A detailed method of procedure faithfully or regularly followed,” or ceremonies or rites used in a place of worship. The word “ritual” comes from the Latin ritus meaning “rite.”

diane-ackermanDameEdithSitwellsm-My own rite developed spontaneously and without effort and has more or less remained intact for decades. I’m not the only writer to have such rituals. In her book A Natural History of the Senses, in a section called “Courting the Muse,” Diane Ackerman describes the wacky, oddball compulsions of a number of artists and writers. I can’t remember which historical genius—I think it was the poet Schiller— who kept rotten apples under the lid of his desk and sniffed them when he wanted to find the right word or D.H. Lawrence who sat naked mulberry trees to write. Dame Edith Sitwell wrote sitting in a coffin, which might actually be cushy depending on the coffin. Writing is a hard and deliberate labor and a good dose of magical thinking and weird behavior often accompanies the process. But I’m convinced these strange totem acts are not opposed to logic but its ally.

My ritual is pretty tame in comparison. I do admit to crushing stalks of lavender from my garden and inhaling the fragrance. I do admit to collecting rocks and feathers and geodes, which I keep near my writing desk, but really, in all my years of writing not much of my ritual has changed. I still walk from the house through the garage into my studio where stillness prevails. I still write on a legal pad with a Pilot pen.  Except… except… my writing trance is interrupted or delayed these days by the necessity of attending to social media.

Social media. How well I understand its culture-altering importance. Isn’t Facebook credited with enabling the Arab Spring revolutions by breaking through geographical, political, and social isolation, and doesn’t it work just as well for establishing friendships, intimacies even, among strangers? If a lonely boy in Tibet finds a lonely girl in Bejing, if a Tunisian woman finds an advocate group in Nepal, I’m all for it. And I certainly understand and am the beneficiary of Facebook and Goodreads sites that keep me in touch with readers all over the country, all over the world actually, to which I say AMEN.

In fact, one of the very best aspects of becoming a known author is my connection to readers. It’s moving and exhilarating to walk into a book group that’s read my novel and hear, “Mern was MY mother!” Or, “Mern was MY sister.” I know I’ve done something right as a novelist when my characters touch on some universal aspects of human nature. One of the reasons to tell a story is to link one human heart to another. How would we know anything about each other, our sorrows and joys and wisdoms, without stories?

My social media dilemma is that while I LOVE the ability to have virtual chats with readers and to meet other writers and to let folks know about upcoming events, it takes time to be on several media platforms, and time is what presses on a writer like me whose vision and language come slowly to the page.

toetemThe other issue with social media is that I’m squeamish about the business of asking for “likes.” Though I don’t completely understand why it is important to have a lot of them (ego aside), I do know that for authors, the more “likes” the better. Which is why you’ll understand when I ask at the end of this sentence, that if you feel inclined, to please “like” me on Facebook and share your thoughts on my Goodreads page. Despite my hesitation about social media, I embrace it because I want to stay in touch and engage with readers. Maybe I’ll just have to invent a new ritual to help me transition into my social media brain. Hmmm—what would that be? Shake a medicine rattle a hundred times? Do a dervish dance while beating my Taos drum? Please feel free to share your rituals for conjuring the muse. I really am curious.



The Dark Side of the 50’s, Suffering, and a Writer’s Education: Marshal Zeringue’s The Page 69 Test

Marshal McLuhan, last century’s great communication theorist, declared that if you turn to page 69 in a book and like it, you’ll like the entire book. It’s a fascinating concept, one Marshal Zeringue has used for his blog called The Page 69 Test.Mccluhan

Happily and gratefully, I’m one of the writers Marshal Z invited to contribute to his site. Happily and gratefully, I returned to page 69 of TCOL and learned something new about my own novel. I call this “a writer’s hindsight education.”

How could it be that after years spent writing a book, after the drafts and gazillion discussions with friends and editors, I’m just now finding new revelations in the work? The experience is not dissimilar to picking up an old dream journal, rereading a dream, and understanding them at a deeper level: the meaning of the text keeps unfolding and amplifying over time.

