Archive for the ALOUD Category

Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, MT (about Marcel Proust, the Gulag, and reading as salvation)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, drawing, history, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, social justice, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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[from THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOZEF CZAPSKI, Polish limited edition]

I WOKE UP around 5:00 a.m., disoriented in an unfamiliar bed. I did not know east from west, up from down, where I’d find a floor to take the weight of my body. The hazy proportions of the room gave no clue; curtains blocked the winter light. In the moment my eyes opened, I lost my connection to those essentials that are, as Proust assures his readers, held fast by our psyches during sleep: “[T]he sequence of the hours, the order of the years, and the worlds.”


My disorientation went beyond the geo-gravitational. One era of my life had ended, and the next had not yet begun. If I lived in a traditional society, I’d have been standing on the threshold of the hut listening as a priest beat drums and stirred strong potions, a state the anthropologists call liminality.

Just six weeks before, I’d been fired from my job of 25 years. It was a job I’d loved, that had drawn on my love of literature and my delight at convening people from across Los Angeles to engage with the issues of the day, to ask questions of innovative thinkers, to practice agreeing and disagreeing in a public forum. The events at Central Library, the hearth of the city, were free; homeless patrons sat next to lawyers and teachers and students to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about religion or Ta-Nehesi Coates discuss reparations. They came to hear local poets read Walt Whitman translated into Farsi and Spanish; to celebrate novelists like Colson Whitehead and his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad, to learn from naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams, primatologists like Frans de Waal. Hundreds of literary luminaries — Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, W. G. Sebald, Margaret Atwood, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula LeGuin — all presented their work on our stage over the years. At our last event, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter read from her grandfather’s just-published prison letters. One evening, during his sound check, Cornel West pulled me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that this space is sanctified?” I did.

Now I was untethered from the satisfactions of my job and as well, from the scaffold of responsibilities that had, for so many years, structured the rhythms of my life. I was past the tearful stage, but I was still heart-torn, grieving. Luckily, I had been granted a writing residency that fall at an arts colony on a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Susan — my soul sister-in-art — had been awarded a residency there as well. Perhaps some time away would open a way to re-focus, to pick up the thread of my own writing life.

As a way to jumpstart our adventure, Susan and I schemed a rendezvous, picking a town on the map that neither of us knew at all — Billings, Montana — simply because it had an airport and decent airfares from Los Angeles, for me, and from Portland, Oregon, for Susan.

Susan rented us a car and a two-bedroom Airbnb bungalow in Billings. We planned to cook simple meals together, drink good wine, catch up on stories about our lives, plan collaborative projects, and, at the end of the weekend, drive the 70 miles to the Crow Reservation to spend some daylight hours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then travel the final stretch to the Wyoming ranch and our official residency.

At the last moment, life tectonics shifted. A mutual friend — jazz musician David Ornette Cherry — suffered a medical emergency. He couldn’t breathe, barely managed to call 911 from his Portland studio before he suffered a cardiac arrest. David was “gone,” the paramedics said, for four whole minutes, and was now in an induced coma, on a ventilator in a Portland hospital, in the limbo of the ICU, where machines bleated heart rates and IV bags dripped nourishment into human veins, between life and death, this world, that world, with Susan by his bedside. He had no family nearby. He was going to need a lot of support to pull through.

I wholeheartedly supported Susan’s decision to stay behind, to forgo the residency if David didn’t recover soon. I realized as well that it was too last-minute and too costly to redirect my itinerary.

Which is why I woke up alone, in a strange bed in a strange house in Billings, Montana, where I dreaded spending the weekend alone.

MORE. READ ENTIRE PIECE, as published in Los Angeles Review of Books, May 21, 2019

Dreaming in Russian

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles with tags , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Louise Steinman

[drawing: Vlada Ralko]

News from Ukraine trickles into my weekend haven in Ojai Valley. I peel an orange fresh from the tree, exulting in the scent. A woman in Maidan grates beets for borscht for weary protesters, her fingers stained blood red. The crisis keeps Russia in the headlines and the nerves on alert.

It’s both the crisis in Ukraine and my anticipation of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen coming to ALOUD (tonight!) that explains my gravitation over the past month to memoirs about Russia, both Soviet and post-Soviet. Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, Colin McCann’s Dancer; Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking; Emmanuel Carrere’s startling My Life as a Russian Novel ; Geoff Dyer’s ZONA, an inventive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

It’s Gessen’s brilliant new book on Pussy Riot [Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot] that brings her to L.A. tonight; but I also reread her beautiful memoir, Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace. Gessen stresses the ways people under those regimes, in order to live, were forced to make moral compromises—in ways most of us have not had to face. “Each of my grandmothers was burdened with a conscience, which meant that both of them at crucial points in their lives tried to find a way to make an honest peace with the system. They had vastly different ways of doing it…”

Reading so many books about Russia may explain why, in a recent dream, in a vast warehouse in a small town, every door I opened (and there were many) lead to the Russian River. And after all, though my father forgot his childhood Russian (he was six when he emigrated from Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War) he told me he still sometimes dreamed in Russian.

Today’s NYTimes features a video of Ukrainian troops in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (famous in my childhood from Pete Seeger’s version) facing off with Putin’s soldiers. The Russians have rifles at the ready, and their captain yells, “Come no further!” but the canny Ukrainians are holding aloft both their own blue and yellow flag as well as a red flag bearing (what the voiceover calls) “Russian symbolics “(apparently hammer and sickle is still in vogue)… “because they know the Russians won’t fire on their own banner.”

