Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I Offer

I am a free-lance writer, editor and writing teacher. I begin to think about credentials and balk. You can google Mary Sojourner to find my books and articles, my NPR commentaries and writing conference gigs. Here is what is important:

Last night I walked out over the desert, into light that went from too much to burnished to cool gray. I was heading back when I saw a jade-green snake coiled in a perfect circle. Its head was slightly raised, its tongue testing the air.

A few seconds later I found a delicate feather, downy white near its spine, barred cream and brown toward its tip.

I had spent the day fighting various ghosts of "what if". The snake and the feather slowed my heart.

I bring to publishers, writers and students my willingness to walk out over the desert alone; to watch the ground; to look up; and to fool the various ghosts of "what if". Those phantoms block beauty. I teach my students how to float with them.

I teach for writing conferences, in private circles (will travel throughout California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado; you organize your circle and bring me in), and one-on-one through e-mail, phone and/or face-to-face meetings. $175. for an initial individual consultation (my written suggestions on maximum of 20 double-spaced pages) and 30 minutes phone time. I work with fiction, essay, poetry and the transformation of journal writing into what comes next... My fee for writing circles depends on location, number of writers and length of time.

I edit that which needs a razor's edge and respect.

You can reach me at bstarr67@gmail.com

Down the road



Father, father, we don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today
What's goin' on what's goin' on, what's goin' on - what's goin' on
Heah, what's goin' on - what's goin' on, oh, what's goin' on - what's
goin' on...
---What's Goin' On?

Marvin Gaye, 1971

I fall in love with the old times
I never mention my own mind
Let's f..k the world with all it's trend
Thank god, it's all about to end...

They say it's all about to end...
---They Say

Scars on Broadway, 2008

"Thank god, it's all about to end..." That's got to be an old broad
talking or an angry geezer. Daron Malakian just turned 33. He was
lead singer for hard rock band, System of a Down. He now fronts SOD.
They Say registered 100,000 downloads when it went up free on ITunes.
Four years ago, Big Dog publisher, make that rabid Big Dog publisher,
Scribner's released my memoir, Solace:rituals of loss and desire
(this excerpt records a reading in Denver in 2002):

I paused and asked for questions or reactions. A young woman
in a bright red t-shirt raised her hand. "Something has been
troubling me for a long time," she said, "long before your reading. I
have two small kids. I am terrified for their future. I've been
taught that life moves in cycles of expansion and contraction. I see
growth exploding. Will there be a contraction? Are the cycles still
in place?"
I wanted to to say easily, " Yes, we move in cycles, our earth and
our huge little species are moved in cycles. It will all come out
just fine." But I remembered a moment from the day before and could
not. At an off-ramp gas station in Colorado Springs, a furious kid in
a pick-up truck had squealed out of the lot, his back tires tossing
rock like shrapnel. Ev had vice-gripped the door handle of his truck.
"I want to go after that kid and beat the shit out of him," he said,
then shook his head. "Which makes me him. We are all spinning out."
I lsat on the edge of the stage.
"I'm deeply afraid," I said, "that the incredible speed at which
most of us are moving is carrying us out of the natural spiral. We
have exceeded some inner and outer gravitational pull. We are flying
out of control."
"But, where," she said, "is the hope?"
Before I could answer, her friend stood. She was a woman in her
early forties,
impeccably groomed, hair cut beautifully, her feet in polished
top-of-the-line cowgirl boots. I would have said we were about as far
apart as two women can be. And then I saw the pain in her eyes.
Her words came slowly. I had heard them three other times on this
trip, once at the Albuquerque reading, once during a radio interview,
once between old friends. "My only hope," she said, "is that some
day, maybe even soon, our species will be gone."

Four years since Solace was published. Six since I listened to
those mothers longing for hope. Thirty-six years since Marvin Gaye looked
deep into the terrified heart of America and asked, "What's Goin' on?"
Every day I hear someone say: "It's coming apart. This cannot
continue." They speak about home foreclosures, gas gouging,
unemployment, food banks stretched as thin as Depression potato soup,
the obscene flaunting of wealth by them that got it...
You can say "It's coming apart." Or you can say "It's goin' down."
And, the question I ask myself every day is this: "Where do I stand?
And, when it's gone down, where will any of us stand?"
A friend read my last column and wrote: Your last column in LIVE
troubled me. Your current sojourn in the desert sounds more like an
austere and lonely exile than a fresh start set some distance from a
casino. Is there anything I can do to help you?

His last sentence is the beginning to the answer to the question:
Where will any of us stand?
For all of us.

