mary’zine #76: 7-day Painting intensive, December 2010

June 6, 2018


 “I hear the paint falling…”

When Barbara, my painting teacher, uttered those words, she was referring to someone dropping a container of paint. But I heard poetry. In my world, a lot was falling: rain outside; tears on the paper and on my face inside; mercy, mercy everywhere….

All week I painted a young man who had killed himself after holding a room full of high school students hostage for several hours. The class included my grandnephew, a good friend of the boy. During the stand-off, my sister texted me news as she heard it. I ached for my niece and her husband, who had been notified and were standing by. What a helpless feeling for all the parents who were waiting to see if their children were safe. When the students were released, the relief was palpable. No one else had been hurt, unless you count scarred-for-life. I didn’t give much thought to the young man himself.

But in the intensive a few weeks later, suddenly there he was—the 15-year-old boy who couldn’t even say what he wanted, who had no demands, except possibly the demand for attention, to be taken seriously, who knows what goes on in the mind of a teen-age boy? So I painted him with the gun to his head, in the grave, as a spirit rising from the grave. I had never met him, but his tragedy was the vehicle for 7 intense days of painting.

Having a “subject” to paint didn’t mean it was easy. Despite the easily accessed feelings, it was at times difficult to get past the doubt, the inner debate about what to reveal and how to stay true, the frequent questioning of the difference between us—was I exploiting his pain and his fate? Where was I in this story, this painting? Was it just personal, or was it capable of touching others? Did I have an obligation to broaden the theme, to take it past the small action to a more meaningful level?

At first I painted a lot of guns, bullets, blood. The boy, Sam, was a hunter, as is my grandnephew, so I painted deer as targets, then deer pointing their own guns. Sometimes the imagery becomes so satisfying to paint that you get carried away. I told Barbara I wanted to paint a forest with hunters, deer, mayhem. She got me to focus on the painting in front of me, to see what could be coming in or out. So I connected all the beings on the painting with white cords, felt the connectedness of life whether the ties are visible or not, and still she asked what could be connected. But there was nothing else, just shapes, just colors! I had made the obvious connections, she was asking me to do the impossible. But it turns out that how you face the impossible is kind of the point: Finally, I was neither fighting nor holding back, and though I didn’t think of the word at the time, I had “surrendered.”

At some point a quotation from “The Merchant of Venice” started running through my mind. It was the same quote that came when I painted my late brother-in-law many years ago.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I painted tears falling from the faces on the painting and from the unknown sky above. I didn’t know where the feelings were coming from, what they “meant,” why I was focusing on this boy. The teacher and the other students in the classroom had done their best to keep the boy calm, talking to him about hunting and fishing… and then the SWAT team came busting in and it was all over, the boy shot himself. My grandnephew seemed to be OK immediately afterward, and his mother, my niece, was euphoric that he had survived, but post-traumatic stress will come, predictable as clockwork.

I was far enough removed from what happened that I knew virtually nothing objectively, but my feeling state as I painted Sam was a projection of his loneliness, despair, lack of choices, forced into a corner, thinking the gun and the attention of the other students would tell him what to do now, how to go on, whether to go on.

By the end of the week, my defenses had been worn down, and I was a soggy mess from crying. But I just kept following the mysterious feelings, painted whatever came next, not like clockwork but like some organic heartbeat leading me on. Expression comes unbidden, you can’t force it.  And then it happened. It was as if the feelings, so deep, so heart-felt, so powerful and seemingly destructive, eased out and spread out as if on a broad plain, flooding all my defenses and finally dissipating into wordlessness, fearlessness. This was not abstract, it was a physical sensation.


So the week of painting (and traveling) for me was about raining, flooding, cold particles falling, breaking the levees of self-protection, pure feeling rising, emerging with or without words, dissipating in riots of color and shape and image; and it was also the opposite: erecting boundaries, patrolling the perimeter, rifling through my own mental carry-on bags for dangerous implements of self-knowledge, thinking security will save me, in turn resisting and surrendering, tears fighting fears. It’s all related, we’re all connected, the hazards are everywhere, the target is indistinct and constantly moving, clarity is hard to find.

But in the midst of the chaos and  misdirection, the indecision and doubt, we painters persist in facing the simplest and deepest truths in ourselves, which is to say, in humanity. The effect on our loved ones or distant strangers cannot be measured, but the painting energy goes out into the world and a little more light is shed, not where the lamppost stands* but in the darkest corners where we struggle and cry, laugh and love, and live lives of quiet exhilaration.


The paintings. You can see the natural progression from blind emotion to more focus, stillness, love, and, finally, peace.