This stand-off brought back the memory from 1962, sitting in the den of our house in Culver City with my father, worriedly watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold on TV. I stomp off and return to the table with envelope and stamps and begin writing: “Dear Mr. Khruschchev, I don’t want to die.” I’m not sure what the U.S. Post office did with it; but I dropped it in the mailbox with an eleven year old’s sense of personal urgency.

In the meantime, during the current stand-off, I console myself with a recent delight– the divine DAKHKA BRAKHA, whose voices and songs fill my ears and heart. They call themselves a “Ukrainian ethno-chaos” band. Eastern Europe meets the full force of global sound. A free and fair trade.

Being Heard

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Los Angeles, Poland, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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It’s been an emotional and gratifying week, giving my first book talk on The Crooked Mirror, being interviewed by the wonderful Jack Miles at ALOUD (video, podcast to be posted soon) and receiving two deeply thoughtful and beautifully written reviews– one by poet Piotr Florzck in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and thank God for LARB and the possibility of the existence, these days, of a long review) and the other by Rabbi Haim Beliak– a mover and shaker in the cause of Jewish renewal in Poland– in the Jewish Journal

So here are links to both reviews. Here’s giving thanks to those who’ve already attended a reading or a talk… I’ve been buoyed by the response, the sense of a community eager to hear and talk about this work. There is so much need for reconciliation in so many parts of this planet, so many parts of our lives. I remember when “The Souvenir” came out in 2001, after 9/11, and when a young film development person told my agent, “No one wants to hear stories about reconciliation — we’re at war.” Well, I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

photo: Misterium: Poem of the Place, Lublin, TeatrNN

What a Freedom Fighter Looks Like

Posted in ALOUD, Human Rights, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by Louise Steinman

Justice Albie Sachs, a veteran of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, perches on a table in the lecture hall in the law school at USC. He’s a thin handsome man with an expressive lined face and drooping eyes, wearing a patterned black and white silk long-sleeved shirt. The right sleeve dangles empty. He begins his tale at the moment when he awoke in a hospital bed, his eyes bandaged.

This is how he described that moment in his memoir, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter:

“What happened?” and a woman’s voice said, “It was a car bomb,” and I collapsed into darkness again, but with a sense of euphoria. I’d survived. For, I don’t know how many decades, every single day in the freedom struggle, wondering, “If they come for me today, if they come for me tonight, if they come for me tomorrow morning, will I be brave? Will I survive?” They’d come for me and I’d got through. I’d got through. I just felt fantastic. Then darkness, quiet, nothing.

Sachs had survived an assassination attempt by his own government. He recalls singing to himself as he lay there. He learned the song from Paul Robeson, his hero. He invites the audience to join him in song, singing “It’s Me Alone…” but no one in the room takes him up on it. (Perhaps lawyers and law students are not big on singing.) But Albie Sachs sings anyway. He is a liberated guy, a 76 year old with a wife in her forties and a five year-old son (with two grown sons by his first marriage.)

He remembers, in those long days in the hospital, how someone sent him a note, promising to avenge the bombing. He recalls his sense of horror and alarm at the prospect. “If we get democracy, rule of law in South Africa,” he said at the time, “that will be my vengeance.”

This is what he calls “soft vengeance,” this process of reconciliation, of perpetrators “turning knowledge into acknowledgement.” It’s the denial in a society, he says, that is corrosive, oppressive.

Listening to Albie Sachs, I recall a visit to ALOUD several years ago by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, the only psychologist on South Africa’s Truth Commission. Pumla described the Truth Commission as “…a mode of accountability that focused not on the retribution of punishment, but the restoration of the dignity of both victims and perpetrators.” And forgiveness did not come cheap in post-apartheid South Africa. Apology from perpetrators was a serious business, a “cleansing process”: The doer of evil deeds acknowledged the crime, expressed remorse, made a public apology. The public nature of the process was essential. In a country where everything had been kept secret for so long, people were able to hear the truth about their past.

Albie Sachs describes the notion of “restorative justice” as “discovering the humanity of the people who harmed you, the people who did terrible things to you.” How, I wonder, would it help our country to get past the oppression of denial, if we were to hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission now– after centuries of slavery and racism?

“You would be driving, and you would hear the voice of a victim who was tortured, their voice in your own car, in that small space. You hear somebody talking about what happened to them and breaking down on the stage of the Truth Commission, and you are present with them as they break down. You hear their voice. You hear their pain. You can’t escape it,” Gobodo-Madikizela told us.

Albie Sachs is an exuberant man. When he speaks, he gestures emphatically with his left hand, and what’s left of his right arm, the one blown off in the car bomb, gestures as well. He’s all there. Completely there. The empty silk sleeve ripples in response to his thoughts. When he woke up in that hospital room, he tells the hushed audience, he realized he’d “only lost an arm.” He felt, he said, “utter joy.” He felt “an utter conviction—that I would get better, that the country would get better.”

Thinking about Exits

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , on June 26, 2012 by Louise Steinman

So many leave-takings in a life; some go unnoticed, some shake us to our foundations. Sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has long been fascinated by exits, from saying goodbye to her children leaving for school to the cataclysm of leaving a marriage. “We are taught to start our stories at the beginning, “ she writes. “We open with ‘once upon a time,’ hoping to capture the nascent moment when everything came to be. But there are few lessons — in our culture, in our schooling, in our socialization — in how to exit well.”

