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tree turtle
A longtime peace-builder dedicated to spreading mettā (or loving-kindness) in the Buddhist tradition, tree turtle is a Pushcart-prize-winning and Maryland State Arts Council fellowship-winning poet, essayist, fiction writer, teacher, book artist, mediator, nonprofit administrator, and human rights advocate who has published in many American literary journals like Fence Magazine and Ploughshares since 1988.
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Wonderfully phrased. The first always gets us. Thanks for taking me back to this Frank O'Hara poem so beautifully!
I would like to follow-up this post with several qualifications about eidetic memory that I cut from the original post due to length. I intentionally did not use the sometimes repudiated term "photographic memory." So too did I try to characterize the way the "image" of the text came to me as a young child: for the most part, I was able to recall writing by connecting heard oral speech with my recognition of what the textual version of that orality looked like in church. Eidetic memory itself is extremely controversial. Some researchers think that children with this condition can only recall images or sounds, not complex symbols like text. Others say that children can indeed recall text. Still others say that children can recall text, but some argue that this ability is only sharpened with the aid of mnemonic devices. My eldest brother was a professional magician and magic was a part of my early family world as a child entertainer. Once I entered training and started working with a theatrical manager, my recall abilities became a potential parlor trick. Around 7 years old, I began teaching myself mnemonic devices that I picked up through my growing knowledge of the business of magic in order to meet the demands of showing off this parlor trick. I found that I was best at remembering text that relied heavily on rhetorical figures and musical cadences. I think I began to lose major parts of my root eidetic memory abilities after suffering yet another concussion and living in the last foster care facility at which I stayed. However, even in my late teens and adulthood, I still remembered a great deal, including entire passages of the US Constitution and, while advanced math often eludes me, I can still recite a lot of text on cue until this very day. For those of us touched by this condition as a child, I believe that it manifests itself within us in our own particular ways and it is governed by the circumstances in our lives. Thus, eidetic memory is not a one-size-fits-all condition. It is as conditional and contingent as any highly particularized lived experience.
Chelsea: Exquisite prose, vivid storytelling, penetrating self-observations! Well-done!
My posts this week on The Best American Poetry blog have all been about what it means to build writing communities of difference and writing communities of care. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity. Voices like my own (black, LGBT, Buddhist, and from working poor worlds) are underrepresented in mainstream literary venues. Tonight my friend and fellow author, Kathy Jones, taught me that I am not just a survivor, but an "overcomer" and reading and writing makes me so. The Best American Poetry community is an intentionally, regularly integrative and inclusive literary institution. Yet, elsewhere, despite notable efforts, we still write and read within very culturally and aesthetically segregated worlds. Not all of our institutions are consistently, demandingly polyvocal, polyvalent, multigenre, cross-style, and inclusive. Moreover, quiet as its kept and difficult as it may be to hear, some perform diverse representation on the surface (through fleeting, occasional tokenism) while seething with toxic power plays underneath that undermine the spirit of true inclusion. And so, for my final blog post this week, I ask for your help on behalf of a friend who is a remarkable writer. Alexis H. Allen is an elder black Southern writer, an ordained minister, a teacher, and a survivor of domestic violence who is writing a book called In Pew Pain about alienation within spiritual communities. If the quotation from an excerpt from her book piques your interest, then will you please suggest publishing venues for either a longform essay adapted from her book or for the book itself? You may visit my website and email me at the address listed on the righthand side of the homepage. Or you can leave a comment at this post. Here's the excerpt (included here with her permission): From In Pew Pain by Alexis H. Allen It was 1980 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was living with my husband, a non-commissioned officer stationed at this military army base. I attended church services at one of the chapel. The service as called the “Fort Knox Gospel Hour.” Wednesday evening Bible Study at the chapel was a highlight of the week. I needed words of inspiration and “some church,” as we say colloquially, to give me a lift until Sunday. That Wednesday I made certain that the house sparkled and that the best dinner possible was prepared. The family was served, everything was fine and there were no excuses for me to stay home. It was time to go to Bible Study. There were no problems until I started to leave out of the door. As I picked up my Bible and my purse, my husband grabbed me by the arm and quietly but harshly said, “If you go to that church, I am going to come there, drag you out and stomp a mud hole in your ass.” As I drove off, I trembled so uncontrollably that it seemed that the steering wheel would be rattled from it’s place. My greatest fear was that someday my husband would carry... Continue reading
