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Finding Your Place in Work and Life

This week author and philosopher Mary Clark writes about her journey to find her niche in writing and life:

Mary Clark

In the 20th Century, we had two very influential women philosophers, and controversial as well: Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand. Then there were the feminist writers and social scientists: Joan Tronto, Margaret Urban Walker, but the friendship I had with an elderly Bohemian male, PJ, played a pivotal role in my life and my profession. Tally: An Intuitive Life is the story of that friendship and shared occupation.

In my late 20s, after graduating with a degree in psychology and then publishing a community-arts newsletter, I started work at a poetry program in New York City. These occupational adventures were connected, intuitively, although I was not aware of it then. I was interested in human behavior: why did people do what they did? In my writing, I peeled away conscious and unconscious layers and contemplated the nuances of my motivations, thinking, and emotions. Studying psychology, the patterns became more comprehensible, along with being exposed to the labels and varied interpretations. It all came to a dead end for me. Academic education failed to address the fundamental issues of life. What I didn’t know was that I was interested not in human behavior, but in human nature and all the great philosophical questions.

Yes, I read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard while still in college. I studied Hegel, Kant, Goethe, and others. After college, intuitively, I began to read on my own: novels by Balzac, Colette, Gide, Camus, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Lermontov, the diaries of Anais Nin, the Village Voice, Susan Sontag, and Gore Vidal. The Existentialists held my attention for some time. Then there was art: Bunuel’s films, Bejart’s dance group, and Judy Chicago’s paintings. There were rock groups that dared to explore the borders as well. Here I found the beating hearts of real people, in real situations, facing the terror and joy, boredom and excitement, of living.

I was on a quest for wisdom about the levels of life: physical, mental, social, and spiritual. Still following an intuitive directive, I read (re-read) the Bible, the Koran, the Bhavagadvita, and Idries Shah’s The Way of the Sufi, among other religious and spiritual books. Who didn’t read Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet? Very little spoke to me. Some are great cultural tales; others are ethical guides, or both. Some of the poetry, though, fastened to me neurologically. In fact, all the great poems I’ve read have done this, although I can’t quote them. No, it’s more a matter of influencing my intuition.

It was difficult for me, as a woman and outside academia, to find intellectual companions. I was searching for a way to reach out to people who were also interested in philosophy, psychology, nature including human nature, and literature. So I began an alternative community publication featuring articles, cartoons, poems, and short stories on books, music, film, dance, and environmental issues. There was another side: the paper covered local issues as well, usually the positive, such as a new affordable senior residence. That community-mindedness was a natural part of my interest in the world and the ways human beings treat one another. Unfortunately, it was not a money-maker!

I moved to New York’s West Side and eventually came to the poetry program at St. Clement’s Church. Through its director, I met PJ. Everything I had done was connected by an intuitive thread. I moved from friendship with PJ, to care giving, and back to friendship, and then to more. In my blog post, Occupational Integrity: a Life Profile, I show how PJ traced the intuitive thread in his own life.

PJ

If you enjoyed this guest blog post from Mary Clark, please pick up Tally: An Intuitive Life published by All Things That Matter Press.


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Dog Lover’s Delight

running puppy
Below is an excerpt from the title story of my short story collection, The Human Act and Other Stories:

I see her feet first. White Reeboks, size 7 ½, with mud on the soles coming straight at me. Then I look up past the knotty sinews of her legs in denim shorts, past the belly button and small, swinging breasts in a white cut-off T-shirt, past her narrow chin and high ruddy cheekbones to her deep-set brown eyes full of tenderness and love. I’m so lost admiring those sad and hopeful eyes that I don’t notice her left arm winding up a pitch until she says, “Go fetch it, Marcus.”

I stagger to the left through choppy grass, scampering over beetles and ladybugs’ nests, trying desperately to beat the breath of a late spring breeze that exhales the softball Amelia has thrown toward me. I move a little more to the left, then forward, then step back a few paces, then stop, rise up on my hind legs, open my mouth and lean forward. Got it!  The gummy material bounces against my teeth and then mysteriously falls away. Oh, no!

