Trying something new


Apr 17th 2014

It Won't copy.jpg

I made this painting in class on Monday evening. My teacher, Lisa Creed, sensed that I have  been floundering. Not able to find a new direction, and pretty uninspired by the work I was producing. Even though some of it is quite nice, I think. So she talked me through the steps that led to this painting: etching through wet paint (i do that quite often) but then adding colors I dislike and more layers on top of that. Hmm. What do I want to say here, really? I want to say. Here is this painting. It represents a breakthrough, a new direction. I read once that anything worth doing is worth doing six times. So I am going to follow the same steps a few more times, with variations, and I am going to write about the process and show what the painting looks like along the way. I just finished reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!, which is the inspiration for this decision. I am nervous. But I have been reading a lot about failure lately, the value of public failure, so I think I will go for it. I have no idea how often I will paint, how often I will post. That is one of the things I am exploring–how often do I actually want to paint? We’ll see.

Rooting for Duke: a rueful reflection


Mar 24th 2014

When Duke lost to Mercer in the NCAA tournament on Friday, I posted this message to the group of family and friends with whom I have happily spent March playing “Bracketology” over the past few years:

“I was hoping for whew, but it’s definitely a whoa. Mercer was fun to watch, alas.”

And then I started thinking about that “alas.” I have been a Duke basketball fan ever since I enrolled as a freshman in 1968.
But watching Mercer beat Duke brought me right up to some cognitive dissonance that I’d long avoided (mostly). Rooting for Duke does not jibe with my values. And it’s not just the obvious—that Duke is an expensive, elite, private institution. No. What I saw today in living color is the clash between community and the star system. In Mercer I saw a team filled with players who had been together as a unit for two, three, even four years because they are not good enough to be recruited into the NBA after their freshmen or sophomore years. And it showed. They played with communication and teamwork against the strikingly talented Blue Devils. And it worked. While watching I pulled strongly for Duke to eke out the victory, but afterwards I realized that underneath the disappointment lurked a deep satisfaction with what I had just witnessed.

The star system has distorted so many aspects of our society, from the billionaires who pour huge amounts of money into shaping public opinion to suit their interests just because they have amassed unimaginable piles of money. And even those who pour huge amounts into otherwise worthy causes, like The Gates Foundation’s commitment to global health initiatives. In my own life I have witnessed its impact on academia—reverence and big salaries for the biggies, along with recruiting wars, combined with insecure tenure and often shockingly low salaries for non-regular rank instructors. This phenomenon feels like a grotesquely overgrown child of the American Dream of success and prosperity. And it is surely a factor in our collective unwillingness to think clearly about and remedy the shocking levels of inequality that permeates our daily existence.

I still love to watch basketball. And I will probably keep rooting for Duke, but I hope to stay a little more awake to the embedded contradictions.



Aug 10th 2012

I spent several days this week in Portland, hanging out with my nearly-two-year-old granddaughter while my daughter attended a conference.  We went swimming every afternoon in the hotel pool and I tried not to be dismayed that Kendall’s favorite parts of the trek seemed to be the elevator ride and tossing the towels in the basket when we were through with them.  She even figured out that if she went into the pool more than once she might get more towels to toss.

Every morning we walked a few blocks south to catch the train that makes Portland such a pedestrian friendly city.  We went to Stumptown Coffee, where Kendall delighted in sitting on the high stools while eating her blueberry scone.  One day we went to Powell’s City of Books where I faced the challenges of preventing her from pulling every book off the shelf in the children’s department and persuading her to choose just three books to take with us.  (We got out of there with five.). That same day, disoriented upon exiting Powell’s, I walked ten blocks in the wrong direction trying to find the big wading pool in Jamison Square.  While I was figuring it out Kendall fell asleep and I got hungry, but thankfully I discovered a lovely outdoor cafe next to the pool once we finally got there.  I had a delightful brunch, complete with gluten-free biscuit, while she slept.  And afterwards Kendall romped in the pool which features cascading water and wonderful climbing stones.  We both got soaked and  rode back to the hotel tired and happy.

Two other days we spent twenty minutes or so on the train riding to Washington Park to visit the Children’s Museum and the zoo.  These trips were made possible by a capacious stroller known as “the Bob,” which carried a small cooler for snacks, a huge bag of Kendall supplies, and a our water bottles, all while providing a comfortable and smooth ride for Kendall.  The Bob was great, but also a trial in the crowded train cars where I spent most trips trying to avoid bumping into people and moving aside so they could get on and off the train.  In each train car there is a section designated for strollers and bicycles that has no seats, so mostly I spent our trips standing.  On our last ride, after an exhausting trip to the zoo, which seemed to have sequestered most of its animals for the day, and after Kendall had announced that she was ready to leave and promptly fell asleep, we boarded a nearly empty train.  I found a seat with a Bob-sized space in front of it and sat down.  As we rode, the train began to fill.  I was sitting in a zone designated for people in wheelchairs and old folks, so I was ever alert to those boarding to make sure I didn’t need to move.  I made it all the way to our stop at the Convention Center without having to give up my seat.  And only after disembarking did I realize that those seats might have been meant for me.  At 62, I very nearly qualified. 