Sam #1



Sam #2



Sam #3



Sam #4



Sam #5  I wrote on the back of this one that it’s not finished, but I never went back to it.



*Nasrudin, the holy fool of Sufism, looked for a lost key under a lamppost, because, though he’d lost it indoors, there was more light to look for it out in the street.


Mary McKenney

painting my father

May 1, 2016


Jackson Pollock


Note: Some of you will have read this before, at or in mary’zine #54, March 2012. But I shared it in a memoir writing workshop, where it was very well received, and I thought it deserved another look. I wish I could include the painting itself, but it’s buried somewhere in the stacks of paintings in my closet.

I’m in a painting workshop. I’ve been process (intuitive) painting since 1979, and one thing about process is that you’re always a beginner. You don’t decide what to paint, and you don’t try to make a pretty or interesting picture. It’s all about the experience you go through when you’re painting.

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, my teacher Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and I’m like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in the flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating?) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to force the expression of the deep irritation in me that is covering something more meaningful.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I realize that I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis, and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time with an army buddy. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window in the front door when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor, who also had MS, once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to paint an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Ha! Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, to which I add organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I went straight to bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.


Image8 (1)

William Henry McKenney



mary’zine #75: December 2015

December 27, 2015


Long time, no me.

I don’t write, I don’t call….

My writing energy has been going to the Painting Studio at (Center for Creative Exploration).




… and what a coinkidink, I’m going to write about painting here, too, along with some other stuff. And I’ll explain what “Mary Unmuted” means.


As I look back over the last few weeks, I think, “What a shitty month this has turned out to be.”


On Dec. 3, my 10-year-old cat Luther died.

Next day I got work, which is usually a good thing, but it meant I had to miss the first 2 days of the December painting intensive.

There were a few bright moments, even some profound moments, during the intensive, but at the same time…

I was having to be on the phone every day trying to save my health reimbursement account and my flood insurance, which is required to keep my mortgage. At least I had an agent to clear up the flood premium snafu, but for the other one I had no advocate. I called and e-mailed multiple people in three institutions: my former employer, an insurance exchange, and my health insurance plan. I was lied to, given wrong information, waited in vain for people to call me back, was called unnecessarily to tell me someone would call me later.

If it weren’t for misinformation and disinformation, I wouldn’t have any information at all.


The result of all this effort was that I lost funding for my account for 2016: $3,000 gone poof. And there is no appeal.


So now, I’m feeling depressed—it’s not S.A.D. or Xmas, it’s just the confluence of losing my kitty and a lot of money in the same time period. I feel like I should have a better attitude, be positive. Instead, I feel heavy, pulled down by emotional gravity. Plus, I worry about Luther’s brother Brutus. Either he’s depressed over losing Luther, too, or I’m projecting. It wouldn’t be the first time.


But… onward and upward!





For the first time ever, I did not attend the December 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco—at least, not physically. Until astral projection becomes a reliable form of transportation, I have to rely on a web conferencing service called Zoom. It’s similar to Skype. Anyone who can’t get to the studio for a class or workshop can “Zoom in” and paint at home while being able to interact with Barbara (our teacher) and the painters who are there. I did the May intensive that way and have been taking 2 classes a week all summer and fall. It’s a great privilege to be able to do this, but it is not without its problems.

The biggest downside for me, besides difficulty in hearing what people are saying during the group sharings, is that I have to be “muted” so as not to create static, feedback, or amplified cuss words if I yell at my cat. So I have to get Barbara’s attention before I can say something, and it kind of kills the spontaneity.


My physical travels to S.F. over the past 11 years have been traumatic, to say the least. You can read about them on; search “travel.” But this year I’ve had leg pain for several months and it’s not easy to walk, even with a cane. That leg is 69 years old; of course, so is the rest of me, but the leg is taking it extra hard. I think there’s a portrait of it in a closet somewhere, glowing with health.

So I felt I couldn’t deal with all the walking, the multi-drug taking, and the various demands on me physically and emotionally that result from my being in that now-foreign element, driving around a big city, having a strict schedule, and, of course, spending a lot of money to make it happen.


I knew that Zooming in to the intensive was going to be its own challenge. I have felt resentful at times about the distance—real and imagined—between me and everyone at the studio. I’ve likened it to being a brain in a jar; at other times, to a ghost who’s dropping a feather so the other painters will know I’m trying to communicate with them.


To make matters worse, I have several good friends who do the December intensive, and I was missing out not only on the hugs and conversations, but also on the lunches and dinners and the hanging out at the end of the day with Terry.





