The Essay as Buddhist Practice

Sitting on my cushion to meditate, I sometimes feel like I’m burrowing inside an essay. And at the keyboard, I take out a few Buddhist tools to chip away at whatever subject I’m pursuing.

One of my teachers, Elizabeth Mattis Nyamgel, has a book called The Heart of an Open Question, which was really important to me and which seems to me to be a manifesto for essaying. The idea of questions without answers, and the goal of being open to look at life with an open, questioning heart, has become also what I find most compelling about the essay. The essay allows me to practice and reinforce the things I value in Buddhism, including reflection, not clinging to a single explanation or closing down around “rightness.”

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Book cover for The Logic of Faith: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Certainty Beyond Belief and Doubt; the graphic design is a gold sphere at the top of the cover with the title in red inside it,and the subtitle below it on a white field

The practice in Buddhism of examining experience, and the encouragement to test out received truths for one’s self rather than to passively accept what is handed down, has strengthened my voice as an essayist and writer, as someone who doesn’t necessarily comes to conclusions but who can record the process of looking. The notion of interdependence, too, has a deep resonance with my experience in the world as a nonfiction writer: it’s all connected. I love burrowing into a tangent and finding that it opens into discoveries and themes I need to explore, helping me to get to know my own life.

I am happy to be on the launch team for Elizabeth’s new book, The Logic of Faith, which is an in-depth exploration of a logic called Madhyamaka in which Buddhist practitioners are asked to look for singular discrete entities—including the self—and not find them as a way to become comfortable with our state, which is one of interdependence, and to increase our ability to bear the uncertainty of life with grace.

As a writer, I imagine I’m not unique in finding crossovers between my different passions; life is so interconnected and interdependent that almost any pursuit or discipline produces insights and metaphors that apply to writing. And essaying is about looking deeply at life, an activity that requires spiritual support and often delivers spiritual fruits. At the same time, Elizabeth stresses the values of humility and awe in all of her writing, so I’m not saying that I’m such an enlightened being who has figured things out. Instead, Buddhism has supported my feelings of being okay with not-knowing and being on the path.

Recommitting to Action

Remember back in 2016 when we thought the year was so impossible because a bunch of rock stars died? Hahahaha. Ha. Ha. (I’m not trying to downplay those losses, but the losses since then have been… Ugh. Yeah.) So you’ve lived through 2017 too, and it was stunningly rough. And now we are in for the long haul, right?

For me, the news has become at times over 2017 a source of deep despair, and there’s no getting around that. At the same time, the news is sometimes so bad that it pushes me into a state of numb despair. Hoping someone will post a convenient action item on Facebook just isn’t working anymore–there are too many actions to take, too many outrages, and it would take a full-time staff to sort out what to do and how to do it.

Wonderfully, in the midst of this national cyclone bomb of crises, a number of activists have stepped up to aggregate action and news together. Some break down news to discuss its activist implications, and others lead to action steps. These are the folks that have saved some shred of piece of mind for me. Maybe you’ll be inspired by one or more of these projects and get on their mailing lists.

I’m offering these because I think it’s a good time to recommit to engagement and taking action. Let’s square our shoulders and get ready to fight for the Blue Wave of midterm elections. What have I missed? What’s helpful for you in making decisions about how to use your activist energy?

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Logo: Image of stylized torch held by Statue of Liberty with a red flame on a green background

Americans of Conscience Checklist–Jen Hoffman curates this newsletter, which has a measured and encouraging tone that really seems designed to keep people going for the long haul. I kind of love her. You receive a newsletter on Sunday night framing what’s going on for the week in a non-screamy tone. Instead, she includes plenty of encouragement about what the community is achieving. Each email includes links to a Google doc with actions to take during the week. And one Sunday a month is “rest and reflection,” so there’s no action, just questions to think about.



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Screenshot of ad for 5-calls phone app: two phones, one white in front of one black, both displaying 5-calls screen shots. Logos beneath read: Download on the App Store and Get it on Google Play

5 Calls––This is a great site. I don’t visit it enough anymore and I am RECOMMITTING in 2018 to getting my ass in gear. Every week they offer a wide menu of calls and issues you can make based on your most pressing concerns. There’s even a way to track your progress on the site, and what’s more, it makes you feel really good. When you hit the five calls, it’s like reaching your FitBit step goals (not that that ever actually happens for me). And honest to gosh, there is an APP you can download! That is the coolest. I just downloaded it.




Higher Heights–This isn’t a weekly action site, per se, but it supports the efforts to get

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Logo of a red square surrounding a white set of stylized steps on the left. To the right, the words “Higher Heights” in blue.

