The Truth About Raccoons

Here at the end of the Bush administration, as we pray for greater transparency as regards our torture of enemy combatants, violations of civil liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act, and the lack of gender parity in the workforce (not to mention in who is allowed to marry and who is not), I would also ask the exiting party to reveal another awful secret to the American people:  What is a raccoon?

Raccoons are one of the only land mammals who can also walk on the bottom of riverbeds, holding their breath for up to an hour.  They eat both live prey and carrion, and can consume up to 20 pounds of raw meat at a time, then go without food for a week.  Their skeletal structure is found in no other animal, and that, combined with their ferocity and complete lack of moral fiber, make them perhaps our most dangerous enemy.  Pictured below is the subspecies Procyon Hitchhijackus, the highway bandit.  Their modus operandi is to hide in undergrowth and then saunter out into the middle of the road late at night.  The reflection of headlights on their neon green irises temporarily blinds the driver.  Under no circumstances with the Hitchhijackus yield its position, eventually taking over the vehicle after robbing all passengers of their beef jerky and Metallica CDs.


Of course, even during the information blackout of the past eight years, there was no disguising the most horrific and unavoidable fact about Procyon Carnivora:  They tend to work in the funeral industry for a reason.  Masterfully, they have learned to remove the hands of the dead and reattach them to their own wrist stumps; even the nerves are fully functional.  [Ed. note:  Avoid photograph below.]  A raccoon uses its hands just as we do:  to slap their young, to dig enormous holes in otherwise attractive lawns, and to hack the Twitter accounts of their high school lovers, leaving messages such as, “Am such hore!  My poo just falls out.  Still fat of baby wait, am looser where my shoes.”


You meet a raccoon in a bar.  He seems nice enough – asks questions about your work, mentions how kind he is to his mother, pays for all your meat.  Before you go home with him, please remind yourself of one all-important detail.  Your date has a penis bone.


Raccoons loooove to claim they fight fair.  They say that ten years of therapy has taught them valuable lessons, and no really, they want to hear your side of things, please – show me your heart, they’ll say.  All of those years of borderline personality disorder, alcoholism, inappropriate sexual behavior, speaking in Latin backward?  All better now.  So you say, “It really hurts me when you won’t hold my paw in public . . .” and that’s as far as you get.


Here’s what all raccoons really want:  they want to spend days on end indulging in role-playing games with other penis bones.  They want for Second Life to finally develop real sex, not just jerky avatar nonsense.  They want you to shut up and get them a turkey pot pie.  No, three.  And also those beers aren’t going to walk in here on their own.  They’d like you to tell your problems to someone else’s stolen leather hand, and they would very much like to eat the insulation and wiring in the attic undisturbed, OKAY, SWEETHEART?  Because inside, this is how they see themselves:


In truth, they look like this:


A few last words of warning:  if you find yourself in combat with a raccoon, don’t.  They all have rabies.  The last person who took one on was Ann Coulter and look what happened to her.  Most importantly, raccoons fall under the category of You Think It Can’t Get Any Worse, but merciful heavens, that’s when this shows up at your door.


Scott’s advice is absolutely the best:  if you suspect you have a raccoon in your attic, burn the house to the ground.  You know, get the kids out, then burn it until nothing is left but cinders and traces of evil.  Sprinkle salt around the foundation, and consider Scientology.

Published in: on January 20, 2009 at 12:35 am  Comments (694)  

Open Letter to All Unprogrammed Quakers in the Triangle of North Carolina


Please forgive this bogus use of my blog, but I couldn’t think of a faster way to post my rather unusual request.  I’m looking for members of the Society of Friends who worship in the unprogrammed tradition and would be willing to grow a little Meeting with me outside the constructs of the Yearly Meeting.  We could gather at my house or any other convenient, quiet place.  The catch is that I can only do so in the evenings, after my youngest child is in bed.  I’m well aware that part of the discipline of the Peculiar People is attending Meeting for Worship when it’s scheduled, and while I truly respect everyone at both the Durham Friends and the Meeting in Chapel Hill, it’s just not possible for me to attend on Sunday mornings.  I also hope we can engage in conversation – either before or after worship – on the subject of the future of Quakerism, what needs or must be done to save it.  That conversation can be continued or expanded by e-mail, as well. (I would also be very interested in reading and discussing as a group Brent Bill’s books on Light, Silence, and Discernment.) For those of you who don’t live in the area, but would like to join in the dialogue, I would recommend reading Martin Kelley’s The Quaker Ranter Reader, available on Café Press.  (Just search Quakers and you’ll find not just that book, but ten thousand novelty items devoted to a certain breed of parrot!  Yay!)


Interested Friends can contact me at havenkimmel [at] mac [dot] com, or through the comments section here on the blog.  Peace, my dear chickens of Christ!

Published in: on January 11, 2009 at 1:36 pm  Comments (1,166)  



The three-fold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
and gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?


William Butler Yeats

Published in: on December 24, 2008 at 12:58 pm  Comments (731)  

The Object of Writing is to Grow a Personality Which in the End Allows One to Transcend Art — Lawrence Durrell


Recently I was answering questions in an e-mail magazine interview, and came to this one:  “What do you hope to accomplish with your books?”  I stopped typing.  I stopped moving.  Quite possibly I was legally deceased for two or three seconds.  There’s a Zen saying I learned in seminary as ‘Unask the question.’  My mind was spinning:  I found popcorn, the lyrics to 300 Leonard Cohen songs, and the number of our post office box in Mooreland.  Other than that?  A deep disquiet.  I considered writing, “The question is the answer,” because, right?  Buddhists get by with that all the time; or maybe inventing a different personality, Sybil-like, who could just take over while I napped.  She would glance down a lot, maybe even do a little toe-scuffing gesture that could be considered coquettish, the sort of thing I’d eat my own flesh before doing.  She would say things like, “I just write because I have to,” and “You know, I’m learning like everybody else, trying to do my best,” or perhaps, “I just want to spread a little joy around, give back.”  I realized I’d end up showing Miss Toe-Scuffer the back of my smacking hand, so I returned to the near-death state and hovered there for twenty minutes or so.