Luther had been sick for a long time—he’d had bladder problems his whole life—and now had renal failure, blood in his urine, and he was peeing in places other than the litter box. He had lost so much weight that he seemed to be disappearing ounce by ounce. But he was still wanting to be with me or on me all the time, purring, sleeping in my arms; he still ran to the window when he saw a bird, could jump from my armchair to the top of the cat tree, and would play with an empty toilet paper roll on the bathroom floor or rassle with his brother.


Except for the obvious signs, he almost seemed normal, even up to the night before he died. I found him dead the next morning and called the mobile vet, Dr. A., who came right away and took the body away. It was heart-breaking to lose him, but I was also profoundly grateful that I had not had to make the decision to put him down. I’ve only had one other cat who died peacefully at home like that.


So, when I finished my work and Zoomed into the intensive on Monday morning, I knew I was going to be painting Luther a lot. I did, of course, but I was startled when I realized that, had I flown out to S.F. for the intensive, all else being equal, he would have died just after I left for the airport. Then my sister Barb would have had to deal with the body, and Brutus would have been alone all week except for Barb’s daily visits. I’m not going to draw any deep conclusions from this, though it would be convenient and soothing to think that “God” or The Universe had planned it that way.



an interlocutor


I hadn’t had work in months (I’m a scientific editor), so, according to the laws of the Universe, or at least Murphy’s law, it was no surprise that I got two manuscripts to edit just before the intensive was about to start. Most of my clients are non-native English speakers and therefore non-native English writers. This is good, because I’m quite invaluable to them, but it can be difficult to decipher what they mean, especially since they’re writing about very technical (biological) things. So I spent the weekend working harder and longer than I wanted to, and I finished the paper at 10 p.m. Sunday night.








We painted for about 5 hours every day. Painting felt good, but I was ill at ease in the group sharings, during which I mostly watched my friends 1,836 miles away while they laughed, talked, and bonded as only we painters can. I was still technically a part of the group but felt marginalized, mostly unseen and unheard. This was something I had anticipated, and I saw it as a difficult but necessary lesson in being in myself rather than looking for recognition from others. I had sometimes had this feeling of alienation even when I was physically at the studio, but there was always someone to talk to there. Even making eye contact over the painting table was a form of communication. This week was a stark contrast.


I had painted Luther in the classes for a few weeks before he died. I painted the following on Nov. 14, Nov. 23, Dec. 7, and Dec. 11 (#1–4, respectively). So only the last two were painted during the intensive.



#1:  I’m holding Luther, Brutus is clinging to me, and previously ascended kitties Pookie and Radar are enjoying their peaceful or raucous afterlives.




#2:  Luther (center) displays the power and immortality of the Cat World. His coffin, an irrelevance, stands empty. I am in the upper right corner refusing to be consoled by Blue Cat Being.

























#3:  I am burning up from sorrow. A Being on the left is dispensing comfort and encouragement (to keep burning).

20151207_223306_resized (1)



#4:  I’m holding Luther, who is ascending. I’m still burning, and Luther’s golden coffin is still empty. On the right, a staircase leads up to a Royal Cat Being sitting on his throne, wearing a golden cape. Below the throne is the notation C.A.T., which I later decide means Consciousness And Transcendence.

























So these paintings felt good—even transcendent—to paint, but the contact with the group was bittersweet. I had to face the alienation and the loneliness, which were very real, despite my certainty that I am loved in the group. “Knowing” something, and feeling it when conditions are not ideal, are two different things. Terry, who had flown in for the intensive from Massachusetts, made it a point to check in with me now and then, and we talked on the phone a couple times after she got back to her rental place. Occasionally, if my name was mentioned, people would wave, but I mostly experienced the sharings as if I were watching a movie starring my friends. It was an odd sensation. It was as if I didn’t exist—or did, but only (like I said) as a ghost or pure gray matter. When someone addressed me directly, as a few people did, it was like getting a hit of energy. This was instructive.



On Monday night, I said good-bye to a few people and exited Zoom when the sharing was over, but on Tuesday night I stayed and watched the scene as some people left and others stood or sat around and talked. Sometimes it can be hard to leave that place after painting all day and feeling the love. Terry and Sandra were sitting by the laptop (on which my ghostly self was displayed), and we were able to talk and act silly like we used to. Then Terry asked if I wanted to take a tour of the studio. Sure! So she picked up the laptop, and she and Sandra walked me around. I said “Hi” to a few people, and I got to see a few of the paintings. I wanted them to prove that “my flag was still there”—the Tibetan prayer flag that I had painted for the studio’s 16-year celebration gala in November—and yes it was, hanging above the windows with all the others. When I was ready to leave, the others waved and yelled good-bye. The attention was intoxicating. Suddenly, my alienation was a memory and I felt special for attending the intensive in this virtual way. This thought, too, was instructive.