Jul 31st 2012

When I retired at the end of June I expected that not much would change. After all I have been working an academic calendar for a number of years now and gradually moving towards this new phase of life. When everyone started getting ready for the new semester in mid-August, that’s when it would really hit me. That’s what I thought. And I assumed it would still be the same life.

The first hint that I might be wrong came when Jim and I realized that perhaps the best way to transport some household items to our daughter in Seattle was to drive them there ourselves. In September. After the summer crowds. When for most of our lives we were just getting busy, just starting another round of school, we could be meandering across the country.

Then, our daughter needed childcare in both early and late August and I decided that it made sense to just stay in the Northwest. All of a sudden I am spending a huge chunk of the oppressive summer in a place where it rarely breaks 75 degrees, a place that has beckoned me since before my daughter moved here twelve years ago. A place that feels almost like home.

The final touch, the thing that really tells me that things have changed, is the two-week painting workshop that I’m in the middle of right now. I have been looking forward to this for months, finally succumbing to the cajoling of my friend Grace to give it a try. I came with some trepidation, my first art venture outside of Durham. I didn’t quite know what to expect. Mixing paint. I never do that. Raw canvas. I’d never tried that either. I figured I’d learn a lot and I have. But I never expected to find myself falling into bliss. And this is where language fails me. 

I think I will have more to say about the workshop after it is over. And I will surely post images of some of the paintings I have made here. For now I just want to note my amazement at the turn my life has taken. A turn that has brought me far from my community in Durham, a wonderful web of mostly women who made it possible for me to venture so far from home.

A link in a chain


Jul 17th 2012


I am a link in a chain of women. This thought came to me this morning after a day and a half with my daughter and granddaughter, a day and a half that left little room for attending to anything else. We are at the beach together for the first time since my granddaughter was born nearly two years ago. This beach, Ocracoke, is perhaps my daughter’s favorite place on the planet. Coming here throughout her childhood played a huge role in her decision to become a marine conservationist.

But the chain. It escaped my notice before today, probably because my family of origin placed such a huge emphasis on boys. It has been quite overtly patriarchist. Two examples. Both my brother and I were named for my father. And one evening my father announced at my dinner table that his grandsons, my brother’s children, were his only real heirs. This in the presence of his daughter and beloved granddaughter. So it has been very easy to see women as peripheral. At least in the context of family.

The chain. My mother’s mother was the older of two sisters (no boys). My mother the oldest of three (also no boys). I do have a brother (and I think my mother was very proud to break the chain in this particular way), but in my line, for the moment at least, there are only girls. I have a daughter, who has a daughter.

This came to me, I think, because I have neglected almost everything else in the last two days. I chat and catch up with my daughter in the rare quiet moments that arise when you live with a toddler. But mostly I hang out with my granddaughter; I figure out that for the moment it makes sense to let her put the jigsaw puzzle together however she wants. I pay close attention when she speaks, which is most of her waking moments, so that I can participate in the burgeoning language that is a glorious mixture of English and Kendallese. I change her diaper and help her eat. Partly my absorption comes from living on the opposite coast from my girls most of the time. They live in Seattle. I in North Carolina. Partly, it is ordinary grandmother behavior. And partly, I think, it’s part of the chain.

Movement and stillness


Jul 9th 2012

You do not need to leave your room… Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Franz Kafka, quoted in John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity, 95

It is necessary to do something physical, to incarnate the energy of unlived life, to prevent it from sinking back again into the underworld of the unconscious.

Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruehl, Living Your Unlived Life, 126

 I am an expert at finding reasons not to exercise—it’s too hot, it’s too cold, too early, too late. I’m sick. I’m busy. This, I believe, is a common affliction, one that, for me at least, seems to originate in an alienation from and mistrust of my body. When I was a child I was valued for my mind, or even more, for my measurable, demonstrable, smarts. Not an athlete, and as a girl of the ‘50s and ‘60s not encouraged to overcome my reluctance. Not a dancer, though I did take ballet lessons which quickly taught me that I was not very stretchy. In my public life I was a good student, a reader. And in my private life I lolled dreamily on my bed playing paper dolls and, later, listening to music. My wonderful therapist tells me that, given this childhood and an adulthood spent learning how to center myself, I have inadvertently overdeveloped my capacity for stillness. We are also made to move, she reminds me, and to experience ourselves and our connection to the world inside the movement.