Some of my post-publication education has also come via the astute questions and observations of readers and reviewers. At a book group discussing my novel, I was amazed by a fervent debate among participants concerning why Eunice, the book’s protagonist, decided to leave home. An eavesdropper might have mistaken the conversation (to which I was only a witness) for a heated round of gossip instead of a discussion about literary characters! One of the pleasures of being a reader among readers, of being in a book group is precisely this opportunity to exchange of ideas and opinions, to try-on theories and to engage in an investigation about human nature. That night, after the group, I went home and re-examined what I had actually written.

horatioBut getting back to a writer’s hindsight, this makes perfect sense to me since one of the engines that fuels the creative process is the unconscious mind. We may think we know why we are writing something, but the unconscious mind, often in its trickster mode, contributes in subtle ways to the resonance and archetypal dimension of the work.

For instance, I very consciously set the novel in the fifties and did lots of research on that period, especially on popular culture. But it’s only now I see that I was also writing about the dark side of the fifties— its repressive gender and racial attitudes, its propagation of the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger myth, its stifling of women’s creative lives. algerbookThe Eisenhower years were a strange combination of hail-fellow-well-met optimism and rolling paranoia.


fifiescropped Mr. Tabachnik, a refugee from Eastern Europe, most concretely embodies the horror that was World War II. Only a few years before the novel begins, Americans saw the first pictures of the camps, starved prisoners in their striped pajamas that haunted our collective psyche. We hadn’t yet digested the scale of the holocaust or our role in dropping the atomic bomb or finished grieving our own war dead.

bomb-1 We believed most heartily that science and technology would usher us into a new and prosperous utopia. Our suffering was invisible to us.

(Pico Iyer has written a very moving piece in the Times yesterday called The Value of Suffering. He too addresses the collective/cultural aspect of grief. I take his words, “to survive is to make sense of suffering” as a mantra for the times.)

My character, Mr Tabachnik, is a student of suffering. I mention Mr. T. in my piece for The Page 69 Test. Mr. T is my hero and his declaration, “From the terrible beauty comes” is another piece of wisdom I didn’t know I knew. When those words first fell from Mr. T’s mouth, I was astonished. It would seem I put those words into his mouth, but the truth is that until he said them, I didn’t know I believed them too.





My post on Marshal Zeringue’s Blog Writers Read

1316794888_50_large1Writing my previous entry about Susanna Daniel reminds me that I did a post about what I’m reading several weeks ago for Marshall’s blog. If you’d like to read my thoughts on discovering Alexander Chee’s “hauntingly lyrical” Edinburgh, diving into Adrienne Rich’s “eloquent and empathic” A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, or delving into the depths of The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis by Peter Homans, Writers Read is the place to go.

What my new friend Susanna Daniel said on Writers Read about TCOL

Susanna Daniel 320x432I just met the wonderful Susanna Daniel several weeks ago and am completely humbled and delighted by the great things she’s saying about The Conditions of Love.  I haven’t had a chance to read her just released second novel, Sea Creatures, but when I do I’m sure you’ll hear from me about it.

Susanna kindly included The Conditions of Love among the books she cited on Marshall Zeringue’s delightful Writers Read blog:

I’ve just finished Dale M. Kushner’s broad and impressive debut novel, The Conditions of Love, and I’m stunned – stunned – that I’m not hearing about it every time I pick up a newspaper or open a browser. It’s a classic, sweeping story of a girl’s life and the relationships that define her, from birth to old age – exquisitely detailed, finely paced, deliciously ambitious.

It’s Wild!

I was checking out at Whole Foods when I heard a friendly voice yell, “I love your book!” And there was Elizabeth, the checker two aisles down, grinning and waving. How cool is that? How wonderful to be surprised in surprising places by readers. It’s really wild. I took a photo op in the middle of Whole Foods. Here we are, mugging together!


Interview on WORT Public Radio

Rusty RussellI love how people come back into our lives when we least expect them. An old hippie friend used to say: some folks leave their imprints on your aura. Not sure about auras but I love the metaphor. I started The Writer’s Place in Madison in the late nineties and Rusty Russell—of poetry slam fame—was one of the first writers to contact us. In one life he was and is an economist for the Department of Transportation and in another, a poetry wild man. I say this with the utmost respect for writers who are also great performers.

I hadn’t heard from Rusty in years until he recently called me to do an interview with him on Radio Literature. I met him at the old WORT studio—I remembered the funky furniture, posters of Che and Dylan still on the walls. We talked about the writing process, writers as observers, how, as writers, we are constantly trying to balance our domestic and creative selves. I talked about my character, Mr. Tabachnik, and his world-view that “from the terrible beauty comes.” And then I read a short passage from the book. Here’s the link below.