What does it mean to look at our life narratives from the “prism of exit.” As I listened to Dr. Lawrence Lightfoot’s fascinating talk at ALOUD the other night, I did a mental scan of exits and departures that were the major markers of my life. Which ones were made bearable by ritual observances? Is it true that we Americans pay little regard to our exits, that we often “slink away in the night, hoping that no one will notice?” In contrast, our guest suggested, “Watch Russians at train stations—you know something big is happening!’”

That’s when I saw them—the Shimizu family– standing at the window of our bullet train. It was the afternoon in April 1995 when Lloyd and I left Suibara, the little town in northern Japan where we returned the Japanese flag my father acquired in combat in the Pacific. (the subject of my book, THE SOUVENIR)

The ritual of our arrival had been startling, outside of our cultural norm. The entire town lining the streets and waving tiny American and Japanese flags. “Is this some kind of a holiday?” we asked the mayor. “YOU are the occasion,” he replied with a chuckle.

After the sober and awesome ceremony of returning the flag to the Shimizu family, after listening to stories about young Yoshio, who had died in battle at age 21… after the elaborate feast of sushi and sake, after our visit to Lake Hyoko to meet the Swan Uncle, the guardian of Suibara’s Siberian swans… after that astonishing day the Shimizu family packed themselves into several cars to escort us to the train station in the nearby city of Niigata

Lloyd, our translator Masako and I boarded the waiting train. The family assembled outside our window, the colours of their sweaters and jackets making a somber study in mauves, blues and gray.

They did not wave, but stayed in their places as if a portrait photographer were taking a long exposure. The women were in the front, the men behind them. Hiroshi, Hanayo, and Chiyon—the three sisters of Yoshio Shimizu—stood elbow to elbow, their hands clasped together. Behind them: Hiroshi’s husband, Suezo; cousin Yasue, the farmer, and beside him, the new patriarch, young Yoshinobu, Yoshio’s nephew.

When have I taken enough time with an exit, created a ritual if none existed? Perhaps the Shimizus assumed this tableau to allow us to sear the image into our memories. No fleeting goodbye, like so many others, all forgotten. And they are still there in my mind’s eye, after all these years. Their calm presence at the moment of departure marked the rarity and depth of our unlikely meeting and how it had transformed all of us.

Woke Into Heron

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , on May 19, 2012 by Louise Steinman

(heron dream drawing by Beth Thielen, c. 2012)

Matilija poppies are blooming along the L.A. River… bright yellow and white, like fried eggs. I’m grateful to have an hour to ride my bike in what’s left of the morning overcast, to let my thoughts whir with my wheels while I inhale the unique salvia-sewage tang of the river. I think about Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist and poet, whom I had the honor of interviewing recently at ALOUD.

The title of her new book, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, came to Terry in a dream.

There’s a great blue heron on my left, and another. A pair of cormorants, a crow chasing an avocet, stalking egrets, a swallow alighting on a fence railing. The Seventh Day Adventists are strolling adjacent Frogtown, briefcases in hand. A father in a white shirt and tie speaks tenderly to his son. Last night on my way home from downtown, I peered into the open door of the Pentecostal church on Glendale Blvd, where white-scarved women were clapping tambourines and praising the Lord to the beat of an bass guitar. Birds are singers of life, not of death, as naturalist Loren Eisley reminds us, as Terry reminds us “that the world is meant to be celebrated.

Terry Tempest Williams inherited her mother’s journals after her mother died. Or rather, her mother bequeathed those journals to her, after extracting a promise that she wouldn’t open them until after she was gone. Terry’s mother left too soon, even younger than my mother, who left too soon. Cancer claimed both our beautiful mothers.

Terry opened the first journal on the shelf and to her astonishment, found that it was blank. As was the next and the next and the next. What was her mother’s intention in leaving her daughter these empty pages? Terry’s stunning and unclassifiable book is an inquiry into the power of absence. It is the creation story of her own sensibility as an artist, naturalist, activist. It is a dialectic between silence and voice. (The subtitle is: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice). It is about censure and erasure and about daring to speak up.

Birds wing through many pages of the book, through Terry’s family life. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds was the first book Terry took to bed at night. It was her grandmother Mimi who helped her learn the songs of birds. Redtail hawks circled high above my first wedding on the Oregon coast, on a cliff above Cape Foulweather in 1971. Some of the guests wondered at the lack of an officiant, but my Russian grandmother Rebecca, wrapped in a pink blanket, nodded sagely and said, “I understand, the ocean is marrying you.”

Blue heron stalks the shallows of the river, waiting, watching. Was the heron once a woman? Could I join the mockingbird outside my window in song? Might I someday wake into heron like the girl in this Swampy Cree poem?

Woke Into Heron

She was tall, you could see her
in the distance before anyone.

Once, in late summer,
she stood so long at the edge
of the swamp
we thought she was ready
to leave with the herons.

You could see her standing
Very still.

The day the herons left
she stayed. The next day she woke as a girl
all right, but she began being a HERON!
She took long steps, slowly, as if she was
walking in water, hunting in water.
This is true, and she did this
making heron noises.

AND had thin sticks
tied out from her feet
to make heron tracks.

This went away
the next morning. Everyone
was happy she would no longer
go sleep in the water reeds.

This was the first time we saw someone
do this, so we named her
not to forget it.