WORDSMITHING: with all due respect

        The planet isn't going anywhere; WE are!   
                    ---George Carlin
            by way of old comrade, Bob Katz (Lippman)

        Western laziness consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.
        ---Sogyal Rinpoche

    I am lazy.  I am compulsive.  The real issues hung out with me for a couple years.  They would not go away.  I couldn’t.  The real issues worked on me.. They used sand-paper and evisceration.  When they were finished I was a parchment bag of bones and not knowing.
    I cast my bones into the future.  They brought me here.  This place is merciless.  Molten.  These times even more so.  No work.  Frightened people. 
    And still, around 6:30 in the evening, the light cools.  I step out my door and am immediately in the presence of radiant sand, dark mountains and human debris.  I am in the Mojave Desert..  I set out.
    Three nights ago I came across a pale yellow cabin.  The windows were boarded up.  One nail held the door shut.  There were words painted in flamingo pink on the door: 
PEOPLE!  If you are the ones that stole the chair,
                go ahead and break in again.  There is nothing left to
        Hey, Dougie, here’s the phone number...
            ...if you want...a shower.

I began to try the door and stopped.  It was not the possibility of serpents that stayed my hand.  It was the certainty that the lives of the people who had written on the door were none of my business.  It was the dozens of abandoned shacks, houses and trailers I’d found near Twentynine Palms, the currents of lost hope and despair that seemed to wind through those phantom neighborhoods and the stories I knew needed to belong to people who might have lost everything.
    I walked east. I’d gone no more than fifty yards when I saw a ripple of jade and gray gleaming in the sand.  The snake lifted its head.  It flicked its tongue and tasted what might be coming toward it.
    I stepped back.  “Sorry,” I said.  “This is your neighborhood.”

    I went through old papers that evening.  I hunted nothing.  What I found was an invitation as big as the hopes of people building a homestead cabin and as precious as light swimming along a rattlesnake’s curves.  
          January 1, 1990: On January 14, I will turn 50.  Please join me and a few friends for a birthday witness at the proposed uranium mine site near Red Butte.  No present, please.  Bring music, food and the willingness to stand outside the wire fence that still encloses the intentions of a Denver mining company, a company a few of us stopped cold.  Love and Respect, Mary
There was the the hand-drawn map still incised in my heart.  And, there were the memories of a miracle.  A few of us had caravanned over frozen dirt roads.  Bob Katz drove his truck.  I drove mine.  We parked outside the concertina wire.  The head-frame and the workshed had not been taken down---in case the price of uranium went up, in case the Havasupai and a few of us forgot.
    We heard dogs barking.  I walked up to the locked gate.  Bob opened the truck doors.  “Let’s do it,” I said.
    I’d brought two tapes:  Aretha Franklin singing “R.E.S.P.E.C.T., and the Gaden Shartse monks chanting a Tibetan Buddhist prayer for the Earth.  Bob slid in a tape and turned up the volume.
    “Wait a second, “ I said.
    A door opened.  Two dogs barrelled out of the workshed.  Their fangs were bared. “Hit it,” I said.
    The low thunder of the monk’s chant moved out into the air.  In that instant, the dogs went silent.  They dropped to their bellies.  They crossed their front paws, lowered their heads and looked calmly up at me.  They did not move, even when their owner walked up; even when he asked us what we were doing and we said, “Praying.”; even when he said, “O.k.”; even when the chant faded out and the black diamond of Aretha Franklin’s voice glittered over our heads---and we began to dance.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


for Jaybird

And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse

Not shaking the grass.

---Ezra Pound

Letters, Arizona Daily Sun, December 20:
Dear stranger who returned my wallet, I’m in a down-town restaurant thinking about how this diner, in the nearly ten years I’ve lived in Flagstaff, has served everybody: tourists, folks off the Rezzes, visitors up from the Southern sprawl, ragged wanderers in off the cold streets; me and my dead friend, Jaybird. I’m thinking about this bone-cold time of the year, of endings and beginnings. I’m thinking of Jaybird, of his lonesome death and how his life was far from lonesome.
Where’s the wallet come in? I lost it the night of Jaybird’s memorial service. A bunch of us told stories in a smoky room. People spoke of their sorrow that his death had been just a cold fact in the local paper. I decided to write my piece of his story instead of saying it. When I went to my truck to get money for Jaybird’s memorial stone, my wallet was gone. Dark parking lot, shaky neighborhood, oh well. I came home, called the cops, waited and thought about Jaybird’s story.
I knew him briefly. In that short time, he did nothing but give. He heard I was working on a novel about Viet Nam vets and he found guys who wanted their stories told. He listened when I needed to talk about my own small inner war. He heard I was spiritually lonely and showed me a photo he had takien that he believed showed the presence of God. He carried it with him for months and when our paths weren’t crossing, gave it to a friend to give to me. All of that, but most of all, he told his story with absolute honesty.
His story? The truth? Prison. Drugs. Booze. Serious physical damage. Pain beyond what most of us will every face.
His story? Truth? A recovering life of compassion and williness. Sobriety. Teaching himself to read and write---in his 40’s. Tears and belly laughter. Pain endured and transformed. Wisdom given. He would love that I am passing this on.
Stranger, you were kin to Jaybird when you called and said you’d found my wallet and wouldn’t tell me your name. I wanted to send you a thank-you. Flagstaff and Jaybird and my imperfect recovery have taught me that.
So, I’ll give half of what I would have given you to Victim Witness and half for Jaybird’s memorial stone. Thank you stranger. Thank you Jay.