Black Women into leadership. There’s an online community. From the site: “Higher Heights is building a national strategy to mobilize one million Black  women and dollars by 2020 in order to harness their collective economic and voting power.” That’s clearly a great cause, so I send them money whenever I’m feeling depressed and then I feel better.  They are seeking Black women to host salons to engage other Black women in political organizing and outreach.


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Indivisible in beige letters on a blue background, with the logo that looks like a small letter “i” turned into the stylized heads and torsos of people. Kind of. Symbols for Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram below it.

Indivisible––I don’t like the word “robust” as a techie buzzword, but this site deserves the adjective. It is CHOCK FULL of all kinds of good info, background, and action alerts. They do a caller-to-caller peer app that lets you sign up to call voters in swing states when there are issues that Congress needs to lobby on. The site is increasingly organized around actions taken by local Indivisible chapters but also includes plenty of actions for activists living away from those groups.



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Image from the Postcards to Voters site of several people gathered in front of a table with art supplies and postcards on it. The nine people are smiling and holding up postcards and stamps.

Postcards to Voters––My friend Ann let me know about this site, and I’m just getting involved. This very organized effort hand-writes postcards to voters in upcoming elections and has an automated text bot for letting you receive addresses. There is a Facebook group and there are also even companion vendors that will sell you pre-stamped postcards. A concrete way of making a difference that has been shown to get results on election days.




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Three white letters– WTF–on a black background. Talk about no B

WTF Just Happened Today?— This news aggregator is a guy, Matt Kiser, who has morphed this into his full-time job, and I don’t think I could function without his news bullets. He doesn’t cover everything, but he does cover the most important stuff in the briefest way possible, with emojis and with links to the news stories. For me, he’s been essential in sorting out the ongoing investigations into the Trump Administration’s Russia-Gate. There’s also an online community where you can chat about the news, and it’s provided some very informed context when all I could do is scream into the living room: “WTF????” And there’s a podcast. What I love about this is it comes out in the evening, after the daily shit-show, so you can basically digest things and sleep. There aren’t really any action items but the site makes functionality and therefore action possible for me.


Women’s March Power to the Polls–I’m putting this on here in hopes that something better develops from the site. Right now there’s lots of background, and a place where you can register to vote online and presumably help other people register to vote. There used to be a guide for doing voter registration drives but now I can’t find it on the site.

What are your action go-to’s?


What does it mean when CHIP funding stops?

One of many, many egregious things going on right now is the Congressional refusal to fund the CHIP program, which provides healthcare for low-income kids. As I have written about here and elsewhere, I have a personal connection to this issue, as my son and I were on the CHIP-funded state healthcare program in Ohio after he was born. Why? I was in school full-time–working as a graduate teaching assistant and also doing freelance writing and freelance proofreading as well as adjuncting at a second college–and I couldn’t find private health insurance that would cover us. I looked into buying coverage through my employer, Ohio State University, and found that that would have cost MORE than my entire paycheck. Private solutions were completely unaffordable, as in I couldn’t find one in the “healthcare market” that would cover us both, given the fact that I am female and have a uterus, and health insurance is more expensive for women. In this and so many other instances, the market analogy does not explain healthcare. Healthcare is not a market; there was no free-market product I could buy. Market failure.

CoverMeTinyMy kid got great healthcare, along with a few hiccups along the way that I write about in Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. But I’m white, have two graduate degrees, and knew that I was going to escape poverty eventually.

Many are not so privileged. For many, CHIP is a necessity given the failure of the healthcare “market.” There is no affordable way to keep children healthy that is on offer. None. And so… kids without CHIP will suffer these consequences, beginning as soon as CHIP funding fails, which has already begun.

  1. Real human children will go without basic immunizations on their regular schedules. Without these immunizations, we put all children and communities at risk, given the way immunization works to address the health of the “herd.”
  2. A child without healthcare for a simple cold will have a cold turn into an ear infection or pneumonia that is not addressed until he or she visits an emergency room, at which point the child has a much higher chance of death or hearing damage or a thousand other complications. The parents of the child then also have an ER bill (very expensive) to deal with.
  3. Without regular healthcare, the child will not have a regular doctor to help parents make decisions about questions that arise in a child’s health: is that bump or rash normal? Chronic and serious issues will go untreated.
  4. Untreated illnesses lead to massive stress on an entire family, including more days missed of work, parental stress, pain for the child, threat of a parent losing a job.
  5. Untreated illnesses lead to stress on young immune systems, and there are so many advanced autoimmune and chronic, serious conditions that result from stress on immune systems already taxed by poverty and the environmental effects of living in a poor neighborhood which is likely to be more polluted due to environmental racism.
  6. Lack of insurance and regular doctors’ visits can lead to permanent life effects and disability when specialists are not able to offer timely diagnosis and intervention for learning disabilities and hearing issues among many other challenges.
  7. A child who suffers this kind of medical neglect–which is beyond the control of his or her parents–will have experienced more pain and therefore will have an increased potential of a revved up neural system with more chance of encountering chronic pain in the future.