Another bit of unexpected attention I got was when one of the painters said in the sharing that she had read the studio’s “blog” online ( She quoted a line about the author’s feeling “dread” as she drove to the studio. She found this “helpful”—obviously, she could relate—and then said she didn’t know who wrote it. Barbara said, “She’s right here,” meaning me. That was rewarding, because I tend to think that no one ever reads what I post there. Once again, I felt special. Are we seeing a trend here?





During the Wednesday morning sharing, I asked to speak, Barbara unmuted me, and I told the group about the glorious tour of the studio I had been taken on the night before. But the attention I had so enjoyed brought with it the realization that I expect validation to come from the outside. I had honestly thought I was long past that belief, but those core feelings from childhood have a way of reasserting themselves when one is under stress. I love living alone and being alone, but feeling like a ghost or a brain in a jar had put into sharp relief my deep need to be accepted and reassured. My reactions during the week were showing me that I had trouble feeling comfortable even with a group of friends I normally feel very close to.


But one day—I don’t remember which day it was—I was speaking, and an interesting thing happened. Instead of the Zoom emphasizing my distance, I actually had the sensation of zooming toward the group on my own wave of connection. I felt like I was in the room with them; the screen, the frame, disappeared, and I was no longer an onlooker. That had also happened one time in a class, so I know it’s within my power, I can’t blame the technology for my alienation. I can’t make it happen on command, though. It’s like the painting itself, it comes alive when it’s ready, when I forget myself.


Wednesday was a half day for painting. The studio provided a pizza lunch, Alyssa made her signature kale salad, which of course I didn’t get to eat, and people either painted or left for parts unknown. I was looking forward to a long winter’s nap in the afternoon, but instead I spent hours on the phone pleading with insurance people not to drop me from my HRA and (different insurance people) not to drop my flood policy, which I had been late in paying.


That night was our traditional night (me, Terry, Diane D, and Diane L) for dining at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. The last two times we were there, I had the Crab Louie. I’m hardly a salad person, but I love theirs—the crab, the hard-boiled egg, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, and of course the dressing. It was probably the healthiest thing I ate all week. But this year it was not meant to be.


On Friday, the last day of the intensive, Barbara asked us each to speak about something that had touched our heart during the week. Several people mentioned the presence of Amanda’s young daughter Maia, always the center of attention during the sharings. Terry spoke about the time a car alarm went off outside and people in the group started singing in harmony with it, “transforming noise into beautiful music.”


I talked about the night that Terry and Sandra took me around the studio. I told them about Luther’s dying and how over the weekend I had felt uncharacteristically lonely. And then, I was surprised to hear myself say that maybe I had been lonely all my life. It felt strange to say that, because I pride myself on never feeling lonely or bored when I’m alone. The fact that this is a source of pride tells me something. But as those words came to me, I thought of myself many years ago, especially after my little brother died when I was six years old. I felt as alone then as I have ever felt, before or since.


And I wondered if I had shielded myself from the grief by becoming a self-sufficient “loner.” A few years later, when I was 11 or 12, I remember walking down our road, inaptly named Bay de Noc, and giving myself a pep talk about life. I had decided it was inherently unfair, and that the only way to deal with the unfairness was to allow myself to say and do anything to survive. I was actually denying the concept of living with honor. If I had known curse words back then, I would have said, “Fuck that!” It felt like I was growing up and taking the pulse of the people around me and figuring out what I had to do.


And so that brings me to the “present,” which is also my past and my past’s future, when I may finally be able to reverse the ignorant but self-protective armored stand I took back then. Self-knowledge, I’ve discovered, has many layers, and you have to be diligent in opening to the next beautiful, painful realization. Even at the age of 69, with or without my bum leg, which may be living a better life in that idealized closet, there is time to “change,” which is, in a way, to stop changing, running, maneuvering, rationalizing, and just being still and being myself.


I’ll let you know how that goes.




(Note: If this is published with all the weird spacing I see in the preview, I will throw down my keyboard and admit defeat. WordPress changes its way of doing things every time I write a new post.)


mary’zine #74: July 2015

July 27, 2015


my gay Friday

Friday, June 26, 2015. What an amazing few days in America. The Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act came down on Thursday. That was enough good news to hold me for awhile. But when I logged on to Facebook Friday morning I saw that SCOTUS had declared same-sex marriage the law of the land. I could hardly take it in. The Internet exploded with rainbows, cheers, and celebratory videos. The first couple to get married under the new world order were two elderly men. A crowd was watching. The civil servant who performed the ceremony asked the “I do” questions and finished with “as vested in me by the Constitution of the United States,” and a raucous cheer went up. In a world of so many disappointments, these spine-tingling moments are a rare treat. I wasn’t celebrating the cause of marriage for myself, because always a bridesmaid, etc., but for me it was about feeling like a proper citizen, finally, of the country of my birth.