The question is too large, for one thing, and it’s absurdly complicated and personal, and while it’s seemingly an inquiry into language, words run terrified from it like a massive herd of lemmings who’ve overpopulated their garden.  Turn to an auditorium filled with a bunch of words and tell them you want to employ them to explain something both conceptual and concerning themselves, and they become as shy and wary of human beings as those monkey-guinea-pig-toy-poodle things with the buggy eyes, you know, those things that live in a rainforest somewhere.  If you’ve never seen one, my point is well made.

What do I hope to accomplish with my books?  Eventually the words looked all squiggly.  What are the possible answers? 

1.  I want to bring about world peace and guarantee universal wheelchair access.

2.  I want to be incredibly famous so that everyone will love me, and the love will fill this gaping chasm in my soul; so famous I eventually feel as if I’m being hunted, and in desperation drink anti-freeze, because dogs do it so it must taste good.

3.  I’ve found that it’s best if I invest my ego in everything I do and also in other people.  Like, it’s a really good idea to attach my ego to my children and make sure they know everything they do is actually a reflection of me.  And I’ve put A LOT of my Ego Bucks into fashion, because the only thing standing between me and a locked ward are those Christian Laboutins AND your envy of them.  And then it occurred to me:  I could write books and every review would be about Me, and the reaction of each reader would be a reaction to Me, and I would have fans who would dream they WERE Me, and then my Ego would be truly happy.

4.  Because I’m smarter than everyone else in the world, and everyone who ever lived, and other books are stupid written by stupids and I owe it to my genius and to the world to finally produce Greatness.

5.  I’m pretty sure that if you have a book in print, you never die.  That would be a HUGE relief to me, because I have issues around mortality.  My own, I mean.

6.  Do you know how much Danielle Steele is worth??

7.  I hope to accomplish vicious revenge against mine enemies.  Smoting.

The list above could also be seen as a condensed version of Dante’s seven circles of Author Hell.  We are blessed with the capacity to make Hell out of anything, anywhere, and all it takes narcissism, desperation, and wrong-headedness, none of which are in short supply.  Try it, it’s a very flexible recipe.  How to make a marriage Hell?  Narcissism, desperation, and wrong-headedness.  How to damage your children?  What does it take to become a political analyst on Fox news?  How do I squander my talents, lose the ability to imagine other people exist, and create unhappiness everywhere I go? 

What do I hope to accomplish with my books?!?  I couldn’t even parse the question.  I also lost the ability to understand why I was so confused.  Eventually, I settled for the most basic candor.  “I hope to find the right word, and follow it by the right word, from the beginning to the end.”  Yes, I know it sounds as if it were written by a collie.  I finished the interview and sent it off and it came and went somewhere and made not a dent in anything – all that worry had been misplaced.

Why, then, did I continue to think about it right up to this moment?  Sometimes I thought the problem with the question was semantic:  take out ‘accomplish.’  Writing a book is an accomplishment in and of itself, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for.  The question was phrased such that I imagined my books going out into the world and doing something, like qualifying for one of those obscure Norwegian sports in the winter Olympics.  Maybe one of them would join a boy band, and another could buy a bar in the Florida Keys.  Then I decided it was the pronoun “I.”  I don’t have anything to do with this, the books are themselves, discrete.  They aren’t about me, there is no “I” in them.  I would argue that even the two memoirs aren’t about me:  they are studies in a particular way of crafting memoir. 

I have shelves of books on writing, everything from Eudora Welty to Stephen King to James Woods.  William Stafford titled his book on crafting poetry, Writing The Australian Crawl; so charming, that man.  As well as I can recall, not one of those books is anguished.  Some are extremely practical and useful (William Zinsser, King).  Many make suggestions like, “Write in the same place at the same time every day.  Your body will learn that it’s Writing Time if you develop this habit.”  “Learn to craft the perfect query letter, then tailor it to each agent by studying his or her client list.”  Eventually it hit me:  everyone talks about writing as if it were something we do, whereas I put it in the category of Being.  We’ve discussed the question Kat’s history teacher proposed:  How are we to live?  The question in the interview should have been, “How are we to live as writers?”  [Note:  The question came to me while I was sitting on the floor in the living room, going through the shelves of literary criticism and writer’s guides, and I actually tipped my head back and looked at the ceiling, the way actors do, or people lying in bed trying to make a hard decision, and I feel its my duty to tell you that while the tendency is deeply ingrained in our race, there is nothing to be learned from a ceiling.  Seriously.  Flat, plaster, usually white, not a clue up there to any quandary.]

Most books about writing are anguish free, but I’ve been worried about it so deeply and for so long I am near to collapsing with the vapours.  It’s a blessing to have a strong, definitive sense of vocation; mine is absolute, fixed as if with an entymologist’s straight pin.  But just as there is Right Living, there is Right Working.  You can be successful in any field with Wrong Working – in fact, the Wrongest are probably doubly rewarded.  Recently a doctor said to me, “I’m sending you to Dr. X.  He’s an asshole, but he’s the best.  Well, all neurologists are assholes but he’s exceptionally so.”  Shakespeare wrote, in Henry VI 2, in response to tyranny, the first thing we are to do is “kill all the lawyers.”  And that was late in the 16th century, when the Earth had not yet been declared a planet and we still spoke in a strange series of gutteral plosions and clicks.

