Archive for the ‘Cartography’ Category


Cartography: mapping the territory in which we find ourselves  –

We live immersed in narrative,
recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions,
anticipating the outcomes of our future projects,
situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.

– Peter Brooks

Broken Record – written nearly a hundred years ago in 1915, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is one of America’s most beloved (and frequently misquoted) poems:

The Road Not TakenI think that what appeals to most people about this poem, and what leads to the conventional interpretation of it as supporting the very American idea of “rugged individualism,” or going one’s own way even if that means being a non-conformist, is neatly summarized in the last two lines: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

Several critics, however, have offered other (thus, ironically, unconventional) interpretations which speculate on Frost’s life experience or the specific circumstances that may have served as the impetus for writing it. While the artist’s intentions can never really be known, the poem itself, as an artifact, yields some interesting clues. Take, for instance, Frost’s choice of verb tense: two roads diverged, long I stood, took the other as just as fair, was grassy — all in past tense, i.e. the speaker is looking back.

Ruts — I think that perhaps what makes this poem an enduring favorite is that we can all connect to it on a deeper, sub-conscious level. We like poems and stories we can see ourselves in, relate to. And who among us hasn’t felt the same way about making difficult decisions, especially as they relate to one’s choices or prospective paths in life? I see some parallels between this idea of looking back at the past, and being uncertain about the future in both the biblical story of Lot’s wife, and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both pay a heavy price for doubting the counsel of their respective “guide.” Both had been warned: don’t look back.

Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, forfeiting her life; Orpheus looks back and turns to see his wife, Eurydice, fading back into the underworld he was trying to rescue her from, where she will remain forever beyond his reach. The moral? Some might conjecture the point is wrapped up in separation, loss, and punishment rained down from above for disregarding the warnings, but I think it’s more about giving up attachments to what we know (which is already behind us) in order to look ahead.

Grooves – take the last stanza of Frost’s poem, for example, where the verb tense abruptly shifts in the first line: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence” — that is, far into the future. Here, the speaker may imagine regaling grandchildren with the story; regardless, I find it quite curious that the speaker would be telling the tale “with a sigh,” as this detail, to me, signals (more often than not) a sense of regret, rather than accomplishment. The bottom line is that we have an immobile speaker at an intersection, looking longingly at the past and projecting himself/herself wistfully into the future (“with a sigh”) — but who, in the entirety of the poem, has not traveled anywhere. The speaker is, in a word, stuck.

— habitual thinking is hard to escape. It requires some stretching, and often some discomfort. What we’re privy to in this poem is one specific moment, suspended in the linear progression of time from past to future, in which we witness the speaker’s decision: I took the one less traveled by. And although the speaker still hasn’t moved, we have been. And that has made all the difference.


Getting Mommed

Cartography: mapping the territory in which we find ourselves –

Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.
Maria Montessori

I have a somewhat uncommon experience, in that my mother taught English at the high school I attended. Some of my friends from high school still refer to her as “Momma,” because she was known to care for many children in addition to her own. Since she taught for thirty years, there is virtually no corner of her city untouched by her insistence on giving all students access to great literature, the tools with which to think for themselves, and the writing skills with which to articulate those thoughts.

My mother wanted to have creative children, so she read up on the topic. She provided us with finger paint, brown paper bags, and free time. She still gives us books as gifts, and although she has been known to read every word of a book before giving it, we already know she’s hand-picked something substantive, provocative, hefty (usually from the New York Times’ best-seller’s list) for us each to read every holiday or birthday.

More than merely provide intellectual stimulation in a safe environment, however, what my Mom does is nurture others, encouraging them to explore their potential, to find their strengths and overcome their weaknesses, and to creatively release their uniquely individual “self” into the world, in an effort to propagate the common good. In this way, everyone who nurtures others with compassion has done some mothering, regardless of their gender or child-rearing experience. To honor of all those who have mentored another person, planted an encouraging word, nurtured it and watched it grow, I wanted to offer a “Mother’s Day” greeting, by way of the following:


Card Front: "Combing the Hair" by Edgar Degas


Card Inside: "Tangled" by Anne Yale. 2009. Brushed air.

