Mount ShastaThere’s a vortex there she said they said. Someone spoke at a ridiculous dinner where she wasn’t sure whether the main teller was the wife or the daughter of the man who first said the thing about Mount Shasta. Vortex she told me she told them – the daughter/wife and the man — I don’t believe in that shit. But the man did and the daughter (it turned out it was his daughter) did and when she told me about the conversation we looked it all up online and yup there is a vortex there supposedly. It’s one of several power centers, our visitor said when we asked him about it, when he arrived from hanging with the Radical Fairies and the Reclaimed Witches. But don’t bring crystals or herbs. Don’t bring anything. Bring a purity of intention. I don’t even know what that means I told him, but we went to Mount Shasta anyway.

We went just today. We couldn’t help it. We wanted to know about the vortex and the healing and we were hoping for some sort of power – any kind, but good. Any sort of power that could heal what’s going on: the broken airplanes and the broken ferry, the broken countries and the broken borders, the broken water and the broken everything. We drove past so much drought that the cracked land made us thirsty and we drank all the water in the car and then we bought more and we wondered how long before the water runs out? How long before everything runs out? We aren’t paying attention enough. We aren’t. And soon quite soon it will be too late. But it’s not too late yet. So we went to Shasta, out of a kind of desperation, although in truth we weren’t and aren’t desperate yet either. I think you know it when you feel it. We watched The Mummy on TV last night and it was oddly sexual and strange, and this morning we sat under moose heads in a gigantic restaurant eating stale soft bagels where everyone was speaking some Eastern European language, and then standing outside in the parking lot in 2 lines to hug everyone afterwards. There was one man amongst the lines – one man wearing a yarmulke – and I said to my man, do you see that guy? Yes, he said. I see him. Then we drove. We drove to find breakfast but the places were all too crowded, so we drove some more. On the street corner of downtown Shasta a white boy stood with a hand painted sign and he showed it to all the cars. It said PRAY FOR PEACE IN JERUSALEM, and I put my palms together at the boy and then I gave him the thumbs up. He’s not one of us, he said to me – my man, the driver — and I said it doesn’t matter, and then he said would you have lunch with him? Would you invite him to lunch with us? And I said I don’t know but I will certainly pray with him. And then we drove up the long road to the mountain. It was all pretty trees, and then scraggly trees, the little trees trying to find root in the rocks, and then we were above the tree line and it was all rocks and dirt and station wagons and a girl standing in a loose white shirt balancing on some ledge above us.

There were more Russian people there and bored Americans with ponytails speaking on cell phones. And then a group of 5 people with backpacks – 2 boys, 1 man and 2 women, and I listened to them talk. Lo said the woman, lo. And I smiled at the woman with the big camera and the biggest backpack. Hi she said in English, and I heard them speak the language I heard in Jerusalem 4 months ago, and my man asked me where are they from and I said where do you think? And he said you know this for sure? and I said yes and he said should I ask them if they would like me to take their picture. I nodded, and he did, and the 5 posed and sang a song that we used to know in the language we cannot speak but that is our language – the tongue of our origins – and then we drove down the mountain. The boy was reading the bible and still holding the sign, and we sat on metal chairs in a restaurant by a river and ate burritos.

Did you feel anything? my man said to me. I didn’t know what to answer, because what I felt was the people – not the emptiness – the people hugging in lines in the parking lot and the boy with his bible and the 5 with their backpacks and I was thinking it can be like this sometimes. Sometimes it can be harmonious and strange and beautiful just like this. It could be like this, I think. All the time.Mount Shasta

This story started with this quiz:

Which famous king or queen are you?

(Take the quiz and make up your own story and share it in the comments.)

Once upon a time there were 7 Catherine the Greats. No, 8.

“Let’s free the serfs,” said a Catherine.

“Let’s review the troops,” said another.

“Before we do ANYTHING, we need to watch Scarlet Empress to see how it’s done,” said a third.

When 8 Catherines the Greats get together to watch tv what does that mean? Yup. A PARTY.