It so happened that I hadn’t slept the night before. I play fast and loose with the biological realities of sleep. I can usually make up for a sleepless night with a long winter’s nap during the day, but on this day I was too excited. I did finally catch 3 hours in the afternoon, and from then it was on. I was on Facebook for the rest of the day and all night, trying in vain to keep up with the many postings and videos and all-rainbows-all-the-time. It would have been nice to take part in the celebrations in a friendly crowd, but Facebook proved to be a wonderful source of contact with friends and strangers. My friends Mary and Sharon kept checking in with me and sharing stories, sharing my delight and relief. They’re both straight, but as Mary said at one point, “We’re all gay today.” My emotions were all over the place: the joy of seeing lovers in happy tears… crowds outside the Supreme Court and San Francisco’s City Hall in cheers… the Schadenfreude of watching blustering clergymen claim we were all going to hell… the shock of the most extreme reactions, such as, oh, let me pick one: that we should all be executed because Holy Bible. Without Facebook, it would have been a lonely day, since all of my gay friends live far away. P e-mailed from Oregon that she was glad she didn’t have to move to Canada. But mostly, the cheers and camaraderie came from the vast Interwebs. I don’t think I left my desk between 7 pm and 7 am, long past the time when my body was saying “Enough!” I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in two days, and by 3 pm on Saturday I was still too excited to settle down and became quite giddy.


Neither SCOTUS decision affects me directly: I have health insurance thanks to Medicare and the University of California, and I have no intention of ever getting married. But this landmark vote is bigger than marriage. Were we citizens before this? Sort of. We paid taxes, we voted; for all intents and purposes, it seemed, we were equal in the eyes of the law. But not really. Why, in my day… it very nearly came to pass that gay teachers and others working with children could be fired or never hired to begin with. Thanks, Phyllis Schlafly! How do you like us now, Anita Bryant? (Seems they’re both still alive; but no angry fists in the air, how come?)

It’s striking that the rhetoric of the homophobes back in the 1970s was on a par with the rhetoric now… although I don’t remember anyone promising to set themselves ablaze in protest of any pro-gay turn of events. So the fanatics are still peddling the same old lies and prejudices, most of them Bible based, but what changed was the will of the people. “The people” are not ideologues. What changes the outlook of a regular person is not the Bible thumper thundering on her TV screen but the gradual realization that gay people are not a different species, or confined to urban centers, or men dressed like women and vice-versa, but their sisters, brothers, children, friends, and a few hardy (or outed) celebrities. It was a revolution, truly. Or, OK, an evolution of slowly dawning understanding that there are gay people in all walks of life and in most if not all families.

To this day, the right-wing fanatics are trying every argument to refute the decision, to claim that the Supremes are “activist judges,” that the new order is anti-Bible and (a new wrinkle) an attack on “religious freedom.” The Bible people have not given up their constant drumming of the message: “God’s law” [as inexpertly interpreted by them] should be the law of the land; unelected judges (i.e., SCOTUS) have no authority in these matters. Even Antonin Scalia tried this argument, causing me to wonder, “So who elected you?” Funny, but all the would-be Joans of Arc suddenly shied away from the flames of martyrdom. That one preacher who promised to immolate himself if the decision went the way it did had an about-face and claimed that he had only said he might, or he would, or maybe he would if the 10,000 ministers he claimed to have in his pocket would join him. It was the classic “end of the world” prediction that has to be awkwardly explained away when the sun still rises the next day. The funniest threat was the bold claim that the “Christians” would move to Canada. A Facebook friend of mine wondered “Who will tell them?” … that same-sex marriage has been the law there for 10 years.

It’s good to know that the sanctimonious religious right don’t always get their way. One of the naysayers I came across online raved that he always “voted the Bible,” so I responded, “You can vote on the Bible? Where do I sign up?”

And wouldn’t you know it? Mike Huckabee claims he’ll “call down fire from heaven”—“if he has to.” I like that bloviating empty threat. First, you have that kind of power, do you? And second, what’s stopping you? Has he even read the Bible lately? One assumes he prefers the New Testament, but in his feeble mind he has conflated the love-loving Jesus of the New with the Old god of fire and brimstone. I’ll bet Jesus didn’t even know what brimstone was. So, Mike, and all the other hate-mongers, wake up and smell the coffee. You are a dying breed, and that is the best news of all.