Posted Mar 13, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I taught myself to read as a toddler to be close to my momma. My momma loathed me. I was, as she described me, her "sissy child" or the "changeling." Any admiration she had, arose from guilt. She was more business manager, army general, and torturer than momma. Which was worse: her violence against me (verbal, physical, sexual) or the violence that she allowed others (including siblings and my theatrical manager) to exact on me? Still, strangely, I loved her. Most of all, I did not want her to be hurt. I would hide underneath her sewing machine under the castoff cloth when my father would beat her. One time after he beat her through the window out onto the roof, I holed myself so far under the sewing machine that my hand got caught in what turned out to be a secret compartment where she kept two of her most treasured books: Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck. Both novels are about orphan girls. My grandmother (a ruthless prostitute and madam despite coverups told by some in my family) disowned my momma: my grandmomma placed my momma on a Pullman Porter's car on a train out of Philadelphia and shipped her to live at a private black children's orphanage in Washington, D.C. My momma's favorite novels (and I still have the exact copy of Imperial Woman today) told tales of brutal girlhood and womanhood about which she inimitably understood. By the time I was three, relying foremostly on those novels, I could read. I was aided by a special ability: eidetic memory. Eidetic memory is the capacity to intensely recall phenomena only seconds or minutes after exposure. The ability actually decreases as a child moves into adulthood. The first book I ever held in my hands was a copy of the King James Version of the Bible. At church, I would hold it open and when the deacon read aloud the passages to which the preacher referred, I connected the text with the orality and remembered entire passages. That's how I came to learn almost all of the Psalms. A brother and I were briefly tutored by a religious couple named the Morgans. Mrs. Morgan was shocked to discover that I could already recite long Biblical passages from memory. She gave me thrift copies of "classic" books and poems to "test" my recall. At three I was also unusual in that I spoke in complete sentences. But, my speech went deeper. My eidetic memory empowered my structural recognition of language. I wanted to know how it all ticked. I began to understand the language that I recalled as vocabularies set within sentences. My goal was to learn vocabularies and glean the mechanics of sentences. I taught myself vocabularies using the Britannica encyclopedias and thick bound dictionaries in my home. My immediate family was poor, violent, and lacking in college education, but they were intensely literate, especially in Christian texts. I began to understand the... Continue reading
Posted Mar 12, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
...dear friend, you renew me...
Oh thank you so much, Grace! Such a blessing to connect with you!
Are the dead still with us? When the flesh is husk, does the spirit speak? Can a love be everlasting? Can a hurt be overlong? After a predator dies, are his crimes still wrong? When the nightclub closes, do the splintering floors still dance? How many balls are just memory? How many illnesses took lives? I've heard hundreds of eulogies, yet I am not wise. What survives? Why bereft? Spirit-speaking? Spirit-listening? Smoldering ash? Life-theft? And you, dear Eriq, are you with me? Do you still commentate at spirit-balls? Do you remember the time when we were five years old at Aunt Jackie's house when we first met Mr. Yardley, the predatory man who became our theatrical manager? We were not siblings, but we bled the same blood. AIDS covered you in blisters. You raged through your last hours. "But," you cried through fevers, "I thought I was resistant." Then death was a hiss. Years ago, Mr. Yardley told his new child charges arraigned that day at Aunt Jackie's: the only role that we would truly play as child entertainers was the part of a child. We learned to be cherubic: to smile with our eyes, with our teeth, with our cheeks pinched and puffed. What kind of death attends an abused child who plays innocent for money? What did it mean to perform childhood yet never be a child? Now that you are spirit, Eriq, are you finally a child? And you, dear Jimmy, are you with me? Do you still dance at the spirit-Show Palace in a ghost-Times Square? Do you still run your hands across your litheness, lick your teeth, blink your eyes, cooing, "Everybody wishes they could have this puertorriqueño skin, this puertorriqueño hair." You were Apollo when you burlesque-danced at the Show Palace, and I was just the nightshift domestic who cleaned the wall-to-wall mirrors (and an occasional fill-in dancer, shockingly homely, weak in gathering tips). Do you remember the night you hauled me to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx while you scored Gutter Glitter from your supplier? I told you that I would never, ever let anyone put me in danger like that again. You replied, eyes dancing with Zip: "If not for Baysay, I would love you." Does the deathplace have Weasel Dust and Bubble Gum and Brooklyn Pearl and DC-Dust? Nothing was free, right? After I asked to crash at your tiny sublet and told you I had no money, you still demanded I write a poem for you each day. Of course, I complied. "Life is about something for something," was what you would say. So, then, what is death? And do you still read Apollo poems in the sprit-night? And you too, Woody, the standout former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer. Long legs, terrific ballon, alert mind, warm-hearted, off stage and on: a black crane, a swan in human lace. We met at the Paradise Garage. I was sitting in the corner on the floor and you urged me to... Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Oh thank you so much for the affirmation, Laura...it means the world to me! Stay wonderful!