1 Catherine called Z-Pizza. Catherine 2 started making the humus, because she’d lived in Beirut. Catherine 3 got on the phone and ordered the whiskey, to be delivered and served by very handsome waiters. Catherine’s 4 and 5 called Code Pink and invited them over to watch Scarlet Empress, because being a pacifist is very tiring and who doesn’t get refreshed watching Marlene vamping it up in pretend Russia? Then 1 texted Queen Victoria.

“Hmm,” he said. “I’m planning on visiting the colonies, but I’ll see if I can squeeze this into my schedule.”

In the meantime, Catherine 6 ordered fried chicken from Chow Hound, and Catherine 7 called her doctor because she had recently had surgery and then she called the florist, because seriously…. what’s a party without a huge bouquet? Catherine 8 folded the napkins and lay down on the sofa, a slipper dangling off of her foot.

The food came, the waiters came, and they were about to start the movie when Elizabeth I called.

“Wonderful!” shouted the queens as Catherine 3 told them who was on the line.

“Tell her to come right over.”

“And bring some potato chips.”

Today I met a lady in my online women’s support group who is a sword swallower. She is also a dermatologist, a juggler, a mother of 2 and an award winning pastry chef. Also a novelist.

Do people like that make you feel insecure?

Me too.

But I’ve learned to do what my mom always told me – make a list of my special talents.

  1. I am very good at taking the bus. I know exactly where to put the change or the card, and even if I don’t I always compliment the bus driver on their cool sunglasses or great hair.
  2. I am excellent at avoiding talking on the telephone. The phone makes me very nervous so I compose lovely letters to the pizzeria on cream-colored paper telling them about the pizzas I would like to have delivered to me in a week’s time.
  3. I have been told that I am an exquisite TV commentator. No! Not sports commentating – but rather Hannibal watching, Battlestar Galactica watching, or even Antique Road Show watching and then talking about the stuff and the people and the details like the cannibal cuisine, the cylon’s dresses, and the carpets in the background or the cars. My daughter is great at commentating on PBS shows – her specialty. She once gave a particularly piquant explanation of why Huell’s Howser’s name sounds a bit like a person getting ready to – if you’ll pardon the expression – hurl.
  4. Relaxing in bed. Seriously, no one does this as well as I do. I can relax in bed for hours with a cool drink, some carne asada fries with lots of napkins, books, Netflix, and depending on my mood – a vibrator.
  5. Sitting around. I sit at the kitchen table and make up my list (this one) and I look at the orchid my friend who is a dramatist, and an actor and a scholar and a mother of 4 gave me. It’s so beautiful. Purple, useless, tall. It doesn’t toil and it doesn’t spin. Wait – that’s lilies. But still. You get the idea.


With thanks to Jo Scott Coe for the list exercise and Noel Pabillo Mariano for the fries. And to Erith Jaffe Berg for the orchid. And to who know who for you know what.

courtesy of myself

courtesy of myself

Once upon a time there was a man who said he was and indeed he WAS a literalist. This means, according to him, that he couldn’t see pictures in his head or understand metaphors. He couldn’t imagine abstract things, he said.

“Well that’s not so weird,” I told him at the bookstore where we came to hear a mutual acquaintance who was a poet read from her works.

“No, it IS weird, “ he said. “It means I can’t appreciate poetry, because it’s all image-y and metaphor-y and that thing where things get compared to other things.”

“A simile,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I hated all that abstract-y stuff in high school.”

I wrinkled my forehead, which my mother told me never to do, because it causes literal lines, but I can’t help it so I do it anyway.

“So – if you can’t think imagistically or abstractly — what do you think about when you lie in bed at night?”

“Chores,” he said with a s shy smile. “And sex, and numbers.”

“Well, two of those are good.”

“Which ones?” he said.

I threw up my hands at that one.

“Chores and sex of course! Not numbers.”

Now it was his forehead’s turn to wrinkle.

“Not numbers,” I said. “I can’t even imagine numbers.”

“But they’re always there!” he exclaimed. We both leaned forward to have an argument, but the poet cleared her voice. She was getting ready to read from her latest opus. The dogs in the bookstore quieted down because even they understood what a simile was. A bone was like a yummy treat, and that was almost but not quite like hamburger and so on and so forth. It’s a chain of thinking, imagery is. On and on it goes, even if you’re a canine.