The Buddha advocated a Middle Way, and in this case that middle, it seems, must come through a conversation between stillness and movement. And that conversation must take place in the body, through the body, by the body. When my therapist suggested that I had overdeveloped stillness, I think that was a kind way of saying that I had an underdeveloped sense of living as a body. That even in healthy stillness we remain embodied.

I think this lack may stem in part from how I learned to cope with anxiety. I tend to shut down, unlike others in my life who just get busier. They try to do more and more to cover their anxiety. I do less and less until I resemble a paralyzed ball. After a few moments–hours, days–of this I become convinced that the way out is to do, to just get up and do something. There’s lots of advice out there suggesting that this is correct. But what I really need to do in these moments, I am learning, is to switch from lethargy and laziness into a state of awareness which may look on the outside remarkably like lethargy and laziness, but which has a completely different energy inside. For me the road out of anxiety and into myself is not to get busy. Rather it is to drop judgment and breathe, so I can rediscover myself, and my intention. Any movement, any doing, must come from here. This is what I am trying to learn–a middle way that incorporates both embodied stillness and mindful movement, a way into the fullness of life.

And after spending a couple of days with my nearly two-year-old granddaughter I think she may be my best teacher.

Book learning

Book Learning

Jul 2nd 2012

I was raised to value book learning. Books contained truth, knowledge, facts, the key to success in the world. I also learned from teachers, but I sussed early that what they knew they had learned from books. My father, son of a poor farmer in southwest Arkansas, used his ability to absorb book learning to leave home, to graduate from high school at 16 and from law school at 21. When I was a child my grandparents’ house did not contain many books, but those they did have stood regally behind glass in their one fine piece of furniture. I sat for hours in front of that cabinet, examining those old books, even though the only one I remember is my father’s old college yearbook. College, a magical place where one could gather the power contained in those books.

There were not many books in our house, either. My mother claimed a love of history and geography but did not spend much time reading. She had women’s magazines, but I rarely saw her sitting down to read. I’m trying to envision our bookshelves, but cannot see them. Not in the living room. Not my parents’ bedroom. My father had a wall of books in his study, but they were his law books and mostly uninteresting, except for the collected stories of Mark Twain. We did have a set of World Book Encyclopedia and a copy of the Britannica; we must have kept them downstairs in the family room. I have vague memories of jumping up from the dinner table to retrieve the volume that could resolve questions like “why did the Romans abandon Gaul?” or “What kind of government do they have in India?” We were a family in love with facts. The world could be climbed and conquered through gaining knowledge and knowledge was made up of information and facts. Every January my father went off to buy the latest World Almanac so that we would have access to the most up-to-date and accurate information. And then there were the serious books, which included textbooks, that contained facts, knowledge, truth, and the key to success. And later, academic monographs which carried all these things, too, with bigger and fancier words. I set out to write one of these, the ultimate validation of success in the realm of book learning. And while I did manage to complete a dissertation (no small feat), over the next two years it became clear that I didn’t actually want to write a monograph.

When I was a child I also loved other books—novels and romances that took me to another world, books that made my body tingle, books that were for me alone in my room. I have always read. Books have been my solace and my shield. My parents didn’t pay too much attention to what I was reading, but they valued book learning so much that when I was reading I could get out of almost any chore. I read these other books all through graduate school, through all the stages of my career, even when it seemed like there couldn’t possibly be enough hours in the day. I have always had a book going, or two, or ten.

Now that I am retired the sky’s the limit, it seems. Some days I can read all day if I want to. And sometimes I do. There is no more delicious pleasure than falling into another world–Henry VIII’s England through Bringing Up the Bodies, a California where time is slowing down in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and wartime England through the splendid cheesiness of Penny Vincenzi–only to wake up several hours later forgetting where you are. The books I have read, all of them I think, have had some value even as they have often kept me from more active pursuits. They have provided fodder for art-making, my more recent passion that lives alongside the books, in ways that I cannot put into words. Book learning, indeed, of a completely different sort.