There’s a theological practice adopted from the Hindus, now used as a way of thinking about lots of things, which is sometimes referred to as Radical Negativity.  If I’m stuck and can’t discern what action would be pleasing to Shiva, I reverse the process of discernment and make a list of the things I know for certain would not be pleasing to Shiva.  It’s a canny, graceful way of organizing abstractions.  I had nowhere to begin on how to Work Rightly, let alone what I hoped to accomplish with my books.  (Even now, I type the sentence and it fills me with anxiety.)  So I decided to make a list of Negativities.

Ways I Have Seen It Done Wrong:

1.  I am introduced to you at a conference and you are an asshole.

2.  Same conference:  we are speaking, even though I’ve become aware that you need to be in a 12-step Assoholic program stat, and I am only continuing to be gracious to you because I know that you will someday die, and you see over my shoulder a more important person.  You say, “Excuse me, I need to catch up with Gary before cocktails.”

3.  Your novels are self-consciously modeled on the length and conventions of the three-act screenplay, and you say to people, “When it’s optioned, it won’t need ten rewrites – it’s ready to go.”  You take a drink of rose, which has made an inexplicable reappearance.  “I’m going to have Binky bargain for me to have sole screen-writing credit.” 

4.  You have an idea for a book or a short story and as you’re working on it, you realize it it has failed, and rather than accepting that, you bend the prose to fit your outline, and you call this ‘making it work.’

5.  You refuse to be edited, because if the sentence hadn’t been perfect, you wouldn’t have put it there.

6.  You never imagine the effect a scene or a plot twist or some too-vivid sex will have on your audience.  You never think of an audience at all, because no one is real but you, and every cruel aesthetic decision you make is called ‘art.’

7.  You lie.  Your characters are a lie, and your dialogue is a lie, and your forced and premeditated sentimentality is treasonous.

8.  You will write anything, any time, for any publication that pays well, because you are a professional.

9.  No amount of success or praise or fanmail or adulation is enough.  You despise your life, you hate sitting at your desk, you refuse to read any author who has won literary prizes, you begin to plot your upcoming books based on what’s selling.  What’s selling is Havana, let’s say.  You don’t go to Havana, you don’t learn anything but the most basic information, you have no interest in the political landscape, you’ve never met a single person from Havana.  It doesn’t matter, you just prop up detritus – a doll your dog mangled, say – where you intend a woman to stand.  It makes no difference because there is no woman, no Havana, no language, you are venal and you sense it for just a moment, then turn and write an abusive letter to your editor for ruining your career.


But there is a deeper negative, something more radical than just Wrong Working.  In truth, the you considering this does not want Selfhood to enter a single line of your work.  You don’t want your name to be larger than the title, because the book has nothing to do with your name.  Author photographs fill you with a shame you’ve never felt before.  You’re told that the business has changed and you are now as much a product as what you hold in your hands, and so you’re asked to help develop a marketing plan:  who do you know, where can you network.  You pass an executive editor in the hallway and he’s on his way somewhere but shouts, “Love the new book!” even though everyone knows he hasn’t read it, won’t read it.  Your Soul now dwells in a Society where that lie is reflexive, expected, and will have no consequences.  It’s just some more Death Chatter, the staccato language of commerce and ambition and a nearly daily necessity to speak of your love of literature while scheming for a 5-second spot on morning television; in short, as Prufrock said, you are afraid.  No one in this building cares about Eliot, or poetry at all, for that matter, because it’s a black hole, and if you wandered through every floor and asked every person, desperation marring your delivery, why Prufrock asks if he dares to eat a peach, not one would know it’s because in ancient Chinese lore, when the Great Dragon drags the sun up every day at dawn, a handsome man who never ages sets off walking with his basket containing the peaches of immortality. 


Our is not an earnest or sincere age; vulnerability isn’t encouraged, and no one is guided by a devout religious belief.  There are still churchgoers, but their attendance is disconnected from the old motivation:  the deep longing for the mysterium tremendum, a belief in the sacred and in the places the sacred waits for you.  No one is possessed by the puzzle of Jesus of Nazareth – who is losing sleep over a word so overused and ironic it’s one of the lost or damaged signifiers wandering the trash heaps, looking for its signified?  The thought of the man doesn’t shake you in the slightest.  You don’t remember, if you ever knew, why his tendency toward inversion matters more than any other story in the world.  He spoke in parables, big deal.  There are books out now where the text is written in a circle on one page and the next page is blank; not cost-efficient but everyone needs something to believe in, even if it’s just that the empty page is significant and meaningful and they get it, they do.  Almost.  The non-practicing Jews will be a big audience; they’re reliable buyers.

I genuinely hate to say this, because it will sound imbecilic and you might have heard that I am not unfamiliar with imbecility.  How am I to write?  I am to write as if it were the measure given to me by the God of my Unbelief, or the Spirit of Truth, as revelation, which never ceased but is ongoing.  I am to listen for guidance, as if in prayer.  In Self-Reliance, Emerson writes, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious.  Prayer is the contemplation of life from the highest point of view.  It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul.  It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.  But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.”  Who ARE those people, the ones who got the idea that they could say some words and make God find their car keys?  Little spinning centers of the universe with God as a magic butler.  Emerson is right:  it is vicious.