The poet read and the man who was the literalist thought about the laundry he had to do, and the boxes he needed to fill with numbers on his computer screen. The poet’s voice was pleasant and he found himself thinking about emptying the garbage and how recycling containers were blue and green. He found himself thinking about ironing his shirts for the job at the bank — the hissing sound the iron made on the cotton blend — and he thought about the computer screen blinking at him in its many colors, which was probably an improvement over the black and green screens of the olden days.

Eventually the poet stopped talking, and the man saw a copy of her book lying on the table. It was black and green and had an ISBN number on it. He bought it. He stood in line for the poet to sign. She looked at him expectantly. I came up and whispered in her ear about the figurative impediment.

The poet nodded.

For the literalist she wrote, and showed it to the man. He felt a prickly unexpected pleasure running up and down his stomach, groin and legs when he saw the poet’s handwriting. She wrote in a primitive fashion and had an extremely messy signature.

So clearly, knowing what a simile means isn’t everything.

Friends, last night I spoke with a cancer survivor about the primal scream that is poetic utterance, that poetry — however you define it — can face the extreme.

here’s a modest contribution.



unfinished poem

today I started a poem about 3 boys
who were murdered in a far away desert
but I couldn’t finish the poem because
as I was correcting the words, honing the language,
to make this perfect homage to these victims
some people murdered another boy
because of the 3 dead boys in the desert.
the 4th boy was just walking, but they killed
him because they thought revenge
was magic.
and as I was changing the poem
to reflect these new drastic developments
I read about boy #5 who died all alone — he just
died in a desert far away trying to come
here to THIS desert called America. clutching a rosary.
wearing jeans. so now I’m scared to try to finish
writing because I’m up to 5 dead boys and
soon there might be 11. so
I’m not going to finish, I’m not even
going to end, I’m going to pause and
make my breath go out and in and out
just hoping just hoping just hoping


Dear Friends –

I’ve been busy helping a family member with a medical situation. It’s funny how the medical and its attendant woes — pain, waiting, garages, doctors, logistics, pharmacies, — silences a person, makes a person quiet in the face of something that words can’t solve or change. So, I’ve been feeling quiet lately. Which isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but it IS a thing.

While I wait for the stories to come back into my brain, I wanted to send a brief shout out to 2 books that I just finished reading: A Life in Men by Gina Frangello and MFA versus NYC, an anthology of essays and reactions (edited by Chad Harbach) to where we are in the US, publishing-wise.

A Life In Men sounds like it could be a chick-lit romp but it isn’t. It’s Howard’s End meets Thelma and Louise meets The Stranger meets You can’t go Home Again. It’s an important, beautiful novel that takes the novel of education in new places, and marks out new territory for women characters. I don’t want to say too much about it, lest I spoil it, but it’s really worth your time. Give it a try. It is also strangely funny. The writing is gorgeous and deep.

MFA versus NYC  is a different, equally interesting animal. Are MFA’s worthwhile or should an aspiring writer just hoof it to New York and try to get an internship? What gets left OUT of an MFA education? What do agents really think about? Want? Worry about? What IS the history of the famous Iowa workshop program? Is George Saunders really happy being a professor?  I’m not sure these questions get answered directly, but they are certainly explored. I found alot to admire in these essays and responses. As someone who got an MA/PHD first and only later went for an MFA, I found the discussion of creative writing in the university particularly interesting.

I am still digesting the ideas of both books and welcome your comments.

magically yours –


Dear Friends — We’ve had a slight hitch in the proceedings as I tend to an under-the-weather family member and go through 5 stacks of mail.


As we deal, here’s a clip from THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING:

Dear Friends –

Apeiron Review was not only nice enough to publish my lyric essay on converting to Judaism last spring (Issue 3), they were also nice enough to invite me to be the illuminated object of their Author Spotlight for this June.


Here is a link to the interview!

Please take a look.

And afterwards you may return to your Soccer Watching, boating, jogging, reading, knitting, kvetching, dreaming, reading, Hannibal rerun viewing, snacking or just sitting around relaxing wherever you happen to be.

