On March 23, I greatly enjoyed and helped to facilitate an evening of Israeli poetry in Los Angeles, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the state. For my portion, I read – in Hebrew and English – a poem by a young Mizrahi writer, Adi Keissar. Her “For Those Who” /”Le-Mi Sheh…” is a combative spoken word piece, influenced by hip hop. It’s not nuanced or balanced. It’s in-your-face political, and it makes you think.
Our program was based on the selections from the poetry anthology Israel: Voices from Within, edited by Barry Chazan et al, (Third Place Publications, 2020). The poem I read came from its last, contemporary section, which also features several other Israeli Jewish poets like Erez Biton (my choice #2), Eliaz Cohen, and Ronny Someck, alongside the Druze poet Salman Masalha and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
After presenting Adi Keissar’s piece, I engaged the participants in a contemplative discussion, following something I’ve written about before – how to meditate by reading poetry. It’s a wonderful technique that allows you to move away from reading the text for literal and figurative meaning and open up to the awareness of your own internal reaction to the poem.
Our discussion, fruit/nosh, and music (some poems we read by Nathan Alterman and Zelda Mishkowsky have been turned into songs) reminded me of those fabled banquets from the golden age of Hebrew poetry – in Jewish homes in medieval Spain. A delight on a rainy night.
Arriving in Embera Quera was like arriving in paradise.
On the way to the village, as our dugout boat was gliding through the rainforest, we saw toucans, sloths, and capuchin monkeys, and heard the unmistakable rumble of the howler monkeys disturbed by our noise.
There were cows in the clearings and occasional fishermen. No crocodiles, though we heard there are plenty, as are the snakes.
The waterways our native guide took continue into the inner valleys of the Darien Peninsula, which leads into Colombia, and further into the Amazon region, to whose people the Embera are related.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by the villagers in beaded skirts and wraps, men drumming and women dancing. Do they dress the same way when the tourists are not around? I doubt it. But it certainly made it special.
What was authentic though was to see a one-room classroom hut educating all of the village kids, watch bare feet stomping terra cota red earth in a circle dance, observe the artisans working achiote-colored grass strands into baskets and masks representing the jai, and others carving tree nuts into the netsuke-like figurines of the creatures of the forest.
My daughter and I bought these handicrafts for very little. You do not bargain with the Embera, we’ ‘d been told. They set their prices low based on the days of labor it took to create them. There is no overhead.
And we lunched on the plantains grown among the huts and fish from the river that had brought us to the village.
The Embera live on a government-deeded land in a semi-autonomous region of Panama housing many indigenous tribes. The village has no running water, and the electricity comes on for only several hours a day, via a generator. There are no plugs in the walls of their huts; the huts, in fact, have no walls, only elevated platforms and thatched roofs.
And yet, there is a pull to stay home, rather than move to Panama City, the modern, urban, financial heart of Central America. The village provides the basics, and the rhythm of life is slower.
I learned some things about the Embera beliefs from the local guide – a young woman who spoke both Spanish and Embera – and the village jaibaná (shaman) told us quite a bit about the traditional beliefs. Some of them are summarized in the “Embera” entry in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures (2019).
Emberá religion is centered on invisible forces called jai. These constitute the essence of things, natural phenomena, animals, and people. They belong to nature, and only the shaman (jaibaná) can see and control them. . . Illness occurs when these elements, which must be kept separate in everyday life, unite; they must then be separated anew by the shaman. The Emberá are emphatic in their belief that the jai are [not spirits, but] material forces or energies. They also believe in “mothers” or “root stocks” of animals—for example, the mother of fish, or the mother of peccaries.
A beautiful village and a memorable experience.
PS. Panama is famous for its wide variety of huacas, poisonous dart frogs, often represented in indigenous / pre-Columbian jewelry and pottery, as well as sloths and butterflies. All photos are taken in the Caribbean rainforest near Embera Quera.
Parabola is a popular, New York-based magazine dedicated to the world’s religious, cultural, and mythological traditions. The issue theme is “Darkness and Light,” and in my essay, I recount an unexpected spiritual awakening that occurred to me while swimming in an underground burial lake, a purported entrance to the underworld in Yucatan.
“We used to bury our people down there, at the bottom,” said my Yucatec Maya guide as he pointed at the cave’s dark mouth, dropping underground at a 45-degree angle. “We would keep them there for eight years, then remove the bones, clean them, and bury them in the ground outside for good . . .”
I did the first public reading of this essay at the annual group reading of the California Writers Club, Long Beach chapter – a warm, supportive group of local writers. (12/10/2022)
It was also mentioned in the winter 2023 issue of the CWCLB newsletter Currents.
Lambda Literary published and included in its December mailings my review of The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s novelized biography of Thomas Mann, Germany’s greatest 20th century writer – and a married and closeted public figure.
“Gay, artistic Thomas is born into a prosperous mercantile family [where] money is as self-evident and essential as water and sunshine. When, a few decades later, the post-war inflation evaporates the family fortune, his mother does what other self-respecting women of her class would do – take to bed and starve herself to death – because she simply doesn’t know how to live otherwise.”[. . . ]
I proposed to write this review for Lambda Literary because of my deep love for both writers. Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and Death in Venice are among the finest works of fiction I’ve ever read. Toibin’s The Master, Brooklyn, and the lesser-known The Story of the Night are simply delightful. That said, my review points out some flaws in The Magician, and yet, it is a profound book which deserves to be read, a study of a life rich, complex, and meaningful.