Ted Cruz had the audacity to proclaim the day of the decision “the worst 24 hours in our nation’s history.” (As Sean Hannity cheerleads, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” High praise!) Worse than Pearl Harbor? 9/11? the wars and assassinations that all but dominated the 20th century? What an odd, unforgivable thing to say.


One of the things that nagged at me on that monumental gay Friday was the thought of the grieving friends and loved ones of the nine people killed in the black church in Charleston 9 days earlier. The funeral of Rev. Pinckney was happening that day. I saw the video of President Obama giving the eulogy and singing “Amazing Grace” with the other black people on the dais (and one very short white woman—or did I imagine her?), and it was so moving. It made me happy to see them there, responding with grace and dignity—and without a whiff of defeat—to a sickening tragedy.

I was disgusted when some Republicans tried to turn that tragedy into an attack on “religious freedom.” As usual, the so-called Christians are trying to make it all about them. They think this is ancient Rome and they are being fed to the lions. So courageous, those martyrs. Forced to bake a cake for people they don’t approve of. It would be farcical if it weren’t so maddening. I have to hand it to them, though. They know how to co-opt a legitimate struggle for civil rights by using the same language to assert their own oppression. They have a sincere belief that homosexuals shouldn’t have the same constitutional protection as righteous gun owners. Since when does disapproval have the same status as religious principle?

To these paranoid, self-aggrandizing, smug “Christians,” who are apparently bored with being the majority religion and want to return to the good old days of persecution, I say: Who asked you? Why does our finally acquiring the civil rights that you have had all along have anything to do with you? Are we taking something away from you? Do you think it’s more exciting to be forced to fight for your so-called principles over a cake than to attend a safe, completely legal church service once a week? We are not vilifying you.

I came across a great word for their impotent fury: “poutrage.”

These wannabe theocrats and arbiters of all that is good and holy paint themselves as the put-upon victims, the humble pilgrims who only want to pray to their god in peace but are prevented from doing so by their disapproval of others having the same freedoms they enjoy. Freedom apparently means something different to them than it does to the rest of us. I say, go back to that special book of yours and read what Jesus had to say. Seems you’ve forgotten what your “faith” is all about.


Police state

July 23, 2015

Not to be an alarmist, but—

What is a police state? I used to think of it as working like it did in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm: the redefinition of common words (and hence the laws) coming from the top down. But if the police, at the lowest rungs of the authority ladder, get to do what they’ve been doing to (mostly) black people lately, it makes me very, very afraid. Hitler couldn’t have done what he did without the apathy and acquiescence of the German people. And now that we see a video of a mundane traffic stop, where the driver (Sandra Bland)  is upset and made increasingly more upset by the cop’s ridiculous (and mostly illegal) demands, I can just imagine that the response of millions of white Americans is, “She should have done what he told her to do.” Now, think about that. We theoretically have rights. But try to exercise them, and if you piss off a guy with a badge, a gun, and an easily bruised ego, your rights don’t mean shit. And now, if police don’t know the law, you have no 4th amendment rights, sayeth the Supreme Court.

AIDS activists used to say, “Silence = death.” Now it seems that disobedience to the police, for any reason, = death. This is dangerous precedent. Young black men are shot dead because they’re seen to be dangerous. Now a young black woman is dead in police custody because she didn’t abjectly comply with an enraged cop’s phony commands. What will it take for us to stop blaming the victim and stop treating police like judge, jury, and executioner? The Patriot Act is scary enough, because “terrorism” is the buzzword and the excuse for any governmental action. But now this low-level encounter—a traffic stop!— between a citizen and an armed authority also ends in death. So long after slavery, blacks may be “free,” but increasingly they’re treated like criminals for no reason. And the rest of us self-righteously jump on and exclaim, “She or he should have just complied!” As the German pastor Martin Niemöller said, in part, ” … they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Please, stop and think about it, when you hear yourself thinking, “But she wouldn’t get out of the car!” “But he ran!” “But he may have stolen something!” “But he was big for a high schooler!” None of these things warrants the death penalty. Try a little empathy, it goes a long way.

mary’zine #73: June 2015

June 10, 2015

I haven’t been here (before your eyes) in a long time, but I’ve been here (in the ether) all along, my mind swirling—or, not as fluid as that, more like straining, stumbling, stuttering—with so many things I could write about if I were coherent but not feeling coherent in the least.

e x … c a v a t e  good times, come on!