WORT Interview (interview starts at 2:56)

Communing with readers at Arcadia Books

arcadiawindoI’m way overdue reporting on my joyous reading at Arcadia Books in downtown Spring Green, WI on a beautiful Sunday afternoon on June 23. Spring Green is a destination point for Frank Lloyd Wright fans who come to tour his Wisconsin home,Taliesen, and to see the fabulous American Players Theatre repertory company do Shakespeare, Miller, Brecht and other classics, but Arcadia Books should be a destination all on its own.

The store opened in 2011 and I gather is part of a very intriguing trend. Arcadia doesn’t just offer books. It also has a café with a decidedly local flavor. “The Kitchen” features Wisconsin beer and cheese and its pizza even uses locally sourced flour! I love that the chef uses cookbooks from the store to teach “Cook the Book” cooking classes.

John Christensen and Dale crThis should be a model for how local stores can thrive. Little signs dot the store, “Read it here. Buy it here. Keep us here.”  Housed In what was once the Spring Green post office, built in 1872, with high ceilings and big windows, Arcadia has a wonderful small town ambience. The store takes its name from the Tom Stoppard play, a favorite of its owner, James Bohnen, who also frequently directs plays at the nearby American Players Theatre.

In addition to great food, I’m sure one of the reasons Arcadia is such a popular community hangout is the geniality of its manager, John Christensen, who immediately made me feel right at home. He claims that Arcadia has “the best poetry case in the state,” which of course endeared him to me.  arcadiaaudienceIt was so sweet to see the reading room fill with interested, animated locals, coming to hear me read when they could be anywhere else on such a sunny afternoon. These were true readers, which I came to appreciate as they peppered me with questions. One that really made me think was something like “How did I deal with an editor’s suggestion to revise or cut material?” I responded truthfully: for every cut or revision I asked myself, Will this add to or diminish from the integrity of the whole? How does the editor’s vision line up with mine? Some of my decisions came easily, I realized, but to address some queries I had to shift things around before I was satisfied.

ArcJim_neilI owe a lot to readers like this one who help me understand my own process in hindsight. My gratitude to such thoughtful folks and their beguiling curiosities.  But back to Arcadia Books! If you happen to be near Spring Green, be sure to put it on your list of places to visit.

One of the Ten “Best Damn Books of 2013 (So Far)”

Cortnee Howard mosaicCortnee Howard is the creator of the irreverent and infectiously addictive literary blog, The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, where she has been interviewing authors, reporting on publishing news, and reviewing new works of fiction for some five years now. Recently, she compiled her list of “The Best Damn Books of 2013 (So Far)” and I’m thrilled and honored that she selected The Conditions of Love to be one of them. Thanks, Cortnee! And what a great crew to be part of. Now I’m eager to read my nine damn buddies.

Books That Changed My Life

What a task! Choose three books that changed your life. That’s what Jeanne Kolker from the State Journal wanted from me. It was hard. The three I chose were The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank; On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich; and The Lover by Marguerite Duras. You can read why I chose them in WSJ’s “Just Read It” Sunday column.

But before I was a reader, I was a listener; I was a little girl with a vivid imagination and a penchant for fairy tales. The horrible, beautiful, compelling pitch of Claire Bloom’s voice reading Snow White is still in my ears. Likewise, I can still hear the tremulous narrator of Peter and The Wolf. These were on old vinyl records my mother played for me. I’m musing now—did these enchanting introductions to story and voice and to the musical sounds of words give birth to my writer-self? How I became a writer is still a mystery to me!

What books changed your life?

Being interviewed

The thing about being interviewed is that it IS all about you, which takes some getting used to! But now that I’ve been interviewed by two skillful, thought-provoking radio talk show hostsI’m looking at you Anne Strainchamps and Stephanie LecciI’m accumulating a list of WHY I ENJOY BEING INTERVIEWED.

Of course, it starts with the interviewers. When Anne asked me at the top of our 45-minute chat for 45 North, “what’s your book about?” I had to laugh. How could I possibly condense everything into a short sound bite. But, you know, it’s good to be asked to focus on what the story is and what was it that kept me wanting to return to these characters every day for so many years.