I would also like to thank anyone who has “mommed” me in some way: offering much needed encouragement,  bread for the body, or food for thought — your commentary, suggestions, and ideas are welcomed and sincerely appreciated.

And to everyone, I wish a Happy “Mother’s” Day!

Dancing With Stars

Cartography: mapping the territory in which we find ourselves –

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
William Wordsworth

Fixed Figures – like many in my generation, I have a long and storied resumé. For as long as I can remember, there are three things I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer, a teacher, and a singer. Coming of age in the era of disco, I struggled to support myself financially while working toward realizing those earliest dreams. I got my first “real” job as a “contingent” sales person, filling in for absentee workers during the Christmas rush at a now defunct Washington, D.C. retail institution, Woodward & Lothrop. The on-call position required me to serve as a stand-in for permanent employees within any department of the establishment.

Woodward & Lothrop postcard from Smithsonian magazine

I worked on the glamorous main floor manning the perfume counter one evening, and the next, I might be called upon to cut fabric and help elderly ladies match buttons to their yard-goods purchases in the notions department up on the 8th floor. What I liked best about the job was that it tested my ability to adapt to a different atmosphere for any given shift.

Open Levels – hired on to do inventory after the Christmas season was over, I began a series of self-revising career moves, catapulting from part-time to full-time sales person, then on to head-of-sales in the Housewares Department, and eventually, into management. I realize now that my dazzling rise from “contingent” staff to line management had less to do with my background, education, training, skills, or ability, and more to do with the fact that the retail clerks union was making a move to organize the workforce of the second-largest employer in the District of Columbia.

Syllabi – the opportunity for rapid advancement was not altogether lost on me. Although I chose to drop out of the university (where I was studying music) in order to take the management position I was offered, I ultimately left Woodies (the locals’ nickname for it) with a marketable set of practical skills ranging from analyzing inventory and generating sales projections to organizing event roll-outs and supervising a large staff – none of which can be garnered from college coursework (i.e. theoretical knowledge as it exists in the vacuum of a classroom) alone. Regardless of the on-the-job training and experience I acquired from working in the retail industry, however, even before I started that first “real” job, I had already learned everything I needed to know about working with other people from my father.

Bronze Steps – I couldn’t have been much more than four when my father began teaching me to dance, his steps guiding mine as I tip-toed, balancing atop his wing-tipped feet. Although I was barely half his height, hand-to-hand we would glide toward some measure of grace.

It seemed as though we moved together, propelled by sound, through a space reserved for giants – steadfast, like Keats’ “Bright Star” – “not in lone splendour hung aloft the night/ and watching,” our transitory solitariness suspended, “with eternal lids apart,/ like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,” awash in unitive song, “the moving waters at their priestlike task/ of pure ablution”.  I realize now that in addition to giving me confidence, this familiar father/daughter custom had a positive and long-lasting impact on my relationships with people, which not only influenced my social skills, but also continues to sway my career choices, as it shaped my ability to motivate employees, network with business contacts, and catch the attention of mentors.

Silver Steps – After a number of what might be considered “missteps,” I reached my second career goal of becoming a teacher at a comparatively late age. Nonetheless, I viewed all of my personnel management experience as a vital asset when it came to managing a classroom full of inquisitive, albeit boisterous, teenagers. However, I also saw the experience of high school as a primarily academic (rather than social) occasion. As a high school teacher, I believed that we were in the business of preparing people for expanded educational, economic, and emotional growth, cultivated through the medium of intellectual inquiry.

Toward that end, to foster discussion of the expectations or “norms” for classroom behavior at the beginning of each new term, I devised a classroom activity that found favor with a variety of students, no matter what class or subject (I taught several) they shared with me. I would give each student a copy of one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” to annotate, analyze, and explicate. Invariably, the last four lines commanded their attention: “So when at times the mob is swayed/ To carry praise or blame too far,/ We may choose something like a star/ To stay our minds on and be staid.” After we engaged in discourse regarding the implications of these lines, I’d make a demonstrative gesture, suspending glow-in-the-dark plastic stars above our heads from the ceiling panels, just in case any of us forgot our newly forged (and stated) obligation to honor our classroom, our inquiries and discussions, and each other with the respect befitting any civilized venture.