I am to write as a person who is paying very close attention, not only to my own surroundings but to the patterns of the visible world, so that any reader might see him or herself and remember, as a kind man said to me recently, “We’se all in this together, honey.”  I can’t forget, even for a moment, that I have to let the book be what it is, or else it will come out lumpy and gooey in the middle.  I often stumble, considering the nature of prose, about whether it should serve as an amplification of beauty, or goodness; if that is a form of integrity.  It isn’t – it’s a form of dishonesty.  Redemption is appropriate when it is, but loss is elemental, and there is a shadow world we ignore at our peril.  Jung and Hillman speak so fluently about nightmares and archetypal patterns, much the way Hoosiers discuss the weather.  It’s just the facts, sir, the electrical storm that sets the barn aflame, and so are feelings of horror or deep revulsion at what we see in our inmost darkness.  I have periodically worried about the horror novel coming out in a couple years, as if I betrayed people who trusted me to stay in Mooreland, or to stick with sermons and cast-off objects.  Better that I should just tell you:  I’ll follow the course where I’m led.  I don’t care what’s selling:  this prayer does not crave commodity. 

There is the mysterium tremendum; there are the Mysteries; there is the mysterious.  One is the source of Kant’s definition of the sublime:  beauty that leads to terror.  The next are the wonders in our cultural narrative, acts that defy understanding or explanation.  And there is this physical world about which we are naturally curious.  In The Art of Fiction Henry James said, “A writer is one on whom nothing is lost.”   That’s who I hope to be.  A fellow novelist asked me recently if I was bitter that IODINE came and went unnoticed and unsung, was not nominated for any prizes, etc.  He said, “Does it make you crazy that you manage something like this and nobody pays attention?”  I answered, in complete honesty, “God no. I don’t care about things like that.  I care about one thing, which is getting it right.”

So for weeks now I’ve been turning this over and over, and all the ways I try to express my desire to do my work as purely and selflessly as possible, the more smug and asinine I sound.  I wouldn’t be surprised if one of you just hauled off and smacked me.  But I feel better after the reading I’ve been doing over the past two days.  There’s a recent paperback collection of Thomas Merton’s journal entries on writing, called Echoing Silence.  I already knew what a painful topic writing was for him early in his years as a monk.  At the time he decided not only to join the priesthood, but to become a contemplative, he was a writing student under the tutelage of Mark Van Doren.  He had, even as a young man, a singular and bright talent.  As he aged his books became artifacts of stunning beauty.  When he entered the monastery he did so as a young man with ideals so lofty and a religious belief so pervasive he was desperate to rid of himself of anything profane.  He would no longer write, he declared, because the desire to do so was actually an attempt to assuage one’s base ambitions and to engage in ceaseless self-idolatry.  If he were to write, he would be writing for himself (bad) and the world (wicked).  Reading the early journal entries is visceral; his need to overcome all worldliness, all selfhood, and become one with the mystical love of God was so great he seemed nearly panicked.  Anyone who knows Merton knows the fortuitous thing that happened in the midst of what I imagine as a bonfire out in the courtyard, where he’s throwing his Harry Potter books with great force, and . . . there go his AC/DC records, like Frisbees.  The abbot insisted that Merton’s first task would be to write his autobiography, and that the form his morning meditation would take, every morning, was writing.  What a bright and intuitive man the abbot must have been, because what Merton wrote was the classic Seven Story Mountain.  He opened the floodgates of a great, brave man and a formidable talent.  Merton went on to write 60 books, countless essays and reviews.  He was the Trappist/social activist/bald version of Joyce Carol Oates. 

I tell you about that book because as much as I worry about living up to the honor of the task before me, and how not to violate it or the source from which it comes, I laughed out loud when I read how my anxiety compared to his.  To the very end of his life he was pursuing a form of writing that expressed and magnified God’s love for the world – he sought to be pure to the very end.  He recounts a scene in Greenwich Village, where he was walking with his friend Lax.  Lax asks him:

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

            I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

            “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

            “What do you mean, a good Catholic?”

            The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

            Lax did not accept it.

            “What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

Oh, I laughed and laughed.  I thought I was in a crisis of conscience because someone asked me what I hoped to accomplish with my books.  I was terrified I might find a lazy or greedy or disengenous person, even though I know perfectly well that my motives have always been to do whatever I found my vocation to be with not just technical skill, but with discipline and humility and a refusal to give up until I had answered whatever I was being summoned to do.  From now on, problem solved:  I hope to be a saint.

My sister is, at this moment, laughing so hard she has done herself an injury.  I HOPE YOU DO, ARSE, BECAUSE I’M A SAINT AND I SAY SO!

Published in: on December 14, 2008 at 11:40 pm  Comments (639)  

Gratitude Is The Heart’s Memory

Even though Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday (as it is for anyone who loves to eat, drink, make merry, and not have to buy gifts) I’ve never really understood it.  I realize one is supposed to trace one’s hand with a marker and thus create the world’s strangest chicken, but all I see is how my middle finger is so much longer than the others.  I think that makes me a lesbian.  I’ve read the Puritans, I’ve read John Woolman, and I understand that we’re all supposed to wander together in a maze, and wear shoe buckles on our hats.  But recently someone on another blog brought up that Thanksgiving was actually the invention of Abraham Lincoln.  WHAT?  Thomas Jefferson invented everything else and LINCOLN invented this inexplicable but fabulous holiday?  [Aside:  one of my favorite singer/songwriters in the world, Joe Williams, wrote a song about how much he loves to look at his money, he likes to keep it his pants – the Hamiltons, the Lincolns and the Grants.  He describes how each President got a certain sum, and Lincoln may have only gotten the $5.00 bill, and he may not be so pretty but, “He sure opened a can of whoop-ass on slavery, didn’t he?”]