Serious writers must sometimes explain that writing is not a hobby, not a leisure pursuit, and not a luxury. Rather, it is the most essential practice of our lives. Audre Lorde said it best: "Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." "Yeah, yeah, yeah," one of my dearest former poetry students said to me many years ago. "But what do you really mean when you say that writing is not a luxury?" It was just a few weeks after the beginning of my poetry class. He could not understand the notion that some serious writers' very survival depends on writing. It all seemed like romantic claptrap: for him, writing was a luxurious choice, not an austere calling. He was a wealthy white student at a small, private liberal arts college who had always dreamed of being a famous, award-winning, bestselling writer. But, as he shared on the first day of class when we all introduced ourselves, if he did not achieve his ambition, he was going to be okay because he could rely on being comfortable. Then he said, "After all, writing is just something that I do on the side." During a conference in the middle of the semester, he told me that he did not know what he was going to do after the first week of my class because he had never had a black teacher before, much less an LGBT Buddhist teacher. I affirmed my former student that day in our conference and I affirmed him every other day throughout our rapport in the years to come. (And I have received his permission to write about him with the understanding that I not reveal his name.) His honesty was one of many starting places for true learning between us. True learning is frequently uncomfortable: we must break to reveal. If you think that I was in the slightest bit upset with him for his honesty, then you may need to read my thoughts about bias. In fact, he was doing everything right: he was trying to work-through the influence of his upbringing as he came to terms with my searing, discomfiting poetry lessons. I sensed that he was covering up pain. The tragedies of my own life helped me to see a darkness engulfing him, a darkness so encompassing that he could not fathom its encroachment upon him. I suspected that my former student was a drug addict a month after meeting him. Unlike most teachers at the school, I have lived through the harshness of the streets and I know its struggles. I have never been an addict. But, some of my dearest friends have struggled with addiction. My office at the time was on the far, backside of the campus in a dorm. When I was working... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you so much, dear friend! It's such a blessing to know you and to have you as a friend. Your teaching, social justice advocacy, administrative service, and pastoral care are a model for me now and forever! Stay wonderful!
Thank you so much, Maria, for your affirmation! Sending blessings to your 16-year-old friend and to you and all who you hold dear! Great to connect with you.
Thank you so much, dear Stacey! Blessings to you!
Oh, Laura, thank you...I am so blessed to know you. And it is you who are such a wonderful educator!
It is Saturday July 28, 1990 at the now defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on West 96th Street in New York City. I am at a middle school children's writing workshop. Improbably, I am the teacher. The night before the workshop I cloister myself in the bathroom. Nervous stomach. Clammy hands. Head spinning. A writing teacher? Me? Earlier that year I taught a few tap dance classes to children as a substitute at the Hot Feet studios in the nation's capitol. I also taught buffon clowning at a weekend workshop for children at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But teaching writing? How do I do that? Oh, I knew it could be done. I was molded by superb reading, writing, and performing educators. One such mentor was Samuel H. Wilson, Jr., a founder of the Arena Players, the oldest, continuously operating African American community theatre in the United States of America. Mr. Wilson recommended that I replace him for the Saturday children's writing workshop in 1990. Fred Hudson, the artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, readily agreed. I had known both men since I was a child entertainer. Mr. Wilson and I had also led anti-gang violence workshops at public schools in the Mid-Atlantic states throughout the 1980s using techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Mr. Wilson was a giant in my world because he genuinely cared about my welfare. "What are you working on?" he always asked, and whatever I told him, he was invariably encouraging. In 1990, Mr. Wilson was occasionally sick. He would have only five more years to live before dying of pneumonia in 1995. It is now 2015: twenty years since his death and I still miss him deeply. That Friday in July of 1990 before my first workshop the next day as a writing teacher, I call Mr. Wilson on the telephone for help. He asks me to think back to what he told me about writing many years before when I was a child. "Writing," Mr. Wilson always told me, "is just another way of caring about other people." He also said that, "Editing is just another way of caring about writing" and "Reading is just another way of changing the world." Then Mr. Wilson told me that if any of these things are true, then teaching is just another way of sharing this good news. At the core of his reflections was a vision of writing as relationship-building, as affection, and as care. Over the phone Mr. Wilson suggests that I get the children talking to each other, sharing their own stories, and looking into each others' eyes. "It's not always page-bound," he says to me. "Don't be afraid to use your theatre technique to teach writing," Mr. Wilson bellows into the phone. That Saturday, after we warm-up by running around the room and vocalizing, the children and I create characters based on the real life denizens that occupy our neighborhoods. Then we fashion scenes in which... Continue reading
Posted Mar 8, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Thank you so much for this opportunity to share! Blessings to you!
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Mar 7, 2015