“Better luck next time,” Amelia says, jogging toward me and bending over to retrieve the soppy softball. With her free hand she rubs behind my ears and under my chin. I close my eyes and luxuriate in the gentle love of her massage. When she stops, I start to whimper. She palms the softball, wiping my slobber against her denim shorts, and smiles. “Want to try again?”

I bark enthusiastically, though I don’t really feel like it. All I can hear in my head is her boyfriend, Phil, saying what he always says when I’m around, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

I am seven years old. Five of those years I spent on the streets. I had a family once, when I was a puppy, but it didn’t last for long. I couldn’t follow the rules:

Don’t sit on the sofa.

Don’t pee in the house.

Don’t jump on anyone.

For a while, I was moved from shelter to home, home to shelter, then I escaped and traveled the back alleys, rummaging through garbage cans. I know what it feels like to be cold and homeless.

Then I met Amelia.

She was coming home from work at the legal office where she represents corporations in billion dollar mergers. She bent over the trunk of her gray Volvo and removed a single bag of groceries. With a grace both astonishingly simple and stunningly learned, she closed the trunk with her elbow and proceeded to balance the groceries against one hip while humming a tune.

Eager for a look at her face, I stepped in front of her. She tripped on my front paws and staggered back, regaining her balance. Shock and fear melted into kindness and concern. She stooped to examine me, setting her groceries on the lower step. “You look hungry,” she said, combing her fingers through my matted fur. “And lonely.”  Her face was fuller then, with softly rounded cheeks and a subtle double chin. She gathered me into her arms and I licked her neck helplessly. Then she screeched and shoved me out of her lap, standing up and glancing down at her black slacks drenched in pee. I thought for certain I had blown it, but she just shook her head and wiped her pants with a tissue from her purse. “We’ll have to fix that,” she said, stooping to gather her groceries. “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”

I trotted behind her up the stairs and down the hall to her one bedroom apartment. She once again perched the groceries against her hip while fumbling with a jangling set of keys on a long golden key chain with a picture of the sun dipping into the Pacific. She threw open the door and invited me into her spacious living room with its neutral carpet and eggshell walls. I trotted past the built-in bookcases lining either side of a marble fireplace to the loveseat and sofa across from the sliding glass door that lead to the small yard that would become my sometimes home, sometimes prison.

While Amelia stocked fresh fruits and vegetables in the crisper, I sniffed my reflection in the glass coffee table that was trimmed with oak. A row of photographs of her family graced the end tables and the bookshelves. I noticed a brother and a sister, a mother and a father, and someone else, someone special. His photograph pierced the center of a stainless steel heart. With windswept sandy blond curls and rugged mountain climbing muscles, he seemed unusually turbulent, even with a cloudless smile, and some part of me knew, instinctively, that I would have to battle him to retain a space in Amelia’s otherwise rambling, open field heart.

Amelia smiles, not sensing how hard I am trying to please her. She winds up another pitch and asks, “Are you ready?”
I bark and leap into the air. I’d do anything for Amelia. Anything. Even slop around in a muddy soccer field chasing fly balls, trying to catch them in my small mouth and bring them back to her like ten-carat diamonds dug up from the depths of my hound-dog heart.

When we get home, Phil is sitting on the sofa. He has a key to the apartment that he uses when Amelia’s out of town on business and someone needs to care for me. On the coffee table, the morning classifieds and sports sections litter the glass. When Amelia opens the closet to hang up her sweater, two suitcases topple out.

“Cece’s leaving me,” Phil says. “I thought I could stay here.”

Amelia’s lips tighten. “Can you go home and talk about it?  I thought you were seeing a counselor?”

“We were. She told the counselor last night that she wants a divorce. She says she’s found someone who listens.”