I could go on, and I completely imagine that if you’ve reached this tiny blog, you already agree with me. But I had to say these things… stopping CHIP funding is not temporary. Every minute this program goes without funding affects real children, and the Republican-induced medical neglect will create a generational impact that these children’s bodies will carry far into the future.

Jack from the movie Nightmare before Christmas, with the movie's name below a round skull with a wide grin topped with a swoop of hair like Trump's with the presidential seal off to the side on a black background

Nightmare Before Xmas Raffle!

As you may know, the Republican “Tax” Plan has a million festering surprises in it, and none of them are good. In addition to making the rich richer and everyone else poorer, it contains elements that will further weaken the Affordable Care Act.

That is where you come in! I want to encourage people who live in states with Republican Senators to call them between now and when the bill is supposed to come to a vote in the Senate, which may be as early as the week after Thanksgiving.

Every time you make a call to a Senator, you can get entered in a drawing to get…. mystery prizes!!

Jack from the movie Nightmare before Christmas, with the movie's name below a round skull with a wide grin topped with a swoop of hair like Trump's with the presidential seal off to the side on a black background
This image is from this site:–movie-nights-donald-trump.jpg

To enter, all you have to do is make your call and either leave a message or talk in person with your Senator’s aide about how much this tax bill is a flaming pile of crap. THEN email me at indigomission (at) with the subject line NIGHTMAREBEFOREXMAS and in the body of the email who you called and your name and mailing address.

And then after the bill is defeated or (nightmare… passes), I will send your address to your Nightmare Before Christmas Secret Evil Santa friend.






Here is a list of fabulous prizes you could win!

  1. Signed copy of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber
  2. Signed copy of Inner Bitch by Elizabeth Hilts
  3. A personalized 1st edition hardback of Invisible Sisters by Jessica Handler
  4. A signed book by Susan Muaddi Darraj
  5. A signed book by Chelsea Biondolillo or another book from her shelf
  6. A signed book by Kathleen B. Jones
  7. A signed copy of Laurel Peterson’s mystery book Shadow Notes
  8. A copy of Sandra Lambert’s book The River’s Memory
  9. A book by Karen Craigo
  10. A book by Joelle Renstrom
  11. A book by Sarah Einstein!
  12. A book by Karen Babine!

And more to come!!

Artists and Writers, if you want to donate something to the raffle, email me!


Image of two signs on a white wall. One says "Elevator" and the other says "Yell into elevator for service. We can hear you really!"

Doing the Work: Finding Places to Publish

To new creative writers, the array of literary journals available can seem quite overwhelming, and I completely understand that. However, I’d encourage you to do the slow work of navigating this universe rather than hoping for a shortcut. Often new writers will ask, “Where do you think I should publish this piece?” and I’d like to urge you to save your favors. If you’re going to ask a writer to do something for you, I would advise you not to do this. It’s time-consuming for busy writers and teachers to tailor publication recommendations and to brainstorm about this. I will often forward calls for entry or names of publications on my own if I run across a call for entries that is perfect for a writer whose work who I am already familiar with. But in general, I like to discourage this because it’s not actually something that is productive for the writer asking the question. If I make recommendations like this, I know that what I am really doing is short-circuiting a writer’s own development and awareness of the publication universe.

Here’s why: every writer is unique, and every writer develops his or her list of top publications based on individual publication goals, tastes, and careers of writers they’d like to emulate. You should make the list of publications that you aspire to, and you should keep updating it. This should be something you take ownership of for yourself if you are taking yourself seriously as a writer.

How do you find your list of literary journals?