And then there’s all that ‘robbery’ business, about how the Puritans and all the Caucasian peoples who followed them, stole this entire massive country from the Native Americans and I can tell you for a fact that it’s true because I’m sitting right here pretending I “own” this land.  MY DIRT.  And the people who lived here before me, the majestic and proud Hamdurbulls, are nowhere to be seen.  They got marched off to South Dakota or someplace and made to sign “documents” that were really Etch-a-Sketches, and what they lost in the deal was:  everything.  What they gained was smallpox, inexplicable tooth loss, slavery, mass murder, internment camps, and the introduction of whiskey and guns.  So that went well.  If I went to South Dakota this very day, I would have to turn over my uterus at the state line, where it would be placed in a “reservation,” and with enough guns and whiskey they might get a little white baby out of it.  In places like South Dakota, where leaders of the religious right are trying to outlaw abortion in all cases, it’s only because every itty bitty life is preshus preshus preshus.  Except for the millions that aren’t, like the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care, or the men and women on death row waiting for the state to tell them they have done used up their preshusness.

Because of my ongoing confusion about whether Thanksgiving began with William Bradford at Plymouth Plantation, or with Lincoln in celebration of the preservation of the Union, I consider it a holiday personally devoted to me.  It’s a day when I eat what I want, make a list of the things for which I myself am grateful.  Sometimes I am a Pilgrim, sometimes I am an Indian.  I’m allowed to say Indian because at the time of their persecution, they didn’t know they were Native Americans, see, they thought they were People.  The moment you begin thinking you’re a Person, you done lost Louisiana, let me tell you.

Thanksgivings with my immediate family were often joyous affairs and periodically fraught with peril.  One year my brother and brother-in-law got in an argument and biscuits were thrown.  As I recall they were rather tough, as biscuits go.  We all now recall the incident fondly, as families tend to do.  Now this was a good one:  I was, let us say, bound to an extremely unkind man who had done everything in his power to ruin the holiday, ending with marching into the dining room and saying, “Get up.  We’re going home.”  I said something along the lines of, “But we haven’t even had dessert.”  He said, “Then you can walk home, because I’m leaving.”  He had spent the meal, while the rest of us were in hysterics with laughter around the dining room table, watching a basketball game in the living room.  This is the good part:  my brother, who is a very large, very intimidating man, pushed himself up from the table as if in slow motion, never taking his eyes of The Man, and said, “We don’t talk to her that way.”  OH HALLAYLOOB, WHAT A MOMENT IT WAS.  The Man left, of course, and someone else drove Kat and me home later. 

Then all these BABIES started showing up and it became harder and harder to drive from North Carolina to Indiana, and there wasn’t really anyplace for us to stay.  I often insisted on bringing a dog as well, if you can imagine (well!  I don’t like to be without at least one!), so the tradition began of spending Thanksgiving with my Otters.  Except for my children, my Otters are my inner-most inner-circle.  Indeed, gay men have been my inner-circle since I was twelve years old:  imagine accomplishing that in Mooreland, Indiana.  Here are some photographs of the glorious event.  From left to right we have the unbearably rakish  Robert Rodi, my agent Christopher (I don’t think I need to say much more about my insane love for him), Scott (takes care of much of my life), and John (takes care of all of everything else).  And Iorek.  He was festive.


Now we have added the delectable Jeffrey, along with Kat, who seems to find it a tad ironic that she’s the only woman and she happens to be holding food.  Iorek was probably licking his butt off stage.


No, wait!  There he is.  He’s thinking about metaphysics.  If you look closely in the background, you can see little Puppa!  She is small, but mighty.


This was the centerpiece.  Of course it’s a real otter.  And that flower is the very flower Polly Kahl sent me in the skirt she neither made for me nor mailed to me!


Iorek can MOVE.


Eventually Obadiah remembered to get out of the shower, and he joined us outside.  If I were O., I would have nothing to do with adults because I would simply be too fabulous.


Kat, happy!


Iorek and Cloud completely snoot up on poor Jeffrey.


Baby G. knows exactly when to make an appearance.  This isn’t a confession, as it is plainly self-evident, but part of the impetus for always spending Thanksgiving with my Otters is that I do not shop for a single spice, I do not cook one thing, and I do not wash a dish.  In fact, I don’t know my purpose at these functions, but I continue to be welcomed.

The food is always INCREDIBLE.

Beautiful kids.



Beautiful Christopher.  If you look closely, you can see there’s a photograph of Christopher BEHIND the actual Christopher, which makes him meta.


Heaven only knows what was happening here, but it made us all happy which is what matters.


And here’s something to be grateful for, every single day.


I’ll prepare a photo album to go in the photo album hole (Scott knows) of the adventures of Christopher’s Velma doll with my taxidermy.  You won’t want to miss it. 

I’d love to hear how you all spent the holiday, or what you are especially thankful for.  Just as no child can be loved too much, we can never over-appreciate our abundance.  Good lord, I sound like the sort of minister at whom I’d throw gooseberries.