(from, “Woke Into Heron” published in The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, gathered and translated by Howard A. Norman, Stonehill Publishing, 1976)

Heron Dream Drawing by Beth Thielen, c.2012

blue heron in flight, LA River, May 2012
photo: L. Steinman

Spring on Crete: An Appreciation of James Hillman (1926-2011)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2012 by Louise Steinman

During the seventies and eighties my long-time friend, a painter, lived in Greece, on the island of Crete. In 1981, when spring beckoned after a long dark New York City winter, I scraped together the money to visit her there for the first time.

My friend lived with her Greek husband, a musician from Athens, in an old stone house painted robins egg blue in a village outside the port city of Chania, twenty-five miles from the western edge of the island. None of us was flush, but we ate royally on produce from the garden augmented occasionally by fresh catch from local fishermen and always with excellent cheap local wine decanted into a liter bottle from a barrel at the grocer’s.

My friend’s house had no indoor plumbing, no hot water, no electricity. Mail was rare, phone service was conducted from a pay phone over boxes of brined sardines at the corner store, and email had yet to be invented. Which for me was all for the good. I was relieved to be far away from home and the unrelenting demand to make “life decisions.” Spring on the island— scents of lavender and rosemary, the startling blue Sea of Crete—was ecstatic.

Another joy was that I’d brought just the right book with me. Before leaving New York, my forage through a book bin on upper Broadway yielded a paperback of James Hillman’s Re-visioning Psychology. I’d never heard of Hillman, but there were Greek gods on the cover, which augured well.

Decades later, I’d have the honor of meeting and hosting James Hillman several times at the literary series I curate for the Los Angeles Public LIbrary. But in the wake of Hillman’s death this past fall, at the age of 85, it’s the memory of that first, intense encounter with his work on that trip to Crete that re-asserts itself with such insistence.

What better place than Crete to read about archetypal patterns or, in Hillman’s words, “Gods affecting our styles of consciousness.” Europa swam back to Crete after being mounted by Zeus in the form of a bull; royal dolphins leap blue waves on murals in the royal palace at Knossos, where King Minos threw Theseus into the labyrinth to face the Minotaur. We were all familiar with the bare-breasted Minoan goddess, a wriggling snake held aloft in each of her fists. What interested Hillman was Greek myth not as religion, but as a psychic, imaginal world.

On Crete, I read Hillman and wrestled with his ideas on the patio of the blue house while my friend painted still lifes in her studio. Hillman exhorted the reader to “recall the angel aspect of the word, recognizing words as independent carriers of soul between people.” In each word was the etymon, the hidden truth buried in its root. I was enthralled by Hillman’s bold belief that “words are persons” that have the ability “to burn and become flesh as we speak.” The ideas were rich, complicated, startling; I often had to pause and read one sentence several times.

Hillman’s ideas floated through my mind while my friend and I scouted rugged canyons as sites for her landscape paintings, when we drank fiery raki at 11 a.m. in crumbling monasteries with wry, wrinkled monks. I pondered Hillman at night, listening to the plaintive notes of her husband’s electric bass reverberate through the quiet village.

I remember being particularly struck by Hillman’s explanation of “the pathologized image.” He was referring to those dream images — the psyche’s metaphorical language — that strike us with exceptionally moving power. “Imagination works,” Hillman wrote, “by deforming and forming at one and the same moment.” A pathologized image “touches our sense of life. It both vitiates and vitalizes, a quickening through distortion.”

He expanded on those ideas a few years later, in his book The Dreamer and the Underworld, evoking again the polytheistic Greek world he so admired, where — he pointed out — Hades and Persephone share the same kingdom, Hades and Hermes share the same hat. He compared dream work to alchemy, where one had to deform nature in order to serve nature. The shock of deformation “restores to an image its capacity to perturb the soul,” he wrote. Perturbing the soul was necessary for insight.

Reading Hillman for the first time during that month on Crete, I could not have anticipated how deeply my soul was about to be perturbed. That was before my husband and I divorced, before my Renault Le Car crashed head-on into a two-ton pickup, before my friend’s husband drowned one afternoon in that sparkling sea down the hill from the blue stone house.


James Hillman was a gadfly in the field of psychotherapy, an original thinker who made it his regular practice, as he termed it, “to assault entrenched thought.” He was born in the Breakers Hotel (one of several owned by his father) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was just 18 in 1944 when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. After the war, he attended the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated with honors from Trinity College in Dublin. He moved on to study with Carl Jung in Zurich, and became director of Jung Studies at the Jung Institute there in 1959. Hillman was the author of 28 books, and a great innovator in what is called depth psychology.

The primary tool of this discipline is penetration: one digs below conventional constructs into that layer of the mind that is poetic myth. He arduously applied that methodology to his last book, A Terrible Love of War.

What Hillman most drew on for that subversive study of war’s folly was his experience in the Second World War, when he was assigned as a pharmacist mate second class to a ward of the war-deafened, did night duty with amputees, and worked more than a year as “special assistant to the war-blinded.” He wrote with elegant precision, “What I knew of battle, was only its remnants.” He used to visit a Marine his own age who had lost all four limbs, remarking in the introduction how, “I look at my hands now when I write this.”

He spoke to me about the genesis of that book when he came to Los Angeles in 2004 to speak at the library. We sat in a tranquil hotel garden and he told me how he almost didn’t survive the writing of the book, which warns the reader of its intent: “This book seeks to do what war itself achieves: destabilize, desubjectivize, destroy. The writer comes out of the book a casualty, and the reader too, or at least all shook up.” His aim was to “move our imaginations into the martial state of soul,” exposing how going to war “in the name of peace” was nothing but deceitful rhetoric.