  1. Writers read. So to be a writer, you should be reading literary journals to see who’s doing what and to be inspired and challenged. Noodling aimlessly around literary journals online doesn’t seem “productive,” but it is, and it will be the only way to really get to know the universe where you intend to keep publishing throughout your career.
  2. Start with identifying the “big ones” in your genre. To find these, look in the bibliography of anthologies or “Best” collections to see where the pieces were originally published. In many cases, this list is all you need.
  3. Another way I like to build this list for myself is to follow closely writer I admire and look at their bios to see where they have published. There’s no shame in emulating a writer you admire down to trying to follow in their publication footsteps!
  4. Continue adding to this list by following links from your favorite literary journals online to other publications.
  5. Read and sign up for emails that aggregate and comment on content from literary sites such as LitHub, The Millions, and Electric Lit. This is the universe you want to get familiar with.
  6. Subscribe to CRWROPPS-B, an absolutely essential service that sends out lists of places to publish. Just sorting through these emails is professional development for a writer!
  7. Consult databases including NewPages and the Poets and Writers database of literary journals, using search key words if there’s something specific you are looking for that you can’t find by other means.
  8. Follow writers on social media, as they will often share calls for entries and publications from outlets they admire.
  9. Get together with other writers who are interested in expanding their lists and pool your ideas!
Doing this work enables you to gain the confidence you need in your ability to navigate the world of literary journals. Getting familiar with these outlets will help you understand your competition and gain a deep and complex sense of what literary journals share your aesthetic as well as allowing you to set concrete goals for yourself.
Good luck!

The Engines of Nonfiction: Kindling Surprise

This thing is a large plastic container I bought in the duty free section of a German airport on the way home from my aunt’s funeral a few years ago. My mom was with me, shaking her head and laughing at this most irrational purchase. It was FILLED with my most favorite candy, called in German a Kinder Überraschungs-Ei, or surprise egg.

A plastic container of a smiling red and white egg wearing tennis shoes and a baseball cap, with “Kinder surprise” on its belly and holding aloft a plastic banner that says, “Full of Surprises!”

You unwrap the chocolate egg and crack it open, and inside each egg is a toy that is usually a million times better than a Cracker-Jack surprise, though I think you technically can’t buy these in the US because they have tiny parts that someone might swallow (if they were to SOMEHOW UNHINGE THEIR JAWS and swallow something that is the size of a real egg. Anyway. I am still able to buy them in the US but I won’t reveal my source.)

I am bringing this to class today to talk about that piece of advice attributed to Robert Front that comes up often in writing classes: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” We read to discover, and the creation of that feeling of discovery is kindled best when it happens first for the writer, when the writer puts something together on the page that they didn’t expect to encounter.

But, as I am a writing teacher, I need to say more than this. So how do we go about surprising ourselves?

Then… because I never studied geography, I feel free to use three layers of the earths crust as a metaphor.

  1. Juxtaposition: This is the “top layer” of surprise in an essay, the stuff we can see on the surface. Anytime we can put two seemingly unrelated things next to each other, that creates the energy and tension that can surprise the reader. I’m teaching Lidia Yuknavitch’s beautiful essay “Woven” today in class, and I think her movement back and forth between this vivid myth and her own life story provides the energy to move the piece forward and also to make the reader never really sure where the author will go next. And I’m betting that Yuknavitch felt the same way when she was writing it, full of surprise herself as the myth in all its details illuminated elements of her own experience.
  2. Association: But how do you find something to juxtapose with a story from your life or something that happened? This is where the poetry muscle of association comes in, going one level deeper in excavating how surprise works. Rather than using logical connections, you have to sometimes settle down and really watch your mind. What seemingly bizarre images or memories are triggered when you write about a certain topic? What do you feel in your body and mind when you are confronting a topic? Why, when I smell crayons, do I think of road trips, and what does that mean? Why does a print of a painting I have in my office remind me of my dad’s face? In each case, you take the leap into a feeling of not being exactly sure where you are going. Rather than controlling the narrative and making a logical case, you are leaping into the way your mind really works, and there are things to discover if you take that risk. If I then sit down to write about all the connections that might come up between crayons and the time in the car during my childhood, I am definitely going to surprise myself because I don’t know at all what those connections mean.
  3. Self-Interrogation: Ultimately, the deep layer of nonfiction that creates surprise every day in writing is to always have a voice in the background that asks, “But what does that mean? Why do you think that way? Is it really true all the time? Where does that belief come from? Why do you remember it like that? How would someone else feel in your shoes? Why do you like or dislike that? What does this connect to? What is invisible here?….” And on and on. And all those questions are bound to take us somewhere that was never apparent at the beginning of an essay.
Rings of Saturn with colors enhanced to show their differences; bands of blue, then red, then greenish, then tan. Thank you, NASA.