Stephanie had many great questions as well. When she asked me whether Eunice learns how to deal with loss – well, that just reminded me what’s so great about novels. You get to spend time with the characters and see how they change over time. In the third section, I believe that Eunice learns how not to get stuck in the pastshe finds how to cultivate things that bring her joy. And I realized that I didn’t know it was going to turn out that way when I began. And that’s what great about writing novels.

But the best part of being interviewed is that these two incredibly perceptive readers connected me with a whole universe of other readers who I suspect—and hope–will see some of themselves in my story. Most of us write because we have a story to tell. That story, however personal or fabricated, emerges from our shared human experience. Mother troubles, love-life dilemmas, accidents, illness: my story is also your story in a slightly different version—is also her story, his story, their story.

Writers may work in solitude, but we are connected by invisible means to the pulse beat of humanity. Being interviewed has put me in touch with just how true this is. After one interview, a usually reserved and private woman approached me and whispered, “That happened to me too.” This is what most fiction writers live to hear: how our imaginations have created a world so rich and complicated it feels like real life.

If you haven’t read the book, I’m hoping you’ll hear something in these interviews to make you want to give TCOL a spin. And if you have read it, I’m curious whether your takeaways in any way resemble mine. In any event, take a listen and let me know what you think.

My interview with Anne Strainchamps on 45 North —  June 14, 2013

My interview with Stephanie Lecci for Lake Effect WPR (WUWM) — June 28, 2013 



Jersey Girl on Book Tour

Short history of a writer: Began as a Jersey girl who left at 17 for university and fell in love with my best-and-always boyfriend. Grew to love the Midwest’s wide prairies and kind ways. But put me back on the East Coast and my heart chants home, home, home!

The landscapes of childhood are in us forever. The ancient oaks, the sea wind off the Atlantic, the Palisades: I remember I remember… in reverence and reverie.

On May 28th, we flew from Madison to LaGuardia with nary a predicted thunderstorm to mar our flight. Then a cab to our friends Liz and David’s glorious Soho digs. A thrilling new era had begun in the life of Dale M.

Next day, Jen, John, Jess and Troy, B and moi head to Katz’s deli (with a stop at the oldest pizzeria in NY) for pastrami on rye. Oi, the tumult! I’d forgotten. Oh, lost land of my youth!

NYMaryJaegerJPGSaturday evening: Here I am on 20th Street (thank you Mary Jaeger!) for designing this gorgeous shawl) on my way to the big book launch party.

So many cherished friends arrive, including my great Grand Central team and adored agent, Gail Hochman. Humbled by the realization that my book brings us together. A blessed thing!

NYfeastThe feast prepared by dear hosts Annie and Peter is sumptuously elegant. Foodies cry your eyes out. The toothpicks are from Paris.

nan and Dale
With Nan Satter
Wednesday: moving day. I have Nan Gatewood Satter to thank for setting up the book group at Merrill’s, my first experience of readers discussing characters I’ve lived with for years as though they’re real people. Books as Rorschach.

A late night run dragging my overstuffed suitcase (I swear I WILL learn how to pack more efficiently) to Port Authority and a bus ride to New Paltz.

Huguenot Street Cemetery
Readings and signings at Inquiring Minds in New Paltz and The Golden Notebook in Woodstock. More old friends show up. How have they heard? Answering thoughtful questions from the audiences makes me wiser about what I’ve written. I’m learning about what I wrote in hindsight. The process of unpacking the themes in TCOL continues. Writing as revelation!

Here’s to the joy of making new friends.

With Nan Tepper at The Golden Notebook

“Feeling the love” — field notes from my first three readings

Dale outside Boswell's w big book coverI’m just cooling down from a heady week of book launch readings, my first opportunity to meet new and interested readers. Each event had its own special vibe and each presented an opportunity for me to understand more about what readers hunger for:  a community, real or virtual, where they can discuss ideas, books, writing.

At Boswell’s in Milwaukee the crowd was pensive and curious, attentive to the two debut authors, Andrea Lochen and me. Dale and DanielThe owner Daniel Goldin stood at the ready, his infectious enthusiasm for all things literary infusing the air. One of the first questions asked in the Q & A, a question asked at each of my readings, was about finding an agent and getting published. I suspect folks assume I have a magic bullet answer, but alas, we all know finding the right agent is like finding the right partner in life — only in this case,  the agent falls in love with your work and not you!