Published in: on December 9, 2008 at 2:40 pm  Comments (711)  

Orri Jay Putnam, January 9th, 1946 – November 30th, 2008: Lessons in Gratitude, Friendship, and Family

Yesterday Meg and I worked on Orri’s obituary, knowing he had only a few hours left.  Here is what Meg wrote:

Mr. Putnam, of Lake Wylie, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer, diagnosed just eight weeks ago. A native of Charlotte, he was born on Jan. 9, 1946, the son of Harry and Nona Putnam. He leaves his wife, Dianne Waldron Putnam, a sister, Myra, his in-laws, Don and Meg Kimmel, as well as many nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, and a wide family of lifelong and newfound friends.

A graduate of the University of Georgia, Orri owned and managed the Plaza School of Beauty Culture following his mother’s death in 1981. He was successful in business, but his true occupation was friendship, one he tended with talent and steady care. Intensely proud of his heritage, he loved to entertain with homemade Lebanese treats. His interests were many—old cars and boats, model trains, history, architecture, and travel. He could tell tales, and did, and was likely to show up on your doorstep at any time, usually bearing a gift. A unusually generous man, he offered help in ways that meant the most, supporting educational goals and medical needs. He volunteered at an adoption center. Orri brought fun, life, and laughter into any gathering. His friend Haven Kimmel captures his particular grace and compassion in “Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House,” a children’s book that features a hero named Osiris Putnaminski. He took care of business, but his legacy is one of joy, delight, and love. Orri, we are missing you from here.


I added: Orri had one of the most unique and pleasurable gifts one can find in a friend:  he was an elegant conversationalist, and one could never discern, from how a story began, how on earth it might end.  A story of his might start with how he acquired a certain rare car, and end up in a tiny saloon in a desert and a story he was told by the toothless barkeep.

Orri had refined tastes in all areas of life:  at the annual Kimmel/Boykin beach trip, he loved nothing more than to listen to live music played by his various family members.  He dressed impeccably, and could always choose the best entrée on a menu, as well as the best wine.  Merely by the life he lived, Orri taught invaluable lessons.  He taught that we choose our family, and then we love them as fiercely as possible.  He had what seemed an infinite number of friends, because he was a friend, rather than a man who expected friendship to come to him.  Most of all, Orri Putnam was an easy man:  he had an easy laugh, he was easy to love, he didn’t hold tight to a dollar.  His favorite saying was, “My heart soars like an eagle to see you again.”  Whatever blue sky holds his spirit now, we were all blessed to have known him as a brother, an uncle, a dear friend, the heart of our gathered tribe.

Here are a few of my favorite Christmas photos from a few years back.  Orri is carrying the full-grown Jeff Boykin on his back without breaking a sweat:


And I love these group photos because so many of us are gone now.  For instance, in the first photograph you’ll notice Obadiah standing at the edge of the photo:


. . . and in this photograph he is missing altogether, because he has fallen off into the bushes.  Please note the massive jocularity at poor O’s expense.


In that photograph are Meg’s dear, dear parents, Dick and Peggy, and since there is only room for one hagiography in each blog post, I will suffice it to say that they were beautiful, fine people who gave the world four of the best children imaginable.  They were old-fashioned and gracious, wonderful wits, and they adored one another all the days of their marriage.  We miss them terribly, as well.


Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”  I asked you to remember my mother in any small way to offset the unbearable pain she has suffered for two years, and this is the letter I received from her yesterday:

Dear one,

I have received some of the dearest, most touching messages from your blog babies. I am moved to tears by their kindness. Flowers were delivered from Caryl, Jack, Charlie Hayes, and they are beautiful. Right now they grace the room divider and brighten up the space with joy. It was such a sweet thing to do, especially since I love flowers so much.

I received a box of the most amazing sweets from Katharine McKinney of Evansville, and I think they are probably illegal they are so delicious. Thank god I’m not diabetic!! If I were I would still have to taste such scrumptious treats. Wasn’t that the dearest thing for Katharine to do?

I got a lovely card from Polly Kahl in Pennsylvania, and one from Liz Holmes in Virginia. Can you imagine hearing from strangers in such different places who send thoughts and prayers because they know you through your blog.

Sarah from PA sent a letter and a beautiful poem dedicated to her mother that touched me deeply. Clearly she is also a talented writer.

Brenda Diller from Prescott Valley AZ sent a gorgeous card and a Navajo Healing Prayer that I plan to recite often.

Gloria Geisendorfer from Washington state had a prayer for healing done by the priests of Sacred Heart at a Lakota Indian school. Beautiful. Gloria isn’t one of your blog babies, but her daughter is–how touching is that!  Gloria isn’t even Catholic, which made the prayer even more meaningful.

Linda Carter from Nashville TN sent a beautiful card and note, and her handwriting is so much like yours it made my heart stop for a second. It was a moving note.

Finally I got a card from John MacMullen at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Haven, these are the dearest, most precious people in the world, and clearly they are not only fans of yours, but also friends of the heart.  I can’t tell you how much the cards, letters, flowers and sweets have meant to me. I don’t feel like a stranger to these dear friends, your blog babies.

I love you, little girl, and I appreciate the kindness of your friends to your mother who long since ceased being brave. I would prefer to be more valiant in the face of this ongoing pain, which resists all treatments, pills, potions, powders, lotions, gels, salves and creams.




Here is Delonda at her most queenly, with one of my oldest friends Kent Shuff and me.  And she has never been more right:  you are friends of my heart – you have the same gift Orri had, of choosing whom to love and loving with all your goodwill.  I have said it before and I’ll say it again:  thank you, thank you, thank you.