(think Kool and the Gang)

The metaphor I was straining at involved a thing in the real world—the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the deepest hole in the earth, drilled by Soviet scientists off and on from 1970 to 1994, that goes 7.5 miles down into the earth’s crust. In contrast, the center of the earth is estimated to be nearly 4,000 miles down, so… nice try, boys; close but no cigar. At 7.5 miles they were forced to quit drilling because of unexpectedly high temperatures (356°F) and a nougat-like center (I’m imagining), where the porous and permeable rock behaved “more like a plastic than a solid.” The hole, only 9 inches in diameter, is under this rusted metal cap on the Kola Peninsula of Russia (Fig. 1).


 Fig. 1. Beginning of really deep hole.

So, the strained metaphor was my felt need to excavate the depths of my own crusty shell, hoping to find the deep inner mantle where the past and present coexist, if not collide. (My newspaper horoscope has always used phrases like “fantasy collides with destiny.”) And if past and present are down there, then future must be down there, too—in the sense of a seed, which by definition embodies its destiny: The acorn can only grow into its future self, an oak tree.


I don’t know about destiny, but I’ve fantasized plenty in my life. I liked some science fiction as a child, but I wasn’t that interested in aliens or distant planets. But Journey to the Center of the Earth resonated with me for some reason. For someone who wasn’t that interested in outer space, I was blown away by the idea that the Verne adventurers encountered sky down there. If only I had known the phrase “blew my mind” back then, I would have had many occasions to use it. I was only 10 years old, but still. Sometimes I think I thought more about infinity and death and other unknowns between the ages of 6 and 10 than I have since. Childhood is deep, which most adults forget. It looks so simple, even primitive. Cry, sleep, shit, eat, you’re like a tiny predictable entity—a clean slate—that hasn’t yet been filled with the detritus from interaction with the outside world. But the inside! The inside is full of feeling and thought, regardless of whether anyone takes you seriously or not. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who had big things on her mind, or maybe it was the extreme encounters I had with death and illness that made me a little philosopher, maybe a wannabe nihilist. Life didn’t look that good to me when my brother was buried under the ground and my father was ensconced in a VA hospital with MS, only to return home so changed that I didn’t recognize him. For the longest time I thought, “What’s next?” Who will die or leave me next? How will I make my way in the world? In high school I was convinced there would be no end to the misery. Every day, every week brought a challenge, sometimes new, sometimes a dreaded repetition. If it wasn’t a single event—an oral book report, a debate, a dentist appointment, a babysitting job, a piano lesson, an unasked-for and oft-rebelled-against hair perm—it was the daily curse of car sickness, pimples, awkward social encounters, acute self-consciousness, fear of being diagnosed with mental illness, and a mortifying awareness of how poor we were. I couldn’t escape any of it. Without a sane adult to explain to you that everyone goes through this kind of thing, it’s only in hindsight that you realize you were not the only one. I remember having a meeting with my high school guidance counselor, Mr. Schmidtke, and not knowing if I was supposed to be talking about the surface—grades, college, etc.—or my fears and anxieties, which were at least 7.5 mental miles down in my psyche. In one of my favorite movies, Ordinary People, I was envious of the kid who had Judd Hirsch to talk to and get a real response from. I didn’t see a real therapist until I was 46, and by that time I had come a long way on my own, through contemplation, observation, and a strong desire to understand.

So, my life has turned out pretty great, and I have the comforting thought that I probably won’t live long enough to see the world get blown up or a neo-Hitler arise from the Far Right. (How far do you think Hitler would have gotten if his party was named the Tee-Party instead of Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei? I still regret that our American Partiers did not keep the name “Teabaggers” after they found out what it meant. That would have been so delicious.)

But—where was I?—the past (like the center of our planet) still exists, no matter how deeply it has been buried or “forgotten.” I’m not sure I understand what the subconscious really is and how it works—it’s like being controlled by an invisible government (and the visible one is bad enough). I already “understand” my past in words and pictures, but I expect somehow to be able to embody the whole time-driven story that is me, the equivalent of 7.5 miles down, where it’s really, really hot and more mush than solid. I don’t think I need to go the whole 4,000 mental miles to the center—where, surely, I understand now, there would have to be “sky,” wouldn’t there? because there is so much we can’t see, haven’t examined, haven’t even imagined—right beneath our feet / brain / what-have-you.

For lots of reasons, we prefer to look to our sky—the one that’s above us, readily visible, no drilling required—for the pie or the salvation, the “something bigger than ourselves” whether we call it god or our higher self. Wouldn’t it be great to have an eternal substitute mother or father, someone / something so big and powerful that it would never die, and therefore we would never die? It would be the answer to everything, wouldn’t it? And that’s what we want, the answer to everything. Because who can live on this razor’s edge of life-and-death with nothing to hold on to but a sharp, painful knowledge that it will all end one day. As Woody Allen said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to be whole—not a hole filled with a mystery too far down to reach. I want to experience my full potential, not limp along on the fire road just because it’s wide and smooth. But that means going down, down into the deep forest or a series of dark caves or a me-shaped hole in the ground, looking to find the mythical sky or the plastic hot mess, whatever it turns out to be.