Your Trumplandia Horoscope

for the week of November 6


Aries: Ok, so you  may have burned through almost all of your Facebook friends with fits of blocking and unfriending. It’s been a rough few years: yes, this past one, but also the campaign. The thing is, some of those people you unfriended were bots, but others were misguided souls who might–who knows?–have come to their senses. Make this refriending week, or just visit their walls to see whether they’re still coated with hate memes. Continue speaking up in “mixed” audiences where political backgrounds are unclear: somebody’s got to speak the truth. Try a new flavor of Doritos, but don’t worry about that “Biscuits and Gravy” flavored potato chip; it’s trash.

Taurus: There is no tunnel in the bottom of Netflix that leads to a different presidency. You are going to have to open your mind’s eye for, like, one minute a day and really see and feel what is happening. Give $20 to an organization that can use it. That is a gift to yourself to help you get unstuck. Do something this week that involves getting your hands dirty, whether it’s repotting a plant, changing the litterbox, or … whatever.

Gemini: Are you convinced yet that you might actually have to vote next time? You have one year until midterms. Meditate on the potential in the universe by looking into your own eyes in a mirror and chanting, “It’s bigger than me, but I am a part of it.” Look at it this way: you don’t have to admit you’re wrong, but you can evolve. Wear more blue.

Cancer: You’re doing beautifully even though you berate yourself. Paint a picture or go for a walk. See the good you put into the world. Take a day to do nothing. During this day, burn something to symbolize letting go of that 45-supporter in your life; that person’s destiny is their own, and it undoubtedly involves a reckoning that you do not need to deliver. Free yourself. Create a secret ritual in your yard directed at your Trump-loving neighbor to draw a zone of safety, and then make cookies and deliver them. That will fuck with their minds so badly.

Leo: Welp, having a king really sucks, right? Consider this week what else you have wrongfully enthroned, which fake royalty you should depose, what old central ruling ideas need to go. You don’t need to rip them out of their gilded chairs yet, but begin plotting and finding like-minded friends to help you. Have you considered running for office? Of course you have. Well… why not? Consider letting your hair grow.

Virgo: I know. Sometimes you still wake up in a panic, and it feels as if you have been trying to think through Nate Silver’s numbers all night. We are all going to have permanent 2016 shakiness, but you need to find a new ground to stand on. Even when the ground appears to be shaking. What will be your new base? What can you believe in? Whatever it is–modeling clay, your local immigrant rights organization, nice pens–go all in. Love the things and the people who need your love.

Libra: In some cases there is no decision to be made. It feels the same as a decision now, this nagging uncertainty, and this has thrown you into decision-funk. But the glorious truth is that you’re free from deciding right now. Act in the ways that you always do, showing the self-care skills you have accumulated, and just follow. Follow the lead of those email blasts, write your representative without wondering whether it will do any good, and peel the backing off that bumper sticker. It’s the little things that make the big things. I applaud your resolve in not sleeping with gun nuts and people who “aren’t into politics.”

Sagittarius: I know, I know: it’s the shittiest time ever to have finally come into your own. But you are doing it. You are speaking your truth, slaying with memes on social media, finding new friends, and finally feeling what it means to connect the personal with the political. Your realizations might feel draining to you, but keep on doing it: you are a moral compass for others. Go ahead, eat more cheese. These are tough times.

Capricorn: Before you can rebuild, you have to admit that you’re at a kind of bottom. And this is where you are, exhausted with TWO YEARS SOLID of over-reading, over-researching. You were talking about Cambridge Analytica before the story broke, you saw it coming and your brother in law just laughed at you. It takes a toll to be a Cassandra. Stop talking to your brother-in-law and start a blog.

Aquarius: Stop hate-reading Fox News on your phone. Stop hate-reading ultra-left insider snark publications with hyperbolic language that call out everyone but themselves as sell outs and neo-liberals. Snark is going to extinguish your will to act. You know that’s not movement building, but you can’t change them. You have accumulated enough political experience to make anyone cynical, so just return to what you know: getting to know someone and suggesting they come with you to a meeting. Don’t worry about “The Left.” Get a subscription to In These Times or Labor Notes and try to understand your cat’s multi-layered personality.

Pisces: Every action desperately needs pinatas and puppets. Stop trashing on yourself for not being able to make a “real contribution.” Color and laughter are as essential as food and water. If the 1960s were the Age of Aquarius, this is your age. Even if your crafts and skills are old-school. Take a picture of that painting or drawing and post it on Instagram. Well, start an Instagram account first.

Scorpio: We are waiting. Get out your lasers of hate and revenge and coordinate; direct them toward our capitol city and GO. Use the power you have waited your entire lifetime to use. Also please consider leading classes at your local community center on such topics as “Ways to Sustain the Fire–and Stoke the Necessary Rage.” We need this. I never thought I’d say that, but we do.

*I have no astrological training, though I like horoscopes.