Life, flowing


Jun 25th 2012

When I pay attention to what is going on in my body, especially in the stillness of meditation, the first thing I notice is tension. This is almost always true. I notice the way I am holding muscles and impeding the flow of breath without awareness. I try to direct breath into the stuck places, which sometimes feels like my whole head and torso, and begin to feel a loosening. If I can stick with it long enough sometimes I can feel whatever lies under the tension, whatever the tension must be designed to help me avoid. But this is difficult and it doesn’t usually happen. I cannot will it. As I write I realize that one answer is probably patience. That by noticing I am probably on the right track. And it is no surprise that it may take time for me to actually feel. There is a lifetime of unconscious avoidance stuck in my body. Watching my mother deal with the reality that she was dying of cancer gave me a glimpse of where that avoidance came from. Repeatedly she insisted “I am not in pain.” Maybe it was true. After all, this is the woman who always refused novacaine. Whatever the reason, I know that I carry tension in my body and that I often have a hard time knowing what I am feeling. Sometimes I can actually observe myself turning away from a budding emotion. I am trying to learn not to do that, but it happens so fast, so automatically.

Recently I revisited a book I met over a decade ago while attending a workshop sponsered by the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.(AEPL) The book, Embodying Well-Being was created by an amazing woman named Julie Henderson, who had become an expert on working with stuck energy. In the book she says: “If you make yourself do something over your own deep objections, it cannot touch you profoundly because you will express your objection covertly–‘keeping it out’–even as you do it.”(23) Wow. A pretty concise potential explanation of where all that tension comes from. In the book and at the workshop Julie talked about pulsation, that our bodies are made up of pulsation, and that we stay healthy by helping it to move.

This made me think of another word that I’ve encountered in my reading: resonance. Here is Jungian analyst James Hollis in Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life:

“If something resonates within, it is somehow about us, and for us, and if it does not, it will only betray the soul in the long run, no matter how much ego wills or tradition venerates… Your summons is to respect what comes to you…” (206)

I think he and Julie Henderson are saying the same thing. And this thing is the key to unlocking my stuck energy. Resonance, where inner and outer meet. When we feel resonance we can be sure that we have met ourselves and are in our place. It seems a dangerous thing to be out of resonance. Which I feel like I have been for much of my life. Finally, now, I do notice when I have lost track of the energy, but I still don’t quite know what to do. Move? Speak? Change something? Do not pretend? That seems key, do no pretend to feel resonance when you don’t. A first step at least.

And then remember the things that help. This is likely different for each of us, but probably often involves movement. I have learned that painting, especially painting to music can get the energy flowing. Cooking to music, too, sometimes. Even watching So You Think You Can Dance or reading a good book (like Richard Ford’s Canada, which I am reading right now).

I will give the last word to Chogyam Trungpa, great master of fully inhabiting life: “…that is the definition of bravery; not being afraid of yourself.” (Shambala, 28)

Maturity: neither naked nor clothed

Maturity: Neither Naked nor Clothed

Jun 18th 2012

By: Marcy Litle


Because I didn’t have much access to either intuition or art for so many years they feel like extraordinary gifts. They give my life a depth that sometimes seems too good to be true. For many years I tried to dismiss my longing for whatever was missing as childish fantasy, something that I would outgrow. I thought that becoming mature was like putting on a set of new clothes and that my problem was that I had no talent for finding the right outfits. I often played this out in a literal way as I worried over what to wear during visits to my very proper in-laws in Pennsylvania, visits that always included a ladies luncheon.  Or with my boss when I worked at the first-year dean’s office at Duke, my boss who insisted that we should dress every day ready for a face-off with the corporate executive parent who might walk through the door at any moment. It did happen, but rarely, and generally with warning. It’s well embedded in the culture, this notion that you’ll be fine as long as you wear the right outfit. I confess to enjoying an occasional evening with Say Yes to the Dress.  And like anyone with access to advertisements I grew up bombarded with images about how to dress.  My most sustained early exposure came through my mother’s women’s magazines, Ladies Home Journal and McCalls. And also through the clothes worn by Laura Petrie and later by working girl Mary Richards, and other women on TV, even Della Street in her sensible suits.

After a lifetime of such messages, subtle and overt, I’ve been tempted to go whole hog in the opposite direction, to say that the real key to maturity lies not in clothes, not in learning how to fit in anywhere, anytime, but in a willingness to strip naked. One of my earliest realizations about how much extra garbage I had picked up over the years, how much excess clothing I had taken on during all those years of trying to fit in, was that letting go of what didn’t belong to me felt like peeling off the layers of an onion. Wouldn’t it be that when I finally finished and arrived at the center I would have nothing in my hand but nakedness? But I have come to believe that mature presence isn’t built upon naked self-disclosure. Rather the nothing at the center of the onion seems to be constituted of awareness and receptivity. In the moments when I find myself in that center I am on the edge of wordlessness, without language or concept.  At the center an aware response just happens. This is what my intuition tells me. This is where art can take me.  Neither naked nor clothed.



Jun 14th 2012


All night the wind blew. With most of the doors and windows open it was almost like sleeping outdoors. All night the wind ruffled my hair. This morning it still blows, with low clouds, and more water in the marsh than I have ever seen except during a hurricane. I want to stay indoors and watch through the open door. I want to listen. Birds fly in one direction only.