I wrote Jaybird’s memorial letter in 1994. That Christmas friends and I went to a Laughlin casino. I played twenty dollars in nickles, twenty dollars in quarters and twenty dollars in dollars. When the money was gone, we went to the lavishly insipid buffet; my Cockney friend repaired to the bar; my other friend and I walked along the river. Everything seemed bejewelled and perfectly shabby and poignant.
Christmas morning, I bought bad coffee and sat on by the river. I listened to Alvin and the Chipmunks sing Jingle Bells over the casino outdoor speakers. It was still dark. I watched airplane lights race across the opposite shore, lift slowly and ascend. The dark began to soften above the far mountains. I knew I was the happiest I had been in years.
That was the beginning of my affair with slot machines. It gave me greater ease and fun than any lover I have every known. At first, my friends and went twice a year; then once a month; and then, I went alone---once, twice, three, four times a month. I tried to quit even though I didn’t want to. I loved the game, the casinos, the workers. I found stories there I would have found nowhere else.
Jaybird’s ghost has been watching over me. He might have carried me through the loss ot the Flagstaff I loved so dearly and to a hard-scrabble California town. His ghost must have sat beside me a week ago when I put my hand up in a little room of brave people and said, “I’m Mary and I’m a compulsive gambler.”
Jay, thanks again. I will pass it on.

3 Work

3 White

Mojave sunset
I study the persimmon sand

a tiny jawbone
a downy plume the length of my thumb

there is no quartz
no plastic shard

but when I look up
the moon is a sliver of lace agate.

3 Cinnabar


apricot to molten above the western mountains

fooprints (mine)

what burns imperfectly

all of that
there is no need for more

And still I find more in the desert in which some believe there is Nothing: the words My Mission printed carefully in pencil at the top of a sheet of notebook paper; a poem in a child’s scrawl:

the lepercon

It is somthing
green. And it’s
somthing not
mean. His
face is not green. he
is not a
king. He lives
In green.

It starts with
an L and
it ends with

There is a tattered scrap of a large print bible in which I find unintended inspiration:
“Sun stand thou
and thou Moon in the vau
And the sun stood still, and
until the nation took
their enemies. Is this not written

What I am not finding in this generous desert is work. I am not alone in this nor in the fury a gas pump has begun to inspire..

A friend calls while I am walking in the rose-gold light. She speaks of the necessity of doing her part of the greater work in partnership with the elements; in partnership with Water, Earth, Air and Fire. I stop in the blue shade of a Joshua Tree and listen. The gibbous moon hangs above the southeastern mountain range.
“Metallurgy,” she says. “Permaculture.” I move out of the shade onto an old mining road. I remember teaching the 2004 Desert Writers Workshop and what emerged:


Three women sit at the end of the long table in a cabin south of Moab. There has been an early October snow. The light is dove gray. There is a fire in the woodstove.
The women have known each other less than a week. They are writers. One of them has taught. The other students and teachers have gone to their rooms, or in to town to unwind from four days of intense work.
The room is so quiet they can hear the fire popping in the stove and the sound of wet rain on the big windows. A woman says something. Another responds. And then, as though they have moved toward the moment from the instant they each decided to stay at the table, each woman tells the others that she was sexually violated when she was a little girl. Their voices are calm as they speak of finally remembering, of puking and howling and, only a week ago, one of them watching in horror as a new date set his hand on her child’s thigh.
“Three out of three,” I say. “One hundred per cent.”
I think of my solitary walk before dinner. The western sky had boiled with clouds. Their light was sulfurous, brilliant as the edge of a new-honed blade. I had imagined a hot spring below the clouds, its waters dangerous and beautiful, its mineral steam billowing up.
I had imagined sky and earth were foundry and forge. For making weapons, weapons made for cutting through. I imagined that to die by one of these blades would be painless. Death would be finished as soon as begun. I wondered why my mind roiled as the sulfur-yellow clouds did. Why violence simmered beneath my spirit.
I look into the bright and ferocious eyes of the two other women. Sky blue. Cloud gray. I am surprised that I do not express fury.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I am so sorry.”
This is the nature of true metallurgy. This is the nature of women’s work.

Metallurgy. Taking one’s place in the perfect pattern of Water, Earth, Air and Fire. Not fixing, but mending so that there is always the hair-line wound that admits the light.
The surrendered will always have our work.