Dale reading in Madison crThe Madison book launch at A Room of One’s Own — and the party following — were spectacular. I was blown away by the sheer number of people who showed up, maybe over 120, the room filled to standing room only. Oh what a night! Joy and celebration! And so much love in the room! I channeled Eunice, Mern, and company, their voices coming right through me. But it was really a call and response, the audience silently shouting right back to me their “right ons” and “amens.” Dale signing Kushner Madreading1  #25 LR photo by Kalleen MortensenSo powerful, that wave of love that flows between us and others. Great questions here too: how did the story begin? And of course, how do you find an agent? A brief but interesting discussion on my character’s unusual names and why names are important for what they reveal. Someone asked about research. I told them I hope to be on an AWP panel in 2014 about how writers often have to figure out how to balance hardcore research with imagination.

My third reading was at The Book Stall in Illinois. What a wonder that bookstore is! Everyone will miss the retiring owner and founder, the amazing Roberta Rubin, but I’m sure the store will thrive under its new owner, Stephanie Hochschild.  Dale and Roberta RubinI felt warmly welcomed by the BStall staff, The Conditions of Love proudly on display. Lots of old friends in the audience; some drove almost two hours to get there. This is what touches me . . . the goodness of friendship . . . the desire we have to celebrate each other’s good fortune and the willingness of others to join in. I was definitely feeling the love! In the Q & A, someone asked me about moving from poetry to fiction, and I realize now how much I have to say on this subject. I think I’m not alone in changing genres. An essay is forming in my head!

Now off to NY, more readings, a book group, a special party and who knows what else. Please stand by. Notes from the field will continue

From a reader

Jodi Cohen—writer, performer of original work and improv queen extraordinaire shared these thoughts with me after reading a galley of The Conditions of Love. These are the kind of comments every writer hopes for. What are we doing, as writers, if not trying to convey the individual and universal predicaments of human life? When a reader says about one of your characters, Me, too, we know by way of empathy and imagination we got it right!

So, Jodi, here’s a public thank you for YOUR words posted below.

grace paley has always hands down across the board been my favorite writer. you are now sharing that spot with her.

your book is so delicious. makes me fall in love with language.

i want to underline the parts i love, but it would all be underlined.

so much poetry. so much detail that is poignant, startling.

i love these characters–in all their glory, with all their flaws. the language. the turtle. Mr T.

AND, more formally, for a review

What a world Dale Kushner has created. Words don’t seem adequate to express such large, surround-sound feelings. I fell in love with this book, the story, the poetry on every page. I inhaled the book and felt like I spent these last days in nature, seeing and experiencing everything up close, my senses awakened, doused, indulged.

These characters were powerful–their flaws and their magnificence. How well and accurately Dale captured how we are all broken, and broken open, full of texture and dimension, so much of which is unseen to the eye and yet felt so deeply.

What a constellation I had access to, filled with these brilliant people, collages, all of them.

This book filled every chamber of my heart and made me fall in love with language all over again, made me want to write because I could suddenly hear my own inner songs. The Conditions of Love breathed new, good life into my lungs and under my skin.

What I want more than anything, as a reader, is to experience a story in a way that causes the inner plates to shift. This book did that. I am forever humbled, grateful.

Interview: “Art and Psyche with Dr. Michael Conforti”

I was Dr Michael Conforti’s guest on “Art and Psyche”, January 6, 2010. Click on the audio button below to listen to the discussion.

Listen to internet radio with Notes from the Field on Blog Talk Radio


Mystery: The Secret House of Our Longings

In the spring of 2010, I was honored to participate in The Fetzer Institute’s First Writers’ Retreat. For six days, among the birch and pine on the Institute glorious property, fifteen writers from across the country met daily to discuss how compassion, love, and forgiveness were part of our creative process as we explored “the mysterious juncture between individual and community transformation.”   Continue reading…

Published in the Balkans!

My poetry collection, Another Kingdom, was published in the Balkans. Stay tuned for the story and poems.

Author Profile in the Kalamazoo Gazette, October 25, 2009

The Kalamazoo Gazette ran a profile on me in October, 2009. I was the featured guest at “Poetry Feast: A Writer’s Place” at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Link: Kalamazoo Gazette