Jim has gone out running for the first time in weeks. In this wind. I listen for the door. Last night he snored all night. A symphony of wakefulness. For me. I think he is running because of the snoring. Because I complained. I imagine what I would do if he never came back.

A small black bird perches on the deck railing just outside the open door. She struggles to stay upright. She is gone. Into the wind. I see that I was wrong. They can fly in both directions. Downstairs I hear the slamming door.

It’s me, he calls.

Good, I reply.



Jun 11th 2012

Most of my life I have been a good sleeper. At least in beds. Not so much in cars or airplanes; I’ve long envied my daughter her capacity for that. And I don’t fall asleep at movies, mostly, I thought, because I slept so well at night. Not anymore. From what I’ve read it’s a sign of age, this more fraught relationship with sleep. No longer am I the envy of friends and husband who have long suffered sleep issues. They tend to wake up at three or four and can’t get back to sleep. That doesn’t happen to me. No. My new problem is with falling asleep in the first place. I have two patterns. And the difference is alcohol. When I have two glasses of wine in the evening I fall asleep fairly easily, within thirty minutes or so. And then predictably I wake up in the middle of the night; but those night wakings don’t last too long and they don’t bring me fully awake. Also, I no longer prolong them with self-chastisement over drinking too much. Even so, I don’t think this pattern is healthy. But it is predictable. I can orchestrate it. As I did a few nights ago out of frustration over the persistence of the other pattern, the one that happens when I don’t drink more than a single glass in the evening. In that pattern I read for a while after getting in bed and turn out the light between 10:00 and 10:30. These days I set a noise machine to rain or surf to drown out Jim’s snoring. And then I wait. I focus on the breath. I do progressive relaxation. And I wait. I try not to look at the clock, which, thankfully, is over on Jim’s night table, so I can’t see it without lifting up to peer over his sleeping form. I wait some more. And finally I do go to sleep, usually after about two hours, I think.

I know there are things I can try. I have implemented some of them, like the breathing and relaxation, and also I no longer conduct my life’s business in bed, and I rarely watch television there. Maybe I shouldn’t read there either, but I love it so much. I don’t eat in the evenings because that often gives me indigestion; I now understand the popularity of senior citizen early bird specials at restaurants. My acupuncturist has recommended a warm bath, which I suppose I should try. I wonder about starting a pre-bed meditation practice. I know many experts say don’t just lie there, get up. And sometimes I do, but it doesn’t seems to help much. Doesn’t get me to sleep any faster.

Because of these patterns my other sleep problem happens in the morning. That dreamy liminal space between sleep and full wakefulness has long been one of my favorite parts of life. I often discover my most fruitful ideas then. In the morning I can glance at the clock at seven and think “oh, I’ll just sleep a few more minutes” only to discover that it is nearly nine the next time I think to check. And even at nine I could stay longer if some Puritan streak about not wasting the morning didn’t bolt me upright. And I like mornings. Mornings are my time, filled with satisfying routine, except when I wake up too late to fit everything in. Like today. (Well, not today. A few days ago, now.) It’s noon. And because I didn’t awaken until nine I am still in my pajamas, haven’t taken a shower, or walked, or meditated. I did spend thirty minutes on the phone with my sister-in-law walking her through how to open messages on gmail. So I could have done at least one of those things. But still. Sigh.

I’m not sure what to do. Perhaps I just have to live with it. But I don’t like resorting to alcohol when the waiting finally gets to me. I know that part of this is just about aging. And that it’s really okay. That part of the answer is to let go of judgment about how it’s supposed to happen. 

But I also think this sleeplessness is a sign of my continuing alienation from the wisdom of the body. My under-education in this crucial aspect of life. This most basic aspect of life. Now that I am retired and don’t have to report to anyone at a particular time most days, I am tempted to embark on a experiment to find out how my body wants to sleep. I am tempted to let it lead me. Which would mean what? It would mean listening. It might mean getting into and out of bed at the body’s direction, even if that means painting or writing or reading in the middle of the night and sleeping in the middle of the day. I know people who do this. But something holds me back. That same Puritan impulse I suppose. And the experts who say that the path to good sleep is to set up a routine and stick with it. Is following the body that kind of routine? This notion, which seems guaranteed to have me up at odd hours of the night, has the added attraction of bringing me face to face with my fear of the dark. Sometimes I think I stay in bed because that is the “safe” place. That, however, seems like the seed for a completely different post. 

For now I am still in limbo. Not quite ready to commit to my imagined experiment, I wait.