So I’ve told you the metaphor, and you can find out more about the Kola Superdeep Borehole if you’re interested. By the way, they found water down there (H2 and O molecules) and “microfossils” from bacteria billions of years old. So the drilling wasn’t a failure, just full of surprises. Like our own personal depths, I suppose.

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late / to open your depths by plunging into them / and drink in the life / that reveals itself quietly there.—Rainier Marie Rilke

Climbing Mt. Etna (a guest contribution)

June 7, 2015

Ed. note: A good friend of mine, who wants to be known only as “friend from California,” is a historian, editor, and enthusiastic traveler. She writes concise and eloquent “travelogues,” complete with many photos, after each of the trips she takes with her husband or her son. Here is her story about climbing Mt. Etna when she and son Jack traveled to Sicily.

I also want to note that she is not responsible for the poor layout. I am not adept at wrestling WordPress formatting into submission.


The day my son Jack and I planned to go to Mt. Etna dawned spectacularly. It seemed auspicious.


We drove south from Taormina toward Catania, then veered off to the road that encircles the mountain. The soil around Etna has been enriched over the centuries by decomposing lava, and the land is a prime agricultural area. For example, the famous Sicilian blood oranges, incredibly juicy and flavorful, are grown here.

There are two routes to get up on the mountain, one on the south side and one on the north side. We were heading for Rifugio Sapienza, a ski resort on the south side. In the summer it’s a gateway to guided hikes. From Rifugio you take a cable car up the mountain.


Rifugio Sapienza (photo from the Internet)  

on the cable car (1 of 1)

View from cable car back toward Rifugio

lone climber (1 of 1)

One hiker shunned the cable car and hiked up the mountain on foot. He looked up at us—wistfully? It’s a long, tough slog he’s undertaken.

The cable car ends at a little rest area, with a café and facilities. Then you pile into minivans to take you farther up the mountain. The road is compacted lava graded by small tractors.

curving track (1 of 1)

Curving track going up the mountain  

   the line up (1 of 1)

Eventually we came to a leveled area where the minivans parked. We all piled out and assembled in a big cluster near the guide. Then we set off in a long file at what was, for me, a pretty brisk pace.

Did I mention that it was cold up there?

It seemed that most of the hikers were sturdy Germans who probably did a lot of hiking in their home country. It also seemed that most of them were younger than me. Or maybe I was just rationalizing why I, age 71, had such a hard time keeping up.

small caldera (1 of 1)

Soon we passed a small caldera, and many people stopped to take pictures, or even explore the thing closer up. I was not among them. I was concentrating on not falling down.

Etna climbers (1 of 1)-2

Closer view of the fumarole with smoke or gas issuing from the vents

strung out (1 of 1)

Pretty soon we were all strung out in a long line. Jack hung back a little because he was busy taking photos. I hung back because I was having difficulty struggling uphill and breathing.

The track we were walking on was pretty narrow, to my way of thinking. I was afraid of slipping off on either side. At one point I slipped on some loose gravel and sat down hard. People came to my aid (“Are you all right?), but luckily I was able to clamber to my feet. I didn’t fall down again the whole rest of the hike.

Bergman (1 of 1)

At one point I looked up and saw a whole line of hikers on a high ridge, silhouetted against the sky.

(Does anyone remember the final image in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”?)

“Oh no!” I thought, “I’m going to have to go all the way up there too!” In the worst way I wanted to turn around and make my way back to the parked minivans. But pride wouldn’t let me do it. So I slogged on ahead, far behind the pack, until eventually I caught up. And then—praise be!—the whole line was turning and we were circling back to the parking lot. When we got there, I was ecstatic, euphoric! I’d met the mountain, and I had triumphed!    

life on the lava (1 of 1)


etna summit (1 of 1)

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot – Page 19

April 13, 2015

julian peters comics

The next page of my comics adaptation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot (click on image to enlarge):Prufrock19

View original post

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot – Page 18

April 7, 2015

julian peters comics

The next page of my comics adaptation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot (click on image to enlarge):prufrock18
Next week: A magic lantern show.

View original post

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot – Page 17

March 30, 2015

julian peters comics

The next page of my comics adaptation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot (click on image to enlarge):Prufrock17
Next week’s graphic interpretation: Not what was meant at all?

View original post

%d bloggers like this: