Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Humanities, and what makes life worth living

NEH logoI spent two days this past week w/ humanitarians. Now, they wouldn’t call themselves that. They would say they’re worker bees, if they said anything at all. Not folks to tout their own horns, humanities board members. And especially not in Oklahoma.

But these very busy worker bees — directors, CEOs, vice-presidents, teachers, professors, lawyers, & more — took a full WORK DAY to come to a meeting talking about the humanities in our state, specifically our Oklahoma Humanities Council.


Wow. That is a gift beyond even $$ (they also each give generously to the Council, as well). And you know why? Because through the day (and the previous evening’s dinner), I heard over and over: what we do is important. The humanities are important.humanities

What’s ironic is that when I mention the humanities to family, friends, and colleagues, there is all too often a blank stare. Folks confuse us with the arts (the arts are part of us; we aren’t only the arts), or with some of the several individual disciplines we include: architecture, art & art history, classics, east Asian languages and cultures, English, history, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, philosophy, social sciences, religious studies, theater… and I’ve probably forgotten something!


Can you imagine life w/out any one of these? Much less ALL? Because in many small Oklahoma towns — and in towns all over the country — if the Federation of State Humanities Councils didn’t receive monies from the NEH, there would be no humanities programming.

humanities 4This year, programs — at least in Oklahoma — include book talk (lots!) at libraries, covering every topic you can imagine: the history and lore of Route 66, women’s autobiographies, detective fiction, the ethnic diversity of America, the cowboy, the American Civil War, Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl, food literature… Another long and fascinating list!


There’s also literature and medicine, the Oklahoma state poet laureate, and many small grants to communities to fund community ideas for programs highlighting specific interests. What is more important than human feelings in the operating room? Or poetry programs engaging our young? How can I decide better than you — in your community — what you want and need?

When people ask me why the humanities are important, and why we should continue funding them in an increasingly tighter budgetary climate, think of these questions, but I respond with another question. It’s one I think is only answered by the humanities, humanities 3not by business, or technology, or the STEM subjects (much as I love them). Only a book, a painting, a piece of music…a tussle w/ philosophy, or difference, or another culture…an account from history, or new info on the settlement of the western hemisphere, will help us answer it:

What does it mean to be human? That’s what the humanities do, fundamentally. They offer us the tools for each of us to answer that question in our own beginner’s hearts. And that’s why funding them — advocating for them — is critical to all of us.



writing, travel, and trains: a hopeful love letter

traveling the worldThis meme is sooo me that my niece posted it to my FB page. And just in case you’re wondering, it’s NOT too much to ask! But it does seem to be a lot to get. :)

However, I’m applying for a new kind of writer’s residency, and this describes it to the letter! In case you aren’t familiar with writing residency programs, they mostly require a couple of things: a product, staying put for a week or more, and some kind of interview/ reading/ public event. This one? Not so much.


It’s courtesy of Amtrak. Yup: that Amtrak, the one with rails. I saw the article first on The Wire, in a piece by Ben Cosman about two writers who were offered writing residences…on Amtrak trips! How coooool is that?

train map bangkok to singapore

train route from Bangkok to Singapore


Please understand: I have adored trains since I was a small child, listening to the trains calling outside the window of my grandmother’s north Tulsa guest bedroom. I would lay awake in the small twin bed where I ‘slept over,’ and imagine myself on a train, going almost anywhere.

Later, I would read any book I could get that was set on a train. And when, at the age of 16, my father decided our family would travel, via train, over Thanksgiving break from Bangkok (where we lived) to Singapore, I was about as thankful as I can remember being on any Thanksgiving ever. It was glorious.

After I met my husband, we traveled through Europe, caught trains for the day to have lunch in another country, took trains whenever and wherever we could. And when my sons were small, we took trains from LA to San Diego to see the whales. And from Vancouver, B.C. north, just because.


amtrak starlight trainI’ve ridden Amtrak from San Diego to Seattle, and written the whole way. Something there is, to misquote Frost, that loves a train. Writers certainly do. My husband and I have taken the train from LA to Portland, and I sat in our sleeper car just writing. For an entire day, hardly stopping to eat.

A few years ago, my younger son & I took the Amtrak Starlight Coast route the other way, from Portland — where he lives — down to LA, where his aunt lives. For hours I sat in the observation lounge, looking out over the landscape as it shape-shifted through the window. Noah read a graphic novel on his computer, and I wrote tanka, a blog post, poetry, and just jotted notes in my journal.


I’m as happy for writers as I’ve been in years, knowing that some of them will have the opportunity to make the visceral connection between smooth sway of rails and flow of words on page or screen. amtrak train loungeThe enforced quiet, the overheard conversations of strangers, even the regional food & wine served in the first-class dining car… All are food for the writer’s imagination, freeing us from everyday routine.

Denise Levertov once said that in certain ways writing is a form of prayer. For someone trying, always, to teach her beginner’s heart not to leap to conclusions, not to rant, but to encourage and affirm, writing is certainly a spiritual practice. At least for me. Even the lists I bullet-point in my journal — what to pack, the weather forecast, what to see & do — for my trip tomorrow to  VA to see my son, daughter-in-law, and grandson are freighted with my anticipation, my gratitude that I’m able to make this trip.

Unfortunately, it won’t be by train, since Amtrak doesn’t come in to Tulsa (yet!). But I’m hopeful that another train trip is in my future. And I guarantee that I’ll be writing for most of it, whenever that is.



why it seems like open season on my cousin’s grandsons

racism ruins livesMy cousin Sally is white. Her grandsons are mixed race — their father is black, Sally’s daughter is also white. Each of the culturally sanctioned murders of black men lately is a bludgeon to Sally’s heart. As it should be for all of us.

When George Zimmerman went free of murdering  Trayvon Martin, and Michael Dunn’s jury hung over his killing of Jordan Davis, every family member of a young black men shuddered. In America, as Bruce Springsteen sang, you can get killed just for living in your American skin. And if you don’t believe that, you aren’t paying attention.


Recently a 15-year-old girl — Adrian Broadway — shot by Willie Noble for egging his car. Willie Noble will probably get the book — he’s black. But white Michael Dunn, who pulled in next to a group of black youths listening to loud music? And then shot Jordan Davis for refusing to turn his music down? He’s free on that racism killscharge — hung jury. Dunn will serve time — a minimum 20-year sentence for shooting at each of the other three youths. But those sentences may be served concurrently, if the judge so decides. Technically? With ‘good behaviour,’ Dunn may only serve 10 years for murdering a 17-year-old kid who basically angered Dunn. Wow. In Oklahoma, a woman got 12 years just for marijuana possession, and so far no ‘good behaviour’ clause.


You can look all of this up. I’m sick at heart re-reading these cases. While I realise that living on the inside of a racist heart must be terrible, it doesn’t (usually) kill you. And it DOES kill others. The bottom line doesn’t change: in America, there’s an open season on my cousin Sally’s grandsons. Which is beyond wrong. And I don’t know what to do about it…


friendship and the art of loving

BrittonFamilyInJerusalemTempleAs one of four sisters, I’m used to the envy that twins with love. At least when it comes to sisters. So it’s okay w/ me that I’m not the sister each of the other three loves the best. Because I’m the one who loves each of them the best.

So today’s post is about that: what it means to not be the best-loved, the most popular, etc. American culture is all about being loved — the last one on the island. That would NOT be me!


Growing up — but even more so once we were all adults — I was often envious of my sisters with the friends they managed to keep, despite our many moves. I have no friends left my childhood, only a couple from my early adulthood. I moved too much, and my family was always my central focus.

I have cousins I adore. And of course, there are those three sisters. Not to mention my beloved, and the friends I’ve made as a mature adult. I even have a BFF!  But not friends who knew me in 5th grade — as each of my sisters do. My 5th grade year was spent in a land long ago and faraway. :) friends


And that’s a lot of why I don’t have childhood or high school friends now: I moved at the critical times when those friendships might, otherwise, have survived.

and then a voice says: but your sisters managed… you’re the loser.

This is the voice we often hear when we look at others, I suspect. So some years ago I looked at why I didn’t keep friends from early life.  And I realised: I did. They’re my family. I’m as close to my sisters as to the BFFs of others. PLUS I have the BFF I’ve made as a mature adult — the friend who knows and loves who I am NOW, not because she knew me ‘when.’

friendshipBut I still wondered: what if it’s because you’re not loveable? And laughed at myself: that only matters on TV. Seriously — isn’t it more important to love than to be loved? Besides, my sisters — and my friends — DO love me. Lots. It’s not like I live life as a social leper. :)


So in my ruminations about this, I thought about beginner’s heart, and what that means. About love, and learning how to give it. That the art of love is as precious as the gift of being loved. And I’m good at loving my sisters, my friends, my BFF. My beloved husband, sons, daughter-in-law, grandson, nieces & nephews & cousins… My extended family.

As well as a couple of additions — an almost-brother (he introduced me to my husband, so very many years ago), another almost-sister. heart in hands

Which may not seem like many, but given how full my life is now, with the men and women I’ve found to love as dear friends in my adulthood, I’m very happy.  I may not be the best loved. But even with a simple beginner’s heart, still learning, I’m pretty sure I’m great at love.

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