Gold Steps – Recognizing artistic pursuits as the “crown jewels” as far as civilized ventures go, John Adams acknowledged, “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry and porcelain.”

Rita Dove’s “Sic Itur Ad Astra” reminds us, as it speaks to an untold (or perhaps, unremembered?) history, that if we do not listen carefully to our dreams, they will continue to reach out from within us, seeking expression, until we hear them: “What will they say/ when they find me/ missing – just/ the shape of my dreaming/ creasing the sheets?” (119)

Heart Dreams #16

"Heart Dreams #16" Kathy Morton Stanion. Mixed Water Media. Available at:

Taking her cue from Virgil’s quotation, (This is the way to the stars.) and positioning it as the poem’s epigraph, Dove strategically locates history (i.e. Adams’ study of politics and war) within poetry’s firmament, suggesting that we might actually learn something useful from what those (seemingly strange) “inner” voices tell us.

Novice – listening carefully to the voices of our shared past may prevent us from repeating the same disastrous mistakes we make when we give in to isolation. Taken from recent headlines and current events, an example of this can be observed in the so-called “workers’ rebellions” rocking our blue planet with conflicts that range from vociferous protests in the beleaguered states of Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, to the toppling of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt (not to mention similar revolts going on throughout the oil-rich Middle Eastern region). On the surface, it may appear that this unrest is newly fomented, exacerbated by the worldwide economic meltdown we are experiencing. However, I would suggest that inciting strife and discord in order to upset the status quo is one of the oldest tricks in the “book.” For instance, looked at as a whole, the perpetual clash between the ruling elite and “ordinary” citizens has an all-too-familiar ring. We might be tempted to invoke Marie Antoinette’s often quoted response to her countrymen’s “revolutionary” request for bread (i.e. sustenance). Or, looking further back to the narrative of Eris’ Golden Apple, (purportedly was to blame for starting the Trojan War) we might concede some eerie similarities.

Eris' Golden Apple of Discord

Eris Golden Apple of Discord

Pre-Championship – taking our storied past into account, our “disagreeable” relatives (i.e. workers, public employees, and “ordinary” citizens) feel that they have been systematically excluded from the “royal wedding,” refused admittance to the feast, and turned away from the “tables” of government. In response, the uninvited guests have crashed the party and thrown down the apple, effectively halting the commerce that feeds us all, while the wealthy, their businesses, and their representatives in government all vie to claim entitlement to its devastatingly simple inscription: To the fairest –

Championship – beyond being a simple matter of income inequity, human greed, or exploitation for profit, this latest lobbing of the Golden Apple into the cotillion only serves to underscore that the source of contention can be traced back to our persistent “authority” problem. At its heart, rebellion undermines the expedient narratives (Karl Marx’s “opiates”) of the ruling elite, tendering the resignation of the masses. Should we wonder what effect this might have on us, we need only visit our neighborhood gas station and fill up our tanks to have our isolationist dreams shattered: regardless of how remote we perceive the threat to be, contention anywhere viscerally affects us all.

Securing The Trophy – In a move that reminded me of dancing in tandem with my father, Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana, realized (two years ago) what the implications of the economic meltdown represented for the future of his state and its citizens and started a dialogue with the employees’ unions. In a gesture toward largesse, he began by reducing his own salary, then asking the union leaders to follow suit. In other words, rather than wait for an ugly standoff between distanced “family members” he acted judiciously, and in good faith, leading by example, and expecting the best in other people (rather than anticipating the worst).

Disco Ball

"Disco Ball" Photograph.

This not only makes good sense in terms of public policy: it’s good for business, good for government, and good for “the common welfare” of all of his state’s citizens. When I think back now to how I got into management in the first place, I realize that if the company I worked for had historically treated their employees fairly, they might not have gone out of business, and they certainly would not have succumbed to union organization, as was their fate. As it turns out, the inculcation of commonly held ideals – e.g. common decency, a healthy respect for others’ dignity, no matter how “small” or “clumsy” they may, at first, seem, and a sense of “fair play” – this is a much more profitable enterprise.

Clipped Bites

Trending Now – that fire-breathing dragon, the “n” word, rose above the lavender mists of Camelot last week and took another look around. According to Publisher’s Weekly, Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar, plans to release a Twain re-mix without the “n” word or the “in” word, “Injun.” Gribben’s “do over” will replace the “n” word with the word ‘slave.’

Digitally Remastered – Gribben’s design is well intentioned, though perhaps a “wardrobe malfunction” in 1885 is yet another attempt on the part of Tom Sawyer to sweet-talk us into whitewashing his picket fence. The retroactive redaction of the “n” word is not only a capital act of erasure, it doesn’t solve the real problem, which is the underlying issues of racism and slavery that have not yet been fully addressed. In other words, excising the “n” word from Twain’s vocabulary asks us to just pretend the whole nasty business never happened. But it’s not Twain’s vocabulary that needs adjusting. It’s ours.

Red Sugar – lines 35-38 from designer Jan Beatty, coming down the catwalk for you now:

Some people call it eating weather
the way you swallow what you know,
but keep it – later it rises like a storm
from another world, reptilian and hungry” (35-38).

Notice the elegant line, the styling, the class with which Beatty handles the issue of swallowing up the fire-breath. Look out Mrs. Palin! See here, Lady Gaga! We find Ms. Beatty’s lines alluring and seductive.

Facebooking – also seeing red, a gentleman friend of mine posted, “The TEA bag party will go down in history as the KKK of the 21st century…” last week. A clipped debate followed. Determined to engage one another in conversation, in dialogue, intent toward ever aspiring toward achieving our mission, “toward a more perfect union” – all “holds” barred, name-calling un-invited. After all, wasn’t opening up the dialogue, striving to understand each other, in fact, the conversation itself, really the point?

Fabric Choices – Robert Frost and President Obama jointly remind us: we need to “kick it up a notch” – need to watch our tone, police our own brass, pick up our own full-metal jackets; that is, wielding words as weapons and hurling them as slurs “bites.” It thwarts our national mission, closing dialogue rather than opening up a conversation. Keeps us bereft, staring into the divide, across the banks from one another, separate and unequal. To equally engage, “asks a little of us here./ It asks of us a certain height, / So when at times the mob is swayed/ To carry praise or blame too far, / We may choose something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid.” (20-25)

Soul Food – In honor of Kingdom Day and the legacy left to us by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s word, and in memoriam of the six members of our family who faced another flare-up on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona and were taken from us by its flame, I join in asking us for a “re-direct, your Honor,” and share Stanley Kunitz’ invitation to initiating a conversation, my favorite poem of his, titled “King of the River”:

If the water were clear enough,
if the water were still,
but the water is not clear,
the water is not still,
you would see yourself,
slipped out of your skin,
nosing upstream,
slapping, thrashing,
over the rocks
till you paint them
with your belly’s blood:
Finned Ego,
yard of muscle that coils,
If the knowledge were given you,
but it is not given,
for the membrane is clouded
with self-deceptions
and the iridescent image swims
through a mirror that flows,
you would surprise yourself
in that other flesh
heavy with milt,
bruised, battering toward the dam
that lips the orgiastic pool.

Come. Bathe in these waters.
Increase and die.

If the power were granted you
to break out of your cells,
but the imagination fails
and the doors of the senses close
on the child within,
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.
A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor.
You have become a ship for parasites.
The great clock of your life
is slowing down,
and the small clocks run wild.
For this you were born.
You have cried to the wind
and heard the wind’s reply:
“I did not choose the way,
the way chose me.”
You have tasted the fire on your tongue
till it is swollen black
with a prophetic joy:
“Burn with me!
The only music is time,
the only dance is love.”

If the heart were pure enough,
but it is not pure,
you would admit
that nothing compels you
any more, nothing
at all abides,
but nostalgia and desire,
the two-way ladder
between heaven and hell.
On the threshold
of the last mystery,
at the brute absolute hour,
you have looked into the eyes
of your creature self,
which are glazed with madness,
and you say
he is not broken but endures,
limber and firm
in the state of his shining,
forever inheriting his salt kingdom,
from which he is banished

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