Published in: on November 30, 2008 at 4:07 pm  Comments (135)  


Dear Kate really does live up to her bakery epithet.  She has sent me some of the best cookies I’ve ever eaten.  But she also sends me gifts the likes of which you cannot imagine, and really . . . you know.  Don’t.   They’re sort of meant for the two of us.  This time she really outdid herself.  She got me a Noah’s Ark set from 1967, which happens to be the year of the Great Flood.  You know how the story goes, right?  God told Noah to build an arky arky, God told Noah to build an arky arky, BUILD IT OUT OF!  Hickory barky barky, children of the lord.  Except what he meant was, “I’m fixing to destroy the world except for a few animals and three human beings, two of whom are probably gay.”  That’s really sweet.  And remember how poor Bill Cosby, who is Noah, didn’t have a clue what a cubit is?  How COULD he?  He was busy on television and wearing his sweaters.

Kate’s gift made concrete what I had known for some time.  You see, I was married (all too tragically briefly) to one of the last full-blooded Incas in America.  (I am the other.)  In this photograph he’s wearing our culture’s ceremonial headdress, which happens to include my puggle, Puppa.


His Incan name was Wears The Puppa Hat, or in English, Eddie.  Because I grew up in a series of Christian foster homes, I knew enough about the Bible to teach Eddie some of the stories.  He found them all very uncomfortable, even though many Biblical stories are shared by countless other cultures.  The flood legend is nearly universal; it seems that everyone wants to believe the planet was really hard-core drowned once.  Our conversations frequently went like this:

EDDIE:  Your God said to one person, this Noh, to build a massive ship because God wanted to destroy the world? 

BLADE:  Yep.

EDDIE:  But two of each kind of animal was to be spared?  Why?  Why kill all the people and the trees and all the rest of the animals, and keep just two?

BLADE:  Weird, I know.

EDDIE:  Were there women? 

BLADE:  There was Noah’s wife, and I think his children.  And his domestics, of course.

EDDIE:  But how did they repopu –

BLADE:  Best not to go there.

I lost my beloved Wears The Puppa Hat in a tragic accident; he was performing a ceremonial dance and . . . well, there was Incan makeup involved, which contains lead, and the sacred moccasins, made of gasoline and gunpowder.  His native dress was on fire when the dancing began, so that didn’t help.  I grieved appropriately, as our culture demands, and then I left our cave dwelling and moved to Durham, near Duke University.  This is the Inca way. 

For many years I didn’t think about the conversation we’d had about the Noah story, not until Kate sent me the gift.  I opened it reluctantly, to be honest, because I knew it would rekindle not just my grief, but memories of Foster Sunday School.  Little did I know that I needn’t have traumatized Puppa Hat, because everything I learned from the warty Mrs. Belcher was a lie anyway. 

The animals, they came on by twosies twosies, right?  WRONG.  Look at this:


The ‘lamb’ is possessed by Satan, and the chicken is the same size as the cow, who is standing on a ROCK.  I heard nothing about any rocks, did you?  Or consider this:


That pink-faced gorilla thing is probably quite accustomed to having his way with, oh say a PIG, right?  But that pig is fixin’ to show Magilla a certain barnyard trick.  Devil Rabbit hates everyone and everything, including the itty bitty lion cowering next to him.  What really blows my honker is that monkey.  I’m telling you, it is a monkey, and it’s about the size of a tiny thing, and it’s standing right there with a MASSIVE turtle.   The size of the turtle is ungodly.  It gets worse. 


That’s my sister in the red pantaloons, with her back to us.  I’d have a hard time facing the situation, too.  The pig is eating the lion, the mutant tortoise is on the move, and lurking in the background is a gargantuan BLUE penguin.  And here’s Donnie Darko with some prostitute – that’s nice.


And OH, are you tired of the Scientologists trying to get you to hold those metal things and give you literature that fills you with shame?  You might want to give that a rethink, because Xenu was on that boat. 


I was deeply disturbed, but I didn’t expect carnage.  I didn’t foresee atrocity, not until this:


I thought I knew something of myth, and the way it guides our understanding of nature.  I knew nothing.  When the pink-faced gorilla is the same size as the anteater, which is the same size as the hippo, and there are Faustian skunk-things and midgets in dresses, not to mention Cletus, one’s mind wobbles a bit.  But when a SOCK MONKEY enters the picture?  A sock monkey with dominance clearly on his agenda?  And just the one – not twosies?  I couldn’t help but remember the horrible moment in “Planet of the Apes” when Charlton Heston discovers a library, and he’s ecstatic to hold a book again, rather than just the leather hand of his apemate.  He opens the cover and the pages turned to dust.  I wept.  We were at the drive-in and I was sensitive.


By the way, the boat was only big enough to hold my sister and a couple miniature monkeys.  I’m glad she got away before the hideous reindeer arrived – they did NOT have Santa’s sleigh on their minds, believe me.

Published in: on November 23, 2008 at 1:10 am  Comments (294)  

He Was A Man, Horatio. We Will Not See The Likes of Him Again.



The Train Through North Carolina

            (for Orri J. Putnam)


What could contain more mystery

than the angle of that chimney

standing follied in a fallow lot,

no house; no guest; no cooking pot?


And what to think (it makes me nervous)

of the Holy Ghost Delivery Service,

its doors nailed shut, the windows blind?

Who’ll deliver the day’s sublime


and matchless grace?  or the pressing news

that a flood has left of nest of unreconciled shoes

in a fetid grove of tulip trees

(traumatized, bruised, dropping their leaves?)


If the Holy Ghost has gone under, I alone will report

that pregnant girls still stand on porches

studying the trains, both bearing unimaginable freight.