So you think you can dance


May 28th 2012

The new season started last week. I warned Jim that I was going to engage in my yearly wallow in popular culture. He made some reference to the ending of the current seasons of Dancing With the Stars and American Idol. They’re really all the same show,he said. But they’re not. To me they’re not. These other two shows are about celebrity. They feed the cult of celebrity. And I get that in some way my show does too. My show. There’s plenty of glitz. And I know that it’s carefully edited to maximize drama, to pull my strings.
And sometimes the judges drive me crazy; they can be so mean and condescending. I feel like sometimes they put someone on stage, or edit them in, just to humiliate them.

But then people start to dance. Really dance. I have never been a “dancer,” though I dance all night at weddings given the opportunity. On the show people start to dance and I think, you can’t fake this. This blending of body, heart and soul that shines through when someone is really good. I can’t help it. In response to that movement I think there, there, that’s what it means to be alive. That’s one of the ways that alive looks. It’s a helpful reminder. What does alive look like, or more important perhaps feel like, for me? 

I think it helps in a weird way that not many dancers go on to become celebrities. I hope that they do get to go on to wonderful careers in dance, but rarely do they cross my radar screen again like the winners of those other shows do.

There were many wonderful dancers on display last week. It was fun to speculate who would make it all the way to the real competition. Clues are no doubt built into the editing. In the second hour one young man moved the judges to tears. Nigel said he just might be a genius, dancing his self-conceived exorcism dance. I doubt that he will be there in the end but it felt like such a gift to see him do his thing, right there in that moment, right there in the middle of the mess of commercialism called reality tv. I am hooked. Again.

[If you see that same aliveness in those other shows, I’d love to hear about it. And feel free to poke holes in my love of this show. But I don’t promise to listen.]

What's in a name?


May 21st 2012

Several years ago, when I created this website I had to come up with a name. I knew I wanted to own the name, to have my own .com, and not be filtered through someone else’s. Some anxiety about being easier to find. Which is ironic. Because I didn’t just go ahead and use my name. I chose marcylit, which was already the moniker I used for my gmail account. I think I understand why I chose it, at least partly. There are two reasons. 

One is that I’ve long had this conflicted desire to be both invisible and seen. There was something scary and powerful about the prospect of deliberately sending my own name out into the ether. Many years ago when I first joined the staff of the Dean’s Office at Duke I was unsettled by the prospect of my signature floating away across campus on little pieces of paper every time a student needed something from the dean. It seemed to open the door to humiliation. It felt like little bits of me breaking off and floating away. At the same time I kind of liked the power that my signature evidently carried. But getting used to that experience at Duke did not prepare me to send my own name out into cyberspace.

The other reason is that I like the metaphor embedded in my chosen web identity. Marcy lit. Marcy is lit up. Through the action of creating this website Marcy is no longer hiding her light under a bushel. It was a little distressing when I discovered that Mary Carr titled her recent memoir, Lit, a memoir that chronicles her journey through alcohol and drugs. But I still like the name, and the metaphor.

It’s also interesting that I chose to obscure the name Litle, one I married into which carries no baggage from my childhood, rather than Marcy. But perhaps not so strange when you know that I chose Marcy when I started seventh grade. It was my first act of personal liberation, the first time I asserted an identity separate from my parents. They had named me Marcella, in honor of my father and grandfather, Thomas Marcellus and Matthew Marcellus respectively, reflecting the profound patriarchism of my heritage. I have resisted that name for as long as I can remember, even though for years people have been telling me how beautiful it is and I can see that they are probably right. But when I was a child, newly transplanted from the mountains of Virginia to the outer suburbs of New York City, it was too different, too ripe for teasing. Marshmallow anyone? My mother called me Marcella until she died, as did everyone who learned my name through her. I endured it. After all, in this culture she did have the right to name me. But even when I grew up and could have flowed into that beautiful adult name I continued to stick with Marcy, the name that I had chosen. Marcylit the web identity that I picked. The one that I have sent floating out into the world on a little thread of hope.

Rules and relationships

May 14, 2012

The other night I dreamed that my bosses had discovered that I was being paid more than the “rules” stipulated for irregular faculty and that they considered it an injustice, that I was being overpaid, and it was unfair to others. I kept repeating, but you make so much more than I do, to no avail. That did not matter. Only the rules.

That has been a major concern at the university in recent years. To codify. To make everything consistent, so that students are all treated by the same standards. Such a change from earlier colleagues who were if anything extremists in the other direction. The rule makers see this sensitivity to the needs of the particular student as weakness. They think that it makes for low standards. I think I stand somewhere in the middle. But mostly I feel confused.