In his talk that evening, he railed against what he saw as our “endemic national disease: the addiction to innocence.” It was three years after the attacks of September 11th and one year since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By nature, Hillman wrote, he considered himself a “child of Mars.” He liked to “sharpen oppositions and set fire to the passions of thought.” That night he lit the fuse.

During the Q&A there were flustered faces and ruffled sensibilities, combustible passions. “The word ‘peace’ is a cover-up,” Hillman told one questioner. “It keeps Americans innocent! We have the most weapons and are the most dedicated to war — our notion of peace is still ‘darkness falling,’” he said, using a phrase from Marguerite Duras. “It’s a way of escaping from the inhumanity that is in the cosmos.”

His interlocutor quavered: “That’s sad!”

“Can we sit with that without going to sleep?” Hillman entreated the audience. “You see, we’re not going to solve the problems until we can stay awake. Vigilantly! That’s the difficulty. That’s what therapy is all about. Waking up! That’s what Socrates says. That’s what Jesus says. Wake up! Wake up! But you don’t wake up unless you can face something — such as the Buddha himself faced. We want to find a solution … we want to go back to sleep.”

That was Hillman in fighting form: combusting the atmosphere, making people squirm, offering paradoxes to consider as a way to further discussion. He wasn’t interested in quick questions or in quick answers. Once, Hillman held a master class with a small group of high school students from Hamilton Humanities Magnet after one of his talks at the library. Afterwards, one of the students pulled me aside to report of Hillman, in astonishment: “You could see him thinking.”


Just months after returning from Crete in 1982, I was a mess of bone fractures and emotional distress from my divorce and the car accident that nearly claimed my life.

Several weeks after the crash, when my broken bones as yet showed no signs of knitting, I awoke alarmed from a hideous dream. A spectator of sure disaster, I watched a woman descend into a deep swimming pool. She was oblivious to the poisonous snake swimming in the depths and I was at too far a distance to warn her.

I watched in horror as the snake wrapped around her body from head to toe. Soon there was nothing left of her but pieces. I could not shake the image. I drew the woman with the snake wrapped around her body.

That same day, staring at the drawing, it occurred to me that the shape made by the snake and the woman’s body was that of the staff of Asclepius, the physician’s wand, the symbol of healing. At the temples of Asclepius, a snake dream was the God himself coming to cure.

With this realization came a shift of perspective. My panic lifted, my body filled with a kind of light, and at that moment I knew that deep in my body tissue and unconscious mind, a process intent on my healing had commenced.

In the marked up copy of Hillman’s masterwork which I read that spring on Crete, I found this sentence boldly underlined: “’Know thyself,’ means also ‘know thy peculiar images.’” According to Hillman, “The soul sees by means of affliction…the wound and the eye are one and the same.”

James Hillman is gone, and the world is much poorer for it. But he leaves behind a life’s worth of original ideas and “angelic words”– to wake us up, to shake us out of our innocence– towards deeper self knowledge.


28 Pergamon Altar photo, by Rictor Norton and David Allen, Creative Commons license

Still Life with Quinces, Kriti Scotty Mitchell, all rights reserved

snake dream drawing: Louise Steinman

This post first published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan 29, 2012

The Song the Poet Sang: Remembering the life and times of Lew Welch

Posted in ALOUD, Literature with tags , , , , on May 26, 2011 by Louise Steinman

[Forty years] have passed since the winter we hosted Reed College‘s poet in residence. We were living then on Southeast Schiller, in a tiny two-story house set back from the street behind three towering European birches. Dan had just graduated from Reed, and I was a sophomore studying American lit. Our friends lived in Reed houses with names like Bedshop or Toad Hall, or out at Mist Mountain Farm: Paul in the shake-roofed geodesic called “The Beehive,” Richard and Vicki in the sod house they called “The Hole,” and Steffi and Meg in what had been the goat shed. Our friend Aron built himself a wooden yurt in the Reed canyon and moved in.

Lew Welch ’50 was chosen as the poet in residence that January, I later learned, because Gary Snyder ’51 had been invited but couldn’t come and he suggested his friend Phil Whalen ’51, and Phil Whalen couldn’t come and he suggested his friend Lew Welch ’50. Lew didn’t know this at the time, of course, which was just as well.

We’d been fans of Lew’s poetry for years. While still in high school, I’d made a pilgrimage to the basement of City Lights Bookstore, where I listened raptly as Dan read aloud “The Song of the Turkey Buzzard” from Lew’s longer poem, “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings.” I’d noticed turkey buzzards on a hike that same afternoon. Scrawny red-necked creatures gorging on road kill. But Lew described the vulture as a “bird of re-birth,” one who could “keep the highways clean, and bother no Being.” Through Lew’s perspective, I changed my opinion of those elegant, lazy soarers, those ultimate recyclers.

When we heard that Lew had been chosen to be poet in residence, we asked the Paideia committee if we might invite him over for dinner some night. Hell yes. In fact, we could have him for the whole week! We would even be provided with a stipend for his food. Euphoric with our good fortune and sobered by this great honor and responsibility, we busily stocked our refrigerator with wholesome foods: seasonal vegetables and ripe fruit from Corno’s Groceries, whole milk with real cream from People’s Food Store, sausages from Otto’s, Italian cheeses from Pieri’s. We mopped the floor of our little house and transformed the downstairs couch into a guest bed. We baked Tibetan barley bread and a blackberry pie.