Check it out and please support this wonderful organization.
Super excited: my travel essay “Out of the Depths of a Mayan Burial Cave,” based on a mind-opening spiritual experience in Yucatan, has been bought by Parabola (New York). Can’t wait to see in their Winter 2022/23 issue!
Parabola, also known as Parabola: The Search for Meaning, is a Manhattan-based quarterly magazine on the subjects of mythology and the world’s religious and cultural traditions.
My parenting essay “The iPad Wars” has been picked up by the online StoryHouse Writers’ Showcase of The Preservation Foundation, a literary non-profit which has been “preserving the extraordinary stories of ‘ordinary’ people” since 1976.” It originally appeared in print in the 2018 issue of The Citadel, the literary journal published at Los Angeles City College.
As I explain in the preface to the online version:
I am a father of two teenage daughters: one just graduated high school, the other still has two more years to go. Over the last few years, I’ve been watching with amazement and trepidation their transformation from adorable kids into assertive young women, a challenging journey of growth for them, but also for my partner and me. In this story, I recount one such experience.
We started in a circle, hands in gassho, chanting “mu.” The sound first vibrated throughout my skull, like an inner bell inviting me to turn inwards, and then, when shared by a group of 30, it turned into a spontaneous vibration rising up to the morning sky . . .
In April 2022, I took part in a pilgrimage walk from Zen Center Los Angeles to Dharma Vijaya, a Sri Lankan Buddhist vihara (temple), a 5-mile roundtrip hike through the heart of urban LA. What started afterwards as an individual article turned into a rich, collaborative piece in the current issue ofWater Wheel, ZCLA’s quarterly, reflecting on the walk and the important lessons I learned from it.
Zen Center LA is a very dear place for me. I’ve learned so much about meditation practice and Buddhist values there and took classes there to prepare to receive jukai, a lay ordination in the Soto Zen tradition in 2016. I am continuing to learn, and every meditative practice or exercise, like this pilgrimage walk, is both a reminder to see the world as it is, and live your life accordingly.
You can view the article here. And copied below are some more pictures from the walk.
So glad for the opportunity to share the experience of watching our first child graduate from high school – a new frontier for gay families – with Family Equality supporters. I can’t praise enough the work this organization does to protect and advance the rights of gay families in every state of this country.
Students in my ESL writing classes are often confused by the indirect terms we use to address sensitive issues. Here is a handout I put together for them to introduce them, in simple terms, to some out of the many euphemisms we use.
Americans teach their children: “If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.” But what do you say when you need to mention something that isn’t nice, for example, unemployment or death?
Euphemisms are special words or phrases we use to refer to sensitive subjects, for example, death, unemployment, physicial appearance, or race. Some examples of euphemisms are copied below. You can see more examples, including those concerning sex and bodily functions here (Links to an external site.).
Appearance and Behavior
fat => big-boned, a bit overweight, a big man, a curvy woman
short => petite
odd or weird => special
he lies => he doesn’t always tell the truth; has vivid imagination
late => running a little behind
pushy/aggressive => assertive
bossy => outspoken
pregnant => with child, in a family way
sick/ill => under the weather
not here => unavailable
rude => highly strung, inappropriate
teenager behaving badly => a precocious teenager
blind => visually impaired, can’t see very well
deaf => hard of hearing, can’t hear very well
physically disabled => differently abled
crazy/mad => developmentally disabled; has a mental disability
autistic => to be on the [autistic] spectrum
neurodivergent means “differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal; frequently used with reference to autistic spectrum disorders” (Oxford Dictionary)
died => passed away
dead (adj.) => resting in peace / no longer with us
dead (adj.) relative => my late grandmother
euthanizing a sick, old pet => put to sleep
cheap (cost) => economical
cheap (person who likes to save money) => frugal, thrifty
past-due bill => outstanding payment
poor => economically disadvantaged, low-income
rich => wealthy, well-off
poor country => developing country
fired from the job => they had to let her go; the company downsized; her position was eliminated; she left the company
unemployed => he is between jobs; pursuing other opportunities; considering options
jail/prison => correctional facility
a low-paid job => an entry-level job
supporting abortion => pro-choice
against abortion => pro-life
5 races, as definied by the federal government
African American / Black
Native American (not OK to say American Indian)
White = Caucasian
Pacific Islander – someone from the Philippines, Tonga, Samoa, Hawai’i, and so on
Hispanic, Latino (m) / Latina (f) / Latinx (both m + f)
Luis is from Mexico -> white / Hispanic
Omar is from Dominican Republic – black / Hispanic
Eva is from Poland: white / non-Hispanic
Chicano = Mexican American born in the US
Nationality = citizenship
Ethnicity = belonging to a certain ethnic group of people
Sometimes they are the same, but often different. For example, Sarkis is Armenian, born and raised in Syria. He has a Syrian passport. His ethnicity: Armenian; his nationality: Syrian. If he becomes a US citizen, then his ethnicity will remain Armenian, but his nationality will become American.
Founded in 1909, California Writers Club is one of the nation’s oldest professional clubs for writers. With 22 branches throughout the state offering workshops, contests, and conferences, CWC “is dedicated to educating writers of all levels and disciplines in the craft of writing and in the marketing of their work.” It’s my second time getting published in it.