Susan O’Leary | Coop Dedication

1 06 2015

Susan O'Leary

Norbert Blei came daily for more than forty years to this coop to write, to follow his passions and to change lives. Stop there.  Because if students who now use Norb’s coop find their ground in any of those, they will have done exactly what they were to do in entering Norb’s space. This is where through the written word he found, and explored, and clarified who he was. In his personal life, in becoming the advocate of Door’s heritage and land, and in reaching out over continents, opening new lives to questioning through his blogs. He wrote to an American soldier in Afghanistan who found Norb through his blogs and held onto them in his daily life.  There was the African writer (I wish I knew more), who grew into considering himself more a writer in corresponding with Norb.  Here, seated in front of this window, he kept in touch with longtime friends and encouraged new writers.  Got annoyed as hell at further development in Door. Wrote scores of books and articles, crafted decades of writing classes at The Clearing, and shepherded new writers into print through his Cross+Roads Press.

He would be honored, and pleased, and also shaking his head in some Blei disbelief (still honored and pleased), that after his death people imagined the idea of the coop coming to find its home here at Write On!, and that those same people and then others gave the money and time to actually move the coop, and that now, his place, is here for you. And the yous who don’t even know they are coming here yet.  Who are maybe just in their last weeks of fifth grade now, but who will in a decade or more find their way here, and enter their own and its silence, and in the consideration it fosters, open their laptop, or pull out their pencil and paper, and….. write. I knew Norb as a close friend for almost fifty years and I can tell you that he would be mightily pleased that his work will continue in this place (place was essential to Norb), here in a sanctuary that nurtures the work of writers and believes everyone has a story to tell. Because that, exactly, was Norb.

I was one of the lucky ones who was taught by Norb at Lyons Township High School in a western suburb of Chicago before he moved up to Door in 1968, when Mr. Blei commuted to us every day from his home in Cicero. I was 15 when I met him, and from that day, my life was changed.

I was asked to talk about that, and that is why I am here.

Mr. Blei taught the love and awe and embrace of books and writers. He introduced you to writers that as a 15 year old in the 1960’s suburbs were far too difficult for you to read, and you read them. Not excerpts, but books. James Joyce.  Richard Wright. Albert Camus. Gwendolyn Brooks. He asked you to think beyond what you thought, and because by now you loved him, you did. We were the Honors class, and he would flunk us on assignments if he thought we weren’t really thinking. That was actually one of my favorite parts of Mr. Blei, that Zen whack on the head if he thought you were relying on succeeding rather than thinking – those of you who knew Norb as the Coyote might recognize some early seeds there.  In the winter of 1966, he took our class to the high school library, spent part of that period showing us how to do library research and then told us, “We’re going to study existentialism.  In a month, tell me what it is.” That was it. No other instruction. And in a month, with a fifteen or now sixteen year old’s understanding, we did. I had never before had the experience of a teacher so believing in me.  Believing in me more than maybe I knew how to.  That was Norbert Blei.

I have never met anyone, too, as well read as Norb. To enter his home, or the coop was to see bookshelves and stacks and piles of books.  A writer’s organized clutter that allowed him to reach for the book he wanted to share with you. The author he thought you should know about.  When I was 16, the year after Norb taught me, I went through a difficult passage with dark days. I waited for Norb after school one day, and tentatively described to him how ungrounded I had become.  I found out a few months later when the column he then wrote for Chicago magazine appeared, that after our talk that afternoon he had stayed up that night, going through his books, searching for something for me to hold onto.  He found Nikos Kazantzakis and Zorba the Greek.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Gift from the Sea, and gave them to me that next day as he taught on no sleep.  And I found with him how much the words and care of a mentor can become haven.  This particular time was in Chicago, before Norb moved up to Door. But right here, in this coop, seated at his desk, looking out his window, decade after decade, Norb was that same haven for others. He wrote letters by hand, and typed them, and still at his desk years later, emailed friend after friend, writer after writer, offering belief.  Changing their lives.  That is a part of what this coop is.

You’ve heard some of the stories Norb told in Door Way.  He could write so well because he listened so well. I taught for years with Norb at The Clearing, and I would look forward to Thursdays each year as he shifted who people were as writers by teaching the art of the interview. Norb listened for voice and gesture and tone. He quietly watched for when someone leaned forward or back; honored when a voice became quieter, and posed his next question or simply paused in listening based on the deeper meaning he was hearing in people’s words.  Or silence. He taught that story contains its own stories and that it is the weaving together of story on story that creates a book. As exactly in Door Way.  I learned from Norb to look for the smallest way a story is.  How one sentence can convey character, setting and plot. As in Gretl Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. (another author Norb introduced me to.)

Nineteen seventy-eight turned out to be the third worst Wyoming winter on record.  After an extreme of sixty below zero, the thermometer rose to ten below and the air felt balmy.

Now here’s the sentence:

One cowboy lit a fire under his pickup to thaw out the antifreeze, then drove over the Continental Divide wrapped in horse blankets because his heater fan had snapped and he had 120 horses to feed in the valley below.

There is a whole novel in that one sentence.

Or this story of the Japanese Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi talking to American students:

You have a saying, “To kill two birds with one stone.  But our way is to kill just one bird with one stone.”

In those two sentences is culture, perception, path in life.  Norb taught me to look for and notice that. He nurtured the writer. Taught that everyone has a story to tell.

Norb’s curiosity about people was astounding.  So go out and be curious.  Question convention. Be generous in your friendship.  Hear the story.   And write. — Susan O’Leary

Click the images to enlarge…





norbert blei | the prose poem: alice d’alessio, al degenova, ralph murre, susan o’leary

17 10 2011

Photo by Al DeGenova

POETRY DISPATCH No. 356 | October 17, 2011


THE PROSE POEM:

Alice D’Alessio, Al DeGenova, Ralph Murre, Susan O’Leary

Editor’s Note: I presented a weekend writing workshop, “the poetry of prose” on Washington Island almost two weeks ago. I see prose poetry not so much as a strict form but more as a way to make a clunky prose line breathe, sometimes sing.

It was a good weekend of writing, discussion, reading…with great participants, as always–mostly my tried and true, solid bunch of Clearing advanced writing students, with solid credentials of publishing and/or book credits behind them.

I learn a lot from them, whether it’s my annual Clearing class (beginning and advanced) or this new, autumn-weekend writing workshop we established on the Island a year ago–thanks to Karen Yancey, who handles the registration details, keeps the party going on the Island; Dick and Mary Jo Purinton, who provide the perfect setting for Island living and learning; and Jude Genereaux, who facilitates communications, easing much of the burden from my back, especially last minute glitches. My thanks again to all of them.

Without going into definitions galore of prose poetry or class instructions, assignments etc., I promised the class a lot of work–and a little exposure on “Poetry Dispatch,” if things went well. So I thought I would share with readers three of the prose poems the students themselves selected (by secret ballot) from their reading on Sunday morning, when each writer read a favorite, best ‘polished-to-perfection’ prose poem of his or her own from class assignments just the day before.

Everyone quietly listened to everyone else, then secretly noted on a piece of paper (folded and passed on to me) the three favorites. The three favorites became four because of a tie.

Here they are, presented alphabetically by author. Enjoy, enjoy. —Norbert Blei

The Left Hand Speaks

by Alice D’Alessio

Perfect, save for one flawed knuckle, beautifully seamed and creased, I am content to be what I am, the left hand, the second hand, the neglected hand. For I have a secret.

It is true that my neatly fitting skin is turning blotchy now, stretching into ridges and crevices. Yet it does its job so well, wrapping tight the underworkings, the critical bone and tendon, the rivers, streams and estuaries of blood and other juices that keep the fingers active and lubricated. It protects from invasion of those enemies that would enter and do great harm.

After seven decades of flexing and gripping, I am capable and strong, my five digits line up like soldiers for review, from short to tall, and back to short, to my sturdy thumb, altered a bit at the base with a lovely triangular scar. How well they stand at attention.

It’s true my partner, the right hand, gets all the glory. It is the one extended to shake the hands it meets, it picks up the pen and writes, brushes teeth, waves, plays a major role in buttoning, tying, stirring. But behold – on keyboards we are equal! And furthermore, there were glory days, now gone, when I was supreme. When we teased that violin into music, the runs and trills, the haunting melodies – it was I and I alone who found the notes, knew exactly where to press the string – never flat nor sharp – to make the purest sound. All the other one did was saw that bow across and back, across and back. I made the music, created the sweetness of tone with my vibrato. I, the genius twin, blessed with the gift of perfect touch. The other one, purely utilitarian. I rest my case.

At the Ancient Pond

by Albert DeGenova

Drunk with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. But get drunk – Charles Baudelaire

The hanging Spanish moss looks one-hundred years younger today, I’ve drained the ancient pond through a red and white striped straw and licked the salt from the rim, the frog sings plop and I’m tokin’ on his flip flopping feet, on mind altering harmonic resonance, the whole band is in tune – the cool cats, the birds, the wind, the dirty swamp, cars speeding by pulling boat trailers, the hammering on the roof, the knife as it slices the bread, the dentist’s drill, the kid next door practicing guitar. Wake up!… Plop goes the blue-orange sunrise. Plop goes the weasel. What is the sound of stagnant water, water filling the bathtub or poured from a bucket, water as it gulps air swirling down the toilet? What is the sound of Eve’s first orgasm echoing through the universe? Of one hand clapping?
Plop! Plop! Plop!

Stitches in Time

by Ralph Murre

It, too, is called a thimble; this heavy galvanized fitting I splice into three-strand hawser on deck. Outbound tug Maria. My old man at the helm.

But the notion of “thimble” takes me back to that other sort, silvery there on the third finger of her arthritic hand. Grandma Maria. Seems it’s always been there, protecting that fingertip from the little stabs she knew were coming, leaving the rest of her bare to the unforeseen wounds that would come. There was the thimble as she pushed and pulled needle and thread, stitch on stitch, as depression flour sacks became dresses, as a spare blanket became a suit. Stitch on stitch, still, as my christening gown was shaped. White on white, as a tiny row of sailing boats was embroidered upon it. Rising infant to be bestowed beneath crosses of cathedral’s spires on the high hill. And her father before her, sewing stitch on stitch, white on white, patching sails blown out ‘round The Horn, stitch on everlasting stitch, triangle needle and leather palm, from Roaring Forties to Tropic Trades, and more than once, stitching a shroud: a benediction, a blessing. Fallen sailor to be bestowed beneath crosses of brigantine’s rig on the high sea. Aroma of pine tar, beeswax, mutton tallow. A very old man, long at anchor, calls out “Daughter, bring me rum.” She looks up from her sewing and agrees, “A thimbleful, Father,” as an ocean of time slides by, sewn with a meridian of stitches.

The faithful Maria rises to meet the oncoming swell. Settles. Rises again.

HEAD IN HAND

by Susan O’Leary

The hands come to the face to hold, to hold, as a rounded comfort to sustain. And in that comfort, the balm of touch. The hands become the Pieta of self, embracing with such tenderness, such desire to undo crucifixion, to bring solace to the impossible, to physically counsel grief.

With their sure shield, knowledge and reality can be shut out. At least in this moment. At least as, echoing their curve, the shoulders bend forward, the neck bows, and with eyes closed, words unspoken, breath halted, the body forms its own safe cave of retreat.

They have arrived too late. Or like Mary have had to remain and unwillingly witness sorrow. But their paired presence signals we are not alone. The earth spinning, they are the space that holds spinning in its orbit.

Photo by Mary Jo Purinton





susan o’leary | in and out

21 03 2008
breath.jpg
Poetry Dispatch No. 221 | March 21, 2008

Susan O’Leary

In and Out

Writers, artists, musicians, seekers, journey East when they are called, creating their own map along the way.

For every seeker, a singular journey.

Intuition. Awareness. Perception.

Not a religion, no one to worship. Only to live, deeply.

Deeper.

Nothing is everything.

There are many pathways. Find your own.

Practice.

For some, to begin: just breathe…knowingly.

This is the journey celebrated in BREATH TAKING.

This is the fragile awareness of Susan O’Leary’s map within, of being and non being, of breathing words that can’t be said. Norbert Blei

strichstrich.jpg

Just

Just
this
space
in
be
tween
in
and
out

strichstrich.jpg

Let it go

Let it go,
the weathered teaching,
let it go.
Fear, love, anger, desire,
Release them all.
Stay.
Stay here.

strichstrich.jpg

What Have You Learned About the Breath Today?

There is this story of the teacher who gave his students this practice: come fresh each day with something new they have learned about the breath. Each day, a new recognition. Or dawning. Or delicate understanding of the feel, touch, awareness, heartbeat of the breath. For years. This same, one, practice for years. It is in and out. It is not simply in and out. It is. In and out.

strichstrich.jpg

Being home

Ours is an old house in the heart of a Midwestern American city. This is where we daily breathe (not always in mindfulness), where we daily walk, where we daily sit. This is where our practice starts in the morning and ends at night. We do not always practice well, we don’t always remember we’re practicing. But this is the space where our mindfulness over years has grown. And as we quiet and settle, our house quiets and settles with us.

The kitchen reminds us we are home, and I love to stand in its silence. There are two windows in the kitchen – one above the sink looking over the back yard, one on the stairs that come down into the kitchen from the second floor. In the seasons when windows are open, you feel the breeze move with bare attention through the room. When I open the door for the back hall leading to the basement, and open the window on the landing, the breeze then moves differently. It comes together with fullness, entering from three directions. Inside and outside. In and out. Silence. Air.

Right now there are tomatoes on the windowsill from our younger son Tom’s garden. There has been little rain this year, and they have ripened unusually small, a lovely coral red. In the morning, when I’m making coffee, I watch our collie in the back yard through this window. He goes to the border of the garden and stands. Still. Then, after this pause, he walks around the edge of the garden fence (we put it up to keep him out), and makes his way in. Each day since they have ripened he goes to the tomato plants, slowly pulls a tomato off, then comes back out of the garden, sets the tomato on the ground, and begins to eat. He is a timid dog, and it is a surprise to see him be so bold.

And the dailiness of life here is just this: we stop more now, we see more slowly. My husband Jim notices a need, and answers it before anyone asks. Tom stops at the bell in passing, and invites it. I see the pleasure of a dog trespassing in a garden. The transformation is small and present. And it has changed our life.

No one has accused us yet of enlightenment. We still argue. We still have days that start wrong and stay wrong, old hurts that get remembered and then nurtured. But this is the difference: we know more easily our way back now. Somewhere in old patterns of distance, we will be kind. Or stop and listen. We will decide out of love to understand, to open our heart just a little more, though instinct and pattern say to close it.

A presence, a sense, cannot help but change what surrounds it; I have seen that as a teacher. Being with children you learn how families nurture kinship, responsibility and happiness. And also how repeated disappointment and want in a family can turn to anger and despair. Each year some few children bring that anger to school, and you see how their anger affects other children, how it can change a room. It took me years of practice to understand this simple thing: mindfulness transforms not just the practitioner, but the place. If we all know that anger can suddenly change a room, change a space – doesn’t, too, love? Doesn’t, too, mindfulness?

The practice entered our house twelve years ago with the breath. With that simple, surprising awareness of now. Now our practice has become home. There is emptiness to sense in the house, to quiet in. The awareness of our two older children, Nate and Nora, both grown, both gone to lives beyond this house, and yet always returning. Difficulty, sorrow, illness; celebration, joy, all have passed here, all have found their way, some staying, some surely to come again. But moments of peace, of mindfulness, have grown over years, and settled in the rooms, too. The breath sent out and brought in. Presence becoming. This is our home, where we are.

We are here, a family. The walking of daily life takes us from room to room, from cupboard to table, from book to bed. The sitting of daily life brings the family together at meals, gets bills paid, offers the refuge of a favorite chair. The breath of daily life, often unnoticed, is life itself. Walk. Sit. Breathe. This is where we know our path. Footsteps repeat. The movement of the house becomes known parts of our life. The practice settles in our hearts here.

crp023.jpgfrom BREATH TAKING, Cross+Roads Press, 2005, 71 pp. illustrated by Emmett Johns, $12








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