We waited expectantly for the arrival of our revered poet. Around dinnertime, he appeared at the front door wearing a lumpy overcoat, sporting a stubble of several days, and smelling unmistakably of Jim Beam. He was a handsome man still, with fine features and a mane of reddish hair framing a high forehead. His eyes were roguish, quick and alive; his smile to die for. It was soon clear that our guest feasted on language, not food. He didn’t touch a morsel of the lovingly prepared first night’s dinner, or any other dinner we set on the table in front of him. Orange juice with raw egg in the morning, some hair of the dog. That seemed to be it.

And speaking of dogs . . . we forgot to tell Lew we had one. Our dog, Elwha Pootel, was off on his nocturnal rounds when Lew arrived the first night. Around midnight, Lew crashed on the couch and we went upstairs to bed. In the middle of the night, Elwha scratched at the door and Lew, half asleep, stumbled over and opened it for him. The exuberant pup leapt into the poet’s warm sheets and shook off his wet, snowy coat. Apparently, poet and dog made an accommodation–we didn’t hear about it until the next morning.

Lew was touched and amused at the domesticity of his young hosts, then both aspiring poets. I think he was honestly curious as to how life would treat us–so young and so privileged–in the years to come. We admired him enormously for all the experience we didn’t have. He was one of the original Beats. He’d driven cross-country with Kerouac. He’d written the line RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD during his short stint as a novice advertising copywriter. The road he had chosen–as an authentic poet, a longshoreman, and an alcoholic–was a hard one.

Lew taught us to revel in the rhythm of everyday speech (“My finger on the throttle and my foot upon the pedal of the clutch”) and he exhorted us to read our poetry out loud. “When you write down a poem,” he said, “you are transcribing a voice.” He made us see that poetry didn’t have to be obscure, it could be as real as the red wheelbarrow or the young girl splashing in the surf at Muir Beach with her jeans rolled to mid-thigh. He helped us see the connection between writing poetry and living poetry.

He insisted on taking us everywhere by taxi, even the half-mile to campus, in the rare heavy snow of that January in Portland. Lew had at one time driven taxi for a living (“When I drive cab/ I bring the sailor home from the sea. In the back of/ my car he fingers the pelt of his maiden”). Now that he was poet in residence, and we were his hosts, damnit, we were going to be chauffeured. Our regular route to campus–Southeast 41st, Woodstock Boulevard–looked entirely different viewed from the windows of a Yellow Cab churning its way through the unplowed streets.

Lew was at a pinnacle in his life (soon to crash again). For the moment he had solve one of his big problems. (“Manifesto,” 1964: “Without in any way causing a strain on my community, without begging or conning anyone in any way, I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job, which is Poet.”) Lew sang his poetry, nipping on Old Overholt from a silver flask. His young audience listened reverently. He was our own Irish bard and imperfect Zen master, our teacher and our friend.

He came up to the Northwest again, later that spring, to dry out at Bill and Nancy Yardas’s stump farm in Woodland, Washington. Bill and Lew had gone commercial salmon fishing together in the early ’60s; they shared the laughter and the intimacy of old friends. Bill was a burly affable Yugoslav with thick silver hair and a droll sense of humor. A “redneck beatnik,” he called himself. His right arm was withered from a forceps birth. With his good left arm Bill could saddle a horse, chop wood, prime a pump, free a lamb from a blackberry thicket. A pack of Camels was perpetually grasped in the hand of his tiny arm. We’d drive up to Bill’s farm for the night, enthusiastically devour the steak and potatoes that Nancy cooked up on the wood-burning stove, then listen to Bill and Lew rap on into the wee hours of the morning in a haze of tobacco and dope smoke.

That summer, Lew decided to get a fresh start by building his own cabin on land in the Sierra foothills near Snyder’s homestead. We would be the work crew. Lew wrote us letters outlining our duties. I would be the camp cook. (Lew was no student of feminism.) Dan and our friend Steve Nemirow ’71, another Reed poet and then an apprentice stone mason, would help with the heavy construction. We were to show up in early August, when the building materials would have arrived. I remember Lew was worried about the financial outlay, worried about running the show.

When the semester ended, I went down to Los Angeles for a quick visit with my folks. I was exhausted from too many all-nighters. The first day home I slept late, settling down at noon for breakfast. I picked up the L.A. Times lying on the kitchen table. In a little paragraph in regional news, I noticed a bolded headline: SEARCH OFF FOR MISSING BEAT GENERATION POET. My heart lurched. The brief article described how the poet Lew Welch had been missing for a week in the Sierra foothills. On May 23, apparently in a deep depression, the article said, Welch took his revolver and walked away into the forest. His body has never been found.

When August rolled around, instead of working on Lew’s cabin, Dan and I decided to get married at Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast. We assembled our family and friends at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We stood in a circle: our friends from Mist Farm in their tattered best, my father in a suit, my grandmother wrapped in a pink blanket, Elwha Pootel sporting a red yarn on his collar. We read one of Lew’s poems as part of the ceremony:

I for one, am still looking. So many years have passed since Lew left my life and probably this world. Dan and I still write–occasionally poems, mostly nonfiction–though in different cities and in separate lives. I know now what I didn’t know at 20–how difficult it is for a writer to pay her bills entirely by doing her “real job.” At 60, I am older now than Lew was when I first met him.

Whenever I travel, and drive into a new city, say Albuquerque or Pittsburgh or El Paso, it’s become a habit to look carefully at the hard faces of men in bus stations or huddled in soup kitchen lines. I guess I’m still searching for Lew, though I don’t really think Lew would have chosen to disappear into urban America. Maybe he’s off living his hermit life, as he did that one winter on the Little Salmon River (“I saw myself/ a ring of bone/ in the clear stream/ of all of it”). I think about first hearing “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” at City Lights and I remember Lew’s admonition to his friends in that poem:

Let no one grieve,
I shall have used it all up
used up every bit of it.

What an extravagance!
What a relief

There’s one of Lew’s poems I’ve kept taped to my kitchen wall in all the cities I’ve lived in during the last two decades. It’s a poem that never fails to help me put my life into perspective. I recommend it highly:

Small Sentence to Drive Yourself Sane

The next time you are dong something absolutely ordinary, or even better.

The next time you are doing something absolutely necessary, such as pissing or making love,
or shaving or washing the dishes or the baby or yourself or the room, say to yourself:

“So it’s all come to this!”

[originally published as “The Song the Poet Sang: A Friend Remembers the Life and Times of Lew Welch,” REED Magazine, 1999.
this week is the 40th anniversary of Lew’s disappearance.
Tomorrow night at ALOUD, with Gary Snyder, Lewis MacAdams and April Fitzsimmons, we’ll commemorate Lew’s life and work.

Paradise on Hope: On the 25th Anniversary of the Central Library fire

Posted in ALOUD with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2011 by Louise Steinman

“I have always thought that Paradise was a kind of library.”
-Jorge Luis Borges

On a November morning, a crowd soaks up the wan sun in the Maguire Gardens in front of Central Library. The lucky ones sip coffee out of paper cups, others slump in the stupor of the unslept. A black feral cat slinks out of the shrubbery to forage. At a quarter to ten, the waiting throng jockeys for position at the three entrances to the Central Library: Flower Street, 5th Street, and Hope. At 10 AM, a Library security officer unlocks the tall copper doors, swings them outwards. The crowd surges inside in a race to reach computers, magazines, warmth, chairs, public restrooms.

I’ve worked at Central Library for sixteen years now, yet the urgency of this morning ritual never fails to move me. After all, this is no mad rush for rock concert tickets or wide-screen TV’s. These people are hurrying into a library. This library is many things to many people—a place where scholars do serious research, where parents read aloud to their children, where jobseekers polish resumes. In the Literacy Center, volunteers tutor adults in reading, in the Popular Library commuters peruse audiobooks and in the public restroom near the 5th Street entrance, homeless women brush their teeth.

In the Mark Taper Auditorium, where I curate a lecture and performance series, Angelenos gather to listen to a physicist discuss black holes or a novelist extol “the human fidelity to beautiful ideas.” We’ve presented Zen archers and hiphop poets, a panel of bloggers and journalists helped us envision the rocky future of the Los Angeles Times.

The Central Library was built in 1921 during one of LA’s boom cycles. It may have been a time of shoddily constructed subdivisions, but the Central library was built to last. The building was a collaboration among the architect Bertrand Grosvener Goodhue, the painter Dean Cornwell, and the German-born sculptor Lawrie Lee. Goodhue’s intent was to mimic Egyptian architecture: topping the library roof is a pyramid tiled on all four sides with images of the sun. At its apex is a golden hand circumscribed by the Serpent of Knowledge and holding aloft a torch: “the light of learning.” The Goddess of Civilization, flanked by two black marble sphinxes, presides over the grand staircase to the rotunda. On her crown is a tiny replica of the library. Her staff rests on the back of a tortoise. On her the bronze breastplate are images of Romulus and Remus, the Egytian pyramids, the winged bull of Babylon, the goddess Shiva, a Minoan temple, a Phoenician ship, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a Conestoga wagon, an American bison, and the Liberty Bell. From the facades of the building, bas reliefs of great philosophers and historians— Herodotus, Virgil, Socrates — peer down at all who enter.

The old building was a civic treasure; but it was stuffed to the ceiling with combustible material, lacked a sprinkler system, adequate ventilation and storage space for the collection. Recommendations on fixing the outdated building were doomed with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. On April 29, 1986–an arson fire that originated in the Rare Books Room of Central Library sent smoke billowing into the afternoon sky. It took over 360 firefighters from sixty companies to subdue the stubborn blaze.

smoke billows from Central Library, April 29, 1986 photo: LAPL Photo Collection

In the days and weeks that followed, many librarians joined the salvage effort, working in foot-deep toxic stew of soot, mold, and melted debris without protective gear. Many contracted a wicked chronic bronchitis from these efforts. (The perpetrators have never been apprehended.) Nearly 400,000 books were destroyed, but the disaster did have a silver lining, mobilizing the public and civic leaders to rally behind the Save the Books campaign to raise funds to rebuild Central Library.

In 1993, the expanded, renovated, technologically updated building opened to great fanfare. I began working for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles that same year, with a mandate to create public programs. In my dreams that first year, I noted in my journal, Central Library often appeared as a maze, “with many secret areas as yet unopened to the public.”

Every Thursday morning school groups visit Central Library. I watch the second graders sitting cross-legged on the marble floor of the Rotunda under the Zodiac chandelier. Their high-pitched voices blur in the vast hall. They look upwards with wonder and curiosity at Dean Cornwell’s forty-foot high California history murals that cover the vaulting walls. Cornwell, a magazine illustrator, completed them in 1932. The murals are visually delightful and—if you’ve read much California history—intellectually distressing. Cortez steps ashore. Muscular heathens kneel at his feet, heads bowed, offering gifts of beads and pelts. “ A chubby eight year old asks, “How did he paint it?” During Cornwell’s lifetime, a newspaper called the Central Library murals “the largest ever executed by one man since Michelangelo decorated the Sistine Chapel.”

Fragment, Central Library mural by Dean Cornwell

The docent crouches down next to the boy, who is the same hue as the kneeling Gabrielino. She points out how there are over three hundred figures, each one outlined in pale blue. “Look, those are the padres, they are holding the building plans for missions. They walked the length of California.”

And I am back in my own fourth grade classroom at La Ballona Elementary in Culver City, melding flour, water, salt for my relief map of my home state. We constructed California missions out of popsicle sticks and learned that the Indians were grateful to be clothed, fed, and educated by the good padres. It wasn’t until my thirties, working on a documentary film about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian in California, that I learned the uglier side of California history—the forced conversions, repression of native languages, the official state bounty on Indian scalps the plunder of resources Indians needed to survive– all painfully symbolized by those subservient figures in Cornwell’s murals. I sit on the floor of the library and stare up at the Zodiac, thinking of Ishi— in his skins and seared scalp, mourning for his family.

There are plenty of books on the library’s shelves that tell about the rich culture of California’s indigenous peoples. I wonder if those second graders will someday possess the curiosity to seek them out and read them.


The library is open to all and, as the Great Recession tightens its grip, a growing number of L.A.’s homeless seek haven there during the day. The untreated mentally ill are among the regular visitors, ranting, sitting and staring, making entrances and exits through the lobby. A few weeks ago, a man attempted suicide in the library atrium. An email from the City Librarian went out to all staff: “A man jumped at 11:45 AM.” No one could agree from which floor—some said the third, some the fourth. A librarian in the Literature Department caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. Some said he took a running leap, others that he stepped over the railing without hesitation. Without a doubt, he fell onto the Atrium Lower Level 1, where the first security officer to reach him was Officer Kyles, who I happen to know can speak in tongues. Damage was done, blood spilled, bones askew. Officer Kyles stayed by his side. “Did you pray for him?” I asked later. He nodded somberly. “He wasn’t going to die on my watch.” The jumper did live, surviving surgery and a tenure in the ICU at County Hospital. Officer Kyles says they’re trying to find his family.

Recently, as part of our lecture series, the Surrealist poet Andrei Codrescu spoke about his Posthuman Dada Guide. During his talk it occurred to me that our jumper may have considered himself already in the posthuman world, that he’d moved on to the phase when one can exist half human, half bird.


There’s a charming tiled fountain flanked by tangerine trees that I walk past every day en route to work, after climbing the stairs from Hope Street. It took years until I finally noticed the quote chiseled in the marble: “WISDOM IS THE RIPE FRUIT OF MUCH REFLECTION.” The converse is now etched into my mind as well: ignorance is the unripe fruit of much inattention.

After all, for years I exited the library onto Hope Street at the end of every work day, without realizing this was the same Hope Street inscribed on my birth certificate. It wasn’t until Cornerstone Theater mounted a site-specific production of “Candide” (re-titled “Candude, the Civil Servant”) in the Central Library that I made the connection. At the climax of the play, the actors lead the audience on a journey through one of the library’s underground tunnels and, at the finale, the hero Candude flung open the doors onto Hope Street. “Hope!” he cried, “here it is.”

Hope Street, where I was born, just six blocks away from Central Library. I haven’t come far from my origins. Perhaps that’s why the idea of Central Library as a hearth of the city resonates so deeply with me. This life-quickened repository of wisdom, an un-virtual world where we daily interact with serpents of knowledge, goddesses of civilization, scholars, bodhisattvas, poets, madmen, would-be suicides. Where every morning at 10 AM (while there’s still the budget and the public will to keep it open), the eager crowd rushes in.

[Written 2009, published originally in The Devil’s Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today, Red Hen Press, 2010]

Brian Turner reading at ALOUD

Posted in ALOUD with tags , , on November 19, 2010 by Louise Steinman

Poet Brian Turner—a veteran of Iraq– read at the library as part of ALOUD last night. He read about exhausted Scheherezade falling off the Al-A’imma Bridge, about desert winds, and soldiers bleeding out. He read about child sobbing that his father was a “good man,” he read about headless Iraqi translators who appear in his dreams. He wrote of women in abayas floating in the waters of the Tigris River, the rotor sounds of helicopter blades, about a caliph trampled to death by horses.  He carried us to the landscape of that war that has no front lines, the war that takes place in small stucco houses with dirt floors, in  cargo containers booming disco music.  How are we complicit in that war that still smoulders and the one in Afghanistan that still rages? There was a young woman who sat on a bench during the booksigning, silently crying. Her husband or friend kept his hand on her back, trying to comfort her. Brian paused during the booksigning to speak with them. I couldn’t hear what he said. She nodded at him gratefully. He wrote something on a note and gave it to her. Afterwards, he told me that her cousin—a soldier in Afghanistan—stepped on an IED two days ago and lost both his legs, but he doesn’t know it yet.  “And it goes on and on,” he said.