Thank you.


dear friends — a little flash fiction for you while you’re waiting for your dad, taking care of your or someone else’s dad, are busy being a dad, used to be a dad, are currently dadless, or whatever your relation to dadness as a category is:

once upon a time there was a guy with a beard. there is. a red beard. yes. let’s make it red. dark red and lustrous. and the beard had braids. two of them. long but no so long it was weird. well, actually this is already sort of weird. but here he is! right in front of me across the room, talking to a woman wearing purple who is talking about cats and a friend of hers who tried to call the cat whisperer but he wouldn’t come and so she had to make that choice — that hard choice to either live with the cat who scratches everyone even when they were oven mitts to pet it and ignore her other responsibilities OR to give the cat away. the guy with the beard puts his orange (!) baseball cap on and nods; he is listening, he isn’t saying much, but when you have a beard like that what can you say? what is necessary to impart other than your general awesomeness — your oldschool newschool posthippy post hillbilly something or other that you have going on here? another woman who is wearing green is talking about customers, and now i’m craning my neck trying to hear what they are talking about, but the man with the beard stands up and i feel sad that i will never get to know him.

then he walks by me and it’s a big disappointment. he’s not tall or burly, and he has a pony tail, which is sort of thin and wispy — not lustrous like the beard, and the woman in green says it was nice to meet you, and away they go and this story feels pretty bathetic and pathetic ending in this wispy ponytail hanging out the back sort of way, so i’m going to return to the first time i saw the beard, with its twin braids full of promise, their rubber bands — not hair bands, those flesh colored rubber bands like you see at the post office or Office Depot or wrapped around those dumb coupon newspapers that come in the mail — wound tight around them. beckoning some mystery having to do with hair and redness and a bristle of adventure.

Dear Friends — Yi Shun Lai asks guest faculty at this years August NILA residency to answer 5 questions.

To find out more about our residency up on beautiful Whidbey Island, click on

To find out more about my fantastically gifted and athletic teaching partner Janet Buttenwieser, click here.

Here they are along with my answers: mfa_header


1. What’s your favorite thing about teaching writers?

Writers want to learn how to write well. Then they want to learn how to write better. And after that they want to learn how to write differently. Which means that they are engaged, demanding, curious, and ambitious. Never satisfied. Always pushing. I love that.

2. How would you suggest students approach a writer, agent, or editor they admire?

Approaching writers you love is simple. First, be sure you’ve remembered the title of their work correctly. Then go up to them and say “I love your novel/poetry collection/essay/blog/standup bit, and I just wanted to meet you and tell you that.” As for editors, if you like what they publish — it’s the same thing. Thanking an editor for publishing you by way of an intro is classy and appreciated. When I figure out how to approach an agent without sounding like a jerk, I’ll let you know.

3. How about a sneak peek of what we can expect to learn from you in your sessions at Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA?

Long answer: The element of surprise is crucial to teaching adult learners. Folks need to be slightly off-kilter in order to think out of the box. Interactivity, clarity, and a sense of connection to others in the class, promote increased ability to discover and to remember.

Short answer: Nope. 

4. Tell us what “literary community” means to you.

It’s a tribe — an extended family with kinship and commitment to the well-being and success of every writer/artist in the tribe, whether they are writing outdoorsy essays, memoirs about boats, historical, literary, or commercial fiction, science-fiction/fantasy mashups, short stories, long novels, poems, or picture books.  Self-published, indie published, big time published. People who show up for your reading when no one else does. People whom you show up for, and edit, and pimp and help in any shape or form you can think of, because they have already helped or are going to help you

5. When not teaching or working at your “day job,” you can be found…

Watching tv, texting with my spawn about Hannibal, knitting, reading one of the tribe’s books, and/or complaining to someone (often Larry Behrendt who is writing his own book about Jewish-Christian dialogue) about something having to do with education, the economy, the two-state solution, racism, sexism, transphobia, gun control or the environment as I sit on a chair drinking coffee or wine in Coupeville WA or Los Angeles, CA.  I have been known to visit the gym, and then I complain to someone about that.