This tension recalls the work of Carol Gilligan in In a Different Voice, who discovered that the teen aged girls she studied were not morally immature as previous scholars had assumed, basing their work on the principle-based ethical impulses of previously studied teen aged boys. For the girls ethics was all about relationships. They considered the human needs of the individual in pain in front of them before any arbitrary set of rules.

But an ethics based on relationships can lead to cronyism. And I think it contributes to the profound inequality that is currently undermining our social fabric. This latter because we seem to mostly be in relationship with those whose circumstances mirror our own. They are the ones who seem most human, most deserving.

And the alternative of a rule based ethics requires that the rules take into account the humanity of all. Otherwise they just become tools of exclusion, ways to carve up humanity by fiat. Of course, right now I am thinking about North Carolina’s recent passage ofAmendment One,  a rule that denies the humanity of a wide swath of people and relationships.

The key it seems is to expand ourselves to the point that we feel in genuine relationship with everyone and everything. It really is not too broad a goal. It will not dilute us. We will still love our grandchildren. But until we can do this we will still have cronyism and we will still have rules that destroy.

Daily art


Apr 30th 2012

A few weeks ago I downloaded a new app called Paper by 53. It makes it possible to easily create images on the iPad. Since then I have actually begun to follow through on an inspiring example set by my teacher,Lisa Creed, who for over two years created an image a day. Now, she did it with real materials—paint, graphite,paper—so it doesn’t quite feel like what I’m doing is the same, but with this new app I find that I will actually do it (though I’ve already missed a couple of days). And it seems possible that making the decision and following through is worthwhile even though the work is digital rather than “real.”. I think I am going to post these images on my website under a link called Sketchbook. (You’ll find them there now.) I like them. They are fun to make and non-stressful. I look at them and think, anyone could do this. And I do think that this is true. If they wanted to, anyone could do this. It makes me wonder about art. What it means to make art. What art looks like. In my painting class many of the other students make beautiful representational images. I admire them, both for their beauty and for the technical skill involved in their creation. But that is not what I do. For reasons I don’t fully fathom that is not what I do.

Holy Week


Apr 6th 2012

I grew up in the Baptist church. We didn’t call it Holy Week, though we did go to church a lot that week. But we always went to church a lot, at least compared with others in our New York suburb, Wednesday evenings and twice on Sunday. I gave up the church when I was in college, left the Baptists and didn’t go elsewhere, and for years Holy Week was something that happened around me. We did Easter, with bunnies and eggs. Now, during Holy Week, I walk the labyrinth.

A number of years ago my friend Jeanette, who runs the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South (RCWMS), decided she wanted a labyrinth. She had walked the famous one in Chartes Cathedral and wanted to be able to walk again and to share the experience. (You can find out more about this wonderful organization here – Full disclosure, I am on their board.) So she recruited help and made a labyrinth out of huge pieces of canvas and purple paint. It is an exact replica of the labyrinth at Chartes.
I walked my first labyrinth in a small field by a tree in Ithaca, New York. It was much smaller than the Chartes labyrinth, just a grass path bordered by stones. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was guided by a companion: bring a journal, sit in the middle, ask a question, walk with intention and reflection. I don’t remember exactly what happened that day, but it was enough to hook me. Since then I walk whenever I encounter a labyrinth, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, at Avila Retreat Center in Durham, at Kanuga in the North Carolina Mountains.
They all speak to me, but Jeanette’s is my favorite. I walk it every winter when it spends a day inside the soaring vault of Duke Chapel. And I walk it for Holy Week during its sojourn at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. This year I made it three times.
These days I don’t go to church but I do meditate, practice contemplative reading, occasionally go on retreat. But my favorite spiritual practice is the labyrinth. It is difficult to describe the power that it has for me. Maybe I love it because it defies language. And because it supports the integration of mind, body, and spirit. This is what I wrote before and after one of my walks this week:

Today I walk alone. I want to release my body and mind, to release control so that body can lead. To trust. That is what I will carry in the stone that I pick up from one of the small devotional tables arrayed around the labyrinth. I will carry a scarf of gratitude for my continuing liberation from the tyranny of parental expectations and from my own sustained perpetuation of those expectations. And I will ask for guidance with this question: how do I serve?
After. A clear message. More than once. This is how. And at the center I sit quietly and go through my list. I give thanks for for all of the wonderful people in my life, for my connection to the world, for life. I ask for help in my vow to release control, to follow body and trust it and the world, to trust my ability to remain present in this world. And I ask again, almost as an afterthought. Wasn’t there one more thing? Oh yes. How do I serve? And again the answer comes. This is how. Really?? Only this? As if I think this is easy. Yes, really. And a moment later I hear these words, “well, somebody’s got to do it.” I laugh. At that absurd thought. At that truth. Somebody’s got to do it. And it might as well be me. Even though I’m not sure what “it” is, I know I am in the presence of truth. Which is another word for mystery.