They linger like harvests harvested too late.


I’ll write that the cotton is ripe and Selma’s in tatters.

I’d describe the crumbling station, but it hardly matters;

there are points from which one may never depart

nor does one return.  It’s a Heraclitian art,


this traveling with you, my sweet friend.

For what if we discover the world upended

and beyond recognition, everything lovely lost

in a wave of surrender, such steep cost?


But you aren’t afraid to look:  it’s the same old ruins you’ve embraced before.

The overcome, the collapsed, the world, you, we so hopelessly adore.

Published in: on November 20, 2008 at 3:52 am  Comments (239)  

There Are Dirty, Smelly, Nefarious Yicky People In The World

Do I have any blog babies in Seattle?  I ask because three months ago I made a significant purchase on eBay, and the seller has vanished, the business he claimed he owned doesn’t exist, and my only recourse it to turn the matter over to the FBI Internet Crimes division (which I of course will do).  A police report has been filed.  I’m following the requisite steps, but I’d really like is to have a conversation with the man.  Just a civilized, delicate, Quaker conversation with the man.  Any help will be greatly appreciated.  You will not be an accessory after the fact.  Much obliged.

Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 8:49 pm  Comments (593)  

Remember When Obama Won The Election?



I’m really glad no one has ever told me shut up about what I learned in seminary, because honestly, without that education I would be useless.  I know a fair amount about poetry, knowledge that doesn’t serve me so much when the economy tanks (I can barely count) or when a tire needs changing or a pilot light goes out.  The combination of gas and fire:  scary.  Even when the subject is poetry what I know is of scant value, or . . . take this exchange, for instance.  Last night J. Shue and I were talking about something he was working on and I suggested he run it through My Patented Sonnetizer to eliminate waste.  He was unsure of sonnet structure, which I assured him he could learn quickly.  Learning the form and mastering it are separate categories, of course.  I recommended the text I use, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, and went on to say, with a boastful tone, that I had recently whooped up on a villanelle.  (I should have mentioned that it was a villanelle about Ezra Pound.)  Jim looked up the definition of ‘villanelle’ and came back with:  “I especially enjoyed the last line of the definition ‘It is terribly obsessive and can bring out the emotions of any neurotic writer.’”  (Ezra Pound was the master of traditional forms, I also could have said.)  Then Mr. Shue went to bed.  I was left staring at those words, it is terribly obsessive (Pound is, of course, a metaphor – no, that’s not quite right . . . certainly he bears an enormous cultural weight) and can bring out the emotions of any neurotic writer.  (Seriously, if you know Pound’s astonishing body of work, along with his scandalous – and tragic – history, even attempting a villanelle was gutsy, and stupid, on my part.)

If I ran my life through My Patented Sonnetizer most of the fourteen lines remaining would be what I’ve learned from Quakers.  For instance, I encountered someone – a long, long time ago now – who believed that her mind shouldn’t be damaged by reading literature from or about the Holocaust.  OH CHIRREN.  May I just say that I was a skyscraper of dudgeon – not out loud, obviously . . . wait.  It’s possible a few words leaked out.  I forget.  But I sure remember what went on inside:  I became physically ill, I was so angry.  I had a difficult time continuing in the class I loved, because my stomach clenched into a fist every time I saw a person I had formerly respected.*

*Let the record show that she expressed this opinion with a great deal of conviction.

As I said, that was a long time ago.  But I learned something valuable from the fraught occasion.  Our stoked dudgeon is most high when we believe the cause to be sacred, regardless of whether it is.  For me there was nothing more holy than to bear witness to the suffering and death of twelve million innocent people – to have the courage to merely learn what they endured – and to treat the survivors of the genocide with as much respect as is humanly possible.  And I had a righteous argument to validate my opinion:  the survivors themselves wanted us all to know what happened, believing that we might prevent it from ever happening again. 

My colleague didn’t want to live with those images on her memory loop. 

While I’m not sorry for the years I spent diligently learning everything I could in both Holocaust history and literature, I’m far less assured that my doing so is much comfort to the dead, or that my effort will have any bearing on whether history repeats itself.  I was never going to participate in anti-Semitism, homophobia, the wholesale slaughter of the Roma, intellectuals, or children with learning disabilities anyway, was I, or I wouldn’t have been a student of those classes in the first place.  And if a tyrant rises to the office of Chancellor (without even gaining a clear majority of the popular vote!  imagine that!) in either our beautiful experiment in democracy, or in the Weimar of the imagination – can’t see how I’m going to prevent it by reciting my favorite Hasidic folk tales.  And it’s not my place to force a peer or colleague to take in the details if she would prefer not to have them, whatever her reasons. 

What a shock to discover there are people who will argue with the same passion about sports. The location of a ball.  Maybe a uniform, I can’t tell what the fight concerns at depth.  (Pound’s radio broadcasts out of Italy – this point is just not made often enough – during WWII, were the basis of his trial for treason.  He could hardly have been guilty of giving much aid or comfort to the enemy, since his addresses were grounded in economic theory, rather than political.  The Axis countries had their own Ministers of Propaganda – they didn’t need an American poet to explain anything to them.  His Italian was flawless, it should be noted.)

I’m not nearly so sassy these days.  I’m sure I still get the righteousness on, but it helps that there’s no one to hear it but my taxidermy.  Also?  BARACK OBAMA IS OUR NEW PRESIDENT.  It’s going to take at least eight years for THAT to get old.

Published in: on November 11, 2008 at 11:32 pm  Comments (386)