A Cherished Mistake: A Writer Wednesday Post

February 27th, 2013 | Posted by Irene in Essays - (2 Comments)

The Shining Of the Stars, painting & all text © Irene O’Garden 2013

To listen to this post, please click here:A Cherished Mistake

In my late twenties, I heard a recording of  an early American Folk hymn, “God Is Seen.”  (You can hear it performed here on YouTube by the Ohio University Chorus.) It so strongly moved me that I went to an artists’ colony to illustrate it.

I prepared for a month–studying visual literacy and the color wheel, carefully planning and sketching twelve 16’ x 20 “ images. At last I mixed my watercolors and joyfully, confidently painted all twelve on luscious Arches paper. The final touch I planned was to apply narrow outlines using a pinpoint nib and India ink.

If you know the delicate crowquill nib, the toothy surface of French coldpress watercolor paper and the ineradicability of India ink, you know a perfect collision was waiting to happen.

It didn’t have long to wait. The moment I put pen to the first painting, shocking black spattered all over it, spoiling the image.

I was overcome, I was nauseous, I wept. No undoing these black blotches.  The splatter was too extensive, the ink intractable. I was crushed. More than one painting was ruined–eleven others had to coordinate with it. A month of work wasted! I was furious. I felt punished. This was a book about God, for God’s sake!

I finally calmed down enough to hear my only solution: “Pretend you meant to do it.”

I grabbed my toothbrush, the ink and the pen, practiced spattering on scrap to see possible effects. Then I intentionally spattered all twelve. Suddenly the paintings were dynamic, their texture and energy newly alive.

If I could have hit “delete” at the first spatter, would I? You bet your sweet art I would have. But this visceral experience taught me lifelong respect for the spontaneous in art and in life.  While I love our world of deleting with so much easily erased or rearranged,  there are rich lessons in things we can’t undo, in discovering how to abide, appreciate or even cherish them.


Is there a mistake you cherish?



A $116.00 Laugh and a Giveaway

February 20th, 2013 | Posted by Irene in Poetry | Publication News - (9 Comments)


Forest, What Would You Like?

A brief post this week, as things are bookishly accelerating in preparation for the launch of “Forest, What Would You Like?” I am pleased to say that Holiday House, our publisher (the oldest house in the world devoted solely to children’s literature) has authorized me to run a giveaway of ten books through Goodreads, an excellent site for readers. Just click the button to the right to enter. Neither Goodreads nor I will use your email for anything other than this giveaway–it’s just to let people know about the book and give ten lucky winners something to share with a small friend on their lap. (If the button is not yet functional, it soon will be– Goodreads said it takes a day or two to verify everything.)

As for the $116 laugh, I wanted to share with you a photo that John sent me while I was on retreat. It was taken by a mechanic who discovered it during our routine car inspection.

While it looks as if our dog Bee were trying to conceal a serious habit, it is the work of smaller furry friends who raided the box of biscuits we keep for her in the car. The laugh was almost worth the $116 repair. Have a laughter-filled week–



WonderTrail, photos & all text © Irene O’Garden 2013

To listen to this post, please click here:Wording the Wordless

How often we seek words for the wordless. There is so much wordlessness in our universe I sometimes feel like the miller’s daughter in Rumplestiltskin: “Spin this impossible heap of straw into gold!” (I’m not complaining, really.)

While last weekend’s storm delivered ample length and breadth and depth of snow, in our neck of the woods it was less weep-eyed blizzard and more happy-handed snowglobe. It kindly slowed and stopped in plenty of time for Saturday dinner guests to arrive and depart in utter confidence.

When Sunday’s blazing blue sky shouted through the windowpanes, I strapped on my cross-country skis and headed into the foot-deep snowscape surrounding our house.

Bright dunes and mesas appeared in the glowing white topography contoured by Saturday’s winds. The snow was fluffy, but so deep that rather than charging around the fields as is my wont,  I kept to a small loop, establishing a smooth run, instead of struggling over the acres.

What tells us wordlessly to loop this way and not that? What tells us to look up, just there, just now?

In a moment I was nearly swept off my skis by the surprise, the power and the meaning of a bald eagle circling over our neighbor’s forest and field. Here, sixty miles north of New York City.

I stood gape-jawed, watching the serene, unmistakeable being. I wanted to fetch my husband, but feared that if I moved, the eagle would glide away. If eagle ears were sharp as eagle eyes, the excited thump of my heart might have driven him off.  Couldn’t tell my husband, couldn’t call a soul. I thought of you, dear reader, and knew a few days hence you would join me in the moment, but then and there I stood alone and wordless for a full five minutes of wonder.

I shot the picture of my trail this morning. The eagle’s you must picture for yourself here in the rhomboid of blue above our potting shed.

Rumplestiltskin aside, I’ve discovered I cannot help leaving a trail in words anymore that I can help leaving a trail in the snow.

An eagle needs no trail, leaves no trail, wears his own down jacket, needs no skis, no words. I was going to say he needs only a brilliant day and an upward thermal.

But an eagle needs territory. He, too, needs to arrive and depart in utter confidence. How miraculous that so many people have worked so hard to preserve this for him and for us.

I just made a spontaneous donation to the Hudson Highlands Land Trust.  You may have some local people you want to thank for gifts in your area. (Or perhaps The Natural Resources Defense CouncilThe Audubon Society, or Clearwater.) Sometimes the best words for the wordless are actions.


Publishing Update:  Spoke with the folks at Holiday House, publisher of my new children’s book, “Forest What Would You Like?”.  Turns out the pub date is indeed March 1, the date by which all the reviews should be in. They plan to launch the book that day, and a secondary launch on Earth Day. If you are a Goodreads reader, you should know I will shortly be having a giveaway of the book. When this goes live, I’ll update this blog, Wednesday or not!

A note: I’d like to see this book in arboretums, National Parks, botanic gardens and green places of all kinds. If you have any suggestions I’d be delighted to see them. Many thanks. Incidentally, my ebook “Glad To Be Human” will be coming out, but we’re waiting till after this launch.

RetreatShirt, photos & all text © Irene O’Garden, 2013

I recorded this post, but too much visual data for it to upload–sorry!

The burning question: Did I get a lot of writing done on retreat? I did not return with a pack of monologues like the ones which turned into my play “Women On Fire”. Nor did I return with a 17-minute choral piece for four voices, as happened the year before last with “The Toast Cantata.”

Responding to deep inner urging, I made meditation, reflection, and trusting spontaneous impulse my top priorities for this retreat. It took effort to refrain from nagging myself about “production.” Midway through my second week the phrase on the t-shirt above hit me. At last I was able to laugh at myself. Of course, I journaled the whole time (but that’s not really writing is it?!)  But come the third week, formal writing roared through some longstanding obstacles and I came home with several finished pieces.

Now, as I ease back into my quotidian rhythms at home,  I want to say a word in praise of one of the great gifts of retreat: increasing awareness of subtlety.

I don’t usually share doodles, (after all, they are not “art,” are they? And we’re only supposed to display the most polished, finished, finagled-with stuff, aren’t we?) I hardly doodle at all any more. I used to doodle during phone calls and classroom lectures and board meetings. But now I’m out of the classroom, I’m sabbaticalling from boards and whenever I’m on the phone, I’m always doing something else: running errands, organizing sweaters, cooking dinner.

However, as my faithful readers know, I left with a fine supply of “retreat candy,” among which were a double box of fat oil pastels and “The Gift,” a book of poems by Hafiz. I found the following quote in that book,  immediately doodled it on a blank page, and decided I’d make it come true.


I decided that every night when I called my husband on my cellphone, I would sit down, put a blank sheet of paper and the box of colors in my lap, and give my hand and eye perfect liberty. In this early paisley,  you can see how happy they are to play.


A few nights later, I drew the bulb basket I had brought along. Note the detail gets a bit subtler here:

TulipsOnThe Way

But I did not want to have to hold to representation, so, the next night, back to bold abstraction:

Still somewhat representational.  This “window” below emerged from a conversation a few nights later. It was fun to photograph these and email them to John before I could think about them.



After several more days, I looked at the doodles in sequence. I saw that while I was finding more freedom, I was also putting things in their “places.”  It was happening internally as well. Each image had something going on in the center, which was also true for me. Suddenly, I began to tire of the bright fat colors, the thick strokes, the messy waxen flecks.  I remembered the colored pencils I brought, and switched to them for the next conversation. Immediately this quieter, more subtle Square Mandala appeared:




I began to see that even the paper itself had something to say. It wanted to be included in the event of the drawing. This final image revealed to me what the whole process is of subtle awareness is really about.


May you take the time to see yourself mirrored in your work (whatever form it takes) and may you relish your own subtlety.

How does it best reveal itself to you?


Many thanks to one and all for your kind comments and good wishes! More about my new book next week–

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