A secret


Feb 20th 2012

On Friday I finally mustered the courage to go to the life drawing studio at the Durham Arts Council. I’ve had the impulse to practice drawing for a while now, but have felt intimidated because I didn’t learn to draw as a kid. And like so many “smart” kids I somehow internalized the notion that you shouldn’t try anything unless you already knew you were good at it. I write these words and am amazed. This is clearly nonsensical. But after many years of self-observation and many years of teaching at Duke where this illusion runs rampant, where we carry on thinking that it is somehow shameful to struggle, I know that it is true, at least in the sense that it has real consequences in the world. So it took courage for me to go public in a life drawing studio.

But this is not my secret. At least not the one I meant to write about. The secret is that if you follow this delusion, if you only pursue what you’ve been identified as “good at,” you can travel a long way down a path that is not meant for you. As I write I realize that I have too much to say about this. As my friend Jehanne likes to say when she’s onto something important, “it’s complicated.” The short version of my secret is that I have spent most of my adulthood pursuing someone else’s career. Out of some unconscious sense of filial obligation, perhaps. And out of a lack of awareness that there was any other way. It has taken me a very long time to learn that it is possible to live your life from the inside out. And without that awareness. The errant foray into librarianship. The decision to become a historian. And then an administrator. All not me. Luckily, I think, the opportunity to teach came along with the jobs, and I like to teach, especially when I can shape the course towards the personal development of the students rather than the mastery of any given subject matter. I’m about to retire so I guess it’s safe to say that now. I have had a long and “productive” career as not me. And maybe if teaching hadn’t come along I would have figured things out sooner. Luckily? Unluckily? I am reminded of the Zen story of the farmer who’s horse runs away, one of my favorites.

And now the complications. Two come quickly to mind. First, it has been a long and productive career. Not all bad by any description. I learned a lot along the way, and these lessons, and the friction that goes along with pursuing the “wrong” job, have helped to shape the person that I am today. Second, how many people get to worry over whether or not their jobs faithfully engage their truest gifts? This is a dilemma of privilege. Right. But it should not be. We should all be able to pursue work that fulfills us, and by fulfilling us helps to feed the world. Shouldn’t we?

For me, at least, it comes as such a relief to be dropping the pretense, the tension. I feel the muscles in my back relaxing. I imagine that the flow of cortisol in my body is regulating to normal levels. And after I walk into the life studio and began drawing I wonder at my fear.

Breathing art


Jan 31st 2012

“…I depend most on my inner self and the actual process of painting. I think everything one experiences, feels, dreams, hears, and sees in a day comes out in your art somehow.” Helen Frankenthaler, in After “Mountains and Sea,” 34

Not long ago I worked on two 36 x 36 landscapes. I did not set out to paint landscapes, just followed an impulse to take large canvases to class even though carting them around is a pain. The first painting came fast, from start to finish over the course of one two and a half hour session. There were already other paintings underneath, a crude self-portrait that I did last summer with pink skin and yellow hair, which I later covered with thick black circles and a red and orange wash. One eye still showed through the layers and that felt significant. I thought I might build the new painting around that eye. But when I got to class I just started painting and followed some unknown rhythm. The colors I chose worked, and the composition came together with a little help from my teacher’s discerning eye. It was such a good experience that the next day I ordered three more large canvases.

The week before I had been working on three 6 x 6 pieces and the difference in embodied experience really struck me when I started on the larger piece. With a small canvas you’re working mostly with the wrist and fingers. I was going to say with precision, but that’s never my forté; in small works you just can’t make big gestures. With large canvases you paint with the whole body and the energy flows. I think this energy provides the conduit for what Frankenthaler is talking about; it is through this flow of energy that the stuff of your experience shows up on the canvas. At least that’s the way it works for me. And that’s what happened on that first three-foot canvas.

The next week I took a pristine white canvas to class, still in its wrapping. I think I was trying to replicate what had happened the week before, though I wasn’t aware of this at the time. After years practicing meditation you’d think I would know better, but I didn’t. I worked on this second canvas for three straight classes and still it didn’t work. Was it because there was no history underneath, no hidden eye? Was it that there was nothing for the new paint to rub up against? Or was it that I was trying too hard, thinking too much? At the time I didn’t even notice that I was thinking. But now looking at this second painting propped against a bookshelf, I feel a tightness, an absence of air, of prana, the breath of life. So, something stopped the flow, something prevented my experience, my life, from showing up on that canvas.

One week a moment of grace. Followed the next by a reminder not to take it for granted. But also, a reminder that with persistence grace may yet come. That second canvas is not dead; it waits for life to breathe through me again.