Amelia unlaces her Reeboks and sets the softball inside the left shoe. She runs her fingers through her long brown hair and tries to smile. I’m thirsty from chasing muddy softballs, so I trot into the kitchen and lap up the clean water Amelia placed there this morning after we had breakfast. When Phil’s here, the rooms feel smaller, darker, cluttered. I stay in the kitchen, chewing Purina dog chow, eyeing Amelia in the living room. She curls up beside Phil on the loveseat and brushes a sandy curl off his forehead.

“I guess it will be all right. You can probably find a place by the end of the month.”

Phil kisses her mouth. “What would I do without you?”

By the end of the month, I’ve given up my space in Amelia’s bed to Phil. I sleep outside, eat outside, and pee outside. My chewy toys no longer hide beneath the sofa cushions or underneath the coffee table. The apartment is still a mess, but it’s a different kind of mess. Phil’s Polo shirts drape over the sofa’s arms. On an end table where Amelia’s reading lamp used to be, a portable television blasts a baseball game between the Yankees and the Dodgers. Monitors and hardware cases lean like Lego cities on either side of the fireplace. Sometimes Phil thinks he’s home and he trips on my paws or steps on my tail. I yelp. Amelia says, “Be careful,” but doesn’t do anything when he’s not. I’m beginning to wonder when they’re going to send me away like the last family did a month after they brought a new baby home. “There just isn’t enough room in this house for another mouth to feed,” the husband said. I thought they’d get rid of the baby, he came last, after all, but they got rid of me.

Amelia isn’t holding up any better. She’s lost a lot of weight. When she bends down to feed or pet me, I can see each bone in her wrists. And her sad smile.

Five weeks later, Phil says he’s finally found a place. I think we ought to celebrate. But the night before he’s supposed to move out, Amelia closes a deal between Soltech and Fusetronics and, in the process of restructuring, Phil loses his job as a software engineer.

Phil slams the door when he comes home. Amelia is cooking in the kitchen, dicing onions for the soup she will not eat. I am sitting by her feet, just happy to be near her.

“How could you?” Phil spits. “I may not love my kids as much as you love that damn dog, but at least my kids would never back stab me.”

Veiled by her hair, Amelia continues dicing. “You knew I was working on that deal long before it became final. If you had a problem with it, you should have said something then.”

Phil stalks into the kitchen and kicks over my water bowl and steps into the moist crumbs of dog chow. “Shit. His crap is everywhere. I thought I told you to keep it outside where it belongs.”

“We had a snack together. Is that so horrible?”

“You could at least get rid of the evidence.”  Phil dumps the bowl of water in the sink and rinses the dog chow down the drain. He mops the floor. He pulls open the refrigerator and moves around my cans of moist dog food looking for a beer. “You know, the Italian Affair is having its grand opening tonight. We should go there and celebrate your big deal.”

“Stop teasing me. It was a big deal negotiating that offer. I couldn’t write in the terms and conditions for everything. How could I have known they would lay you off?”

I whine and whimper, hoping Amelia will understand. Please, don’t let him stay.

But she’s not paying attention to me. She’s paying attention to him. “Listen, Phil,

I’m sorry. If it makes you feel better, you can stay here until you get another job.”

Phil pops the lid on a can of beer. Foam rises over the edge. He slurps it up and wipes froth off his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m sorry, too. It’s just that most guys my age are settling down, not starting over.”

Amelia touches his cheek. “Beginnings aren’t bad. They’re endings upside down. Like a frown to a smile. You have to look at it the right way. Now you have time to do the things you’ve always wanted to do. Like play softball.”

“You’re right.”  Phil wraps his arms around her waist and kisses her. “It’s not all bad.”

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Debut Short-Story Collection Released

Happy New Year!

I’m proud to announce the release of my debut short-story collection,The Human Act and Other Stories, from All Things That Matter Press.

The Human Act and Other Stories features a cast of diverse characters struggling to reconcile the lives they want with the lives they have been given.  From the teenage girl trying to escape poverty in “Ashes to Angels” to the new mother mourning the loss of her abandoned career in “Queen of Jingle Junk” to the young man searching for meaning in “Hope in the Laundry Room,” readers discover the courage to transcend circumstances and embrace their complicated lives with humor and grace.

Happy Holidays!

It’s the week before Christmas and everyone seems to have their thoughts anywhere but here. Family members, company parties, year-end celebrations occupy every moment, leaving little time to read and reflect.

No worries. I understand, as I’m caught up in the whirlwind too.

But I have a teeny-tiny treat for you in the New Year.

My short story collection, THE HUMAN ACT, will be released from .

Yes, that’s right. 2013 will start off with 14 stories you can have delivered to your home or your eReader.

So enjoy the holidays knowing you’ll be in for a reading treat in the New Year!

Teens, Identity, and Despair

"Lips" from The Human Act and Other Stories to be published by All Things That Matter Press

“I was here. That’s what she means when she writes in big block letters with her bright red lipstick, TYC 2001, in the mirror of the girls’ bathroom in Jefferson High School.

“I stand beside her pretending to fluff my already exaggerated hairdo. She thinks I don’t know her importance so she draws a line beneath her initials with a sweep of her wrist.

“TYC catches me staring at her. ‘What you looking at?’ She narrows her brown eyes, swivels the lipstick into its black case, turns, and struts away.

“By the time school lets out at three-thirty, I have seen TYC three more times. By the lockers exchanging her history book for algebra. In the halls shouting at a cheerleader for accidentally touching her. At the library checking out a book written by Dorothy Allison.

“I start to think there is more to my fascination with TYC than her bright red lipstick, which she never wears, only writes with. At home I stare in the mirror at my reflection and pucker my lips and mouth the letters, TYC, like I’m some sort of rock star in a music video. Before I go to sleep, I sit on the edge of my bed and roll up my pajama sleeves and stare at my wrists, turning them from side to side. The bones are heavy and awkward, not slim and manipulative. I lie down and pull the covers toward my chin. I close my eyes and dream of large techno-colored lips. I wake up in the middle of the night and feel my heart racing. I touch my lips with the tips of my fingers, the same lips those large techno-colored lips just kissed.”

***

The above section is an excerpt from my Pushcart Prize nominated short story, “Lips,” which is one of the 14 stories featured in my upcoming collection, The Human Act and Other Stories, to be published by All Things That Matter Press. The story focuses on a high school girl whose best friend, Lorraine, has moved to Arizona, leaving her friendless. The high school girl becomes obsessed with TYC, another seemingly friendless girl. But her preoccupation with TYC prevents her from grieving over the loss of her friendship with Lorraine, exploring her identity, accepting her budding sexuality, and acknowledging her increasing despair.

Teens have always had to cope with crossing the wasteland between childhood and adulthood. The terrain may be different from generation to generation, but the concerns remain the same: teens want to belong as much as they want to differentiate from one another.

But the cost of belonging can be high. Teens have to try out for sports before they can become members of the team. They have to qualify for the math Olympiad or the national honor society. They have to audition for band or drama. They have to possess some sort of talent or skill that fits into a socially acceptable format or else risk not belonging. Those teens who fail to fit neatly into one of these categories can fall through the cracks. Some of these teens join gangs or become stoners. Other teens remain painfully alone.

Teens that do not fit into a group have a hard time finding people like themselves to relate to. Some of them find solace in a hobby. Others escape through reading or music or video games. Still others find themselves like the narrator of “Lips,” searching for connection through a mysterious stranger who seems to fulfill all of one’s fantasies.

The longing for human connection does not end when one leaves childhood. It changes shape like the body, developing the lines and curves of being unique and yet still belonging.

For more stories of uniqueness and belonging, “Like” my Fan Page on Facebook to be notified when The Human Act and Other Stories is released.

Jia Blossoms

Jia plugged her iPod into the auxiliary jack of her Toyota Prius and listened to John Lennon sing, “Imagine,” as she drove up the hill to the back parking lot of Namaste Cafe where she worked as a waitress. Stepping outside into the blazing heat of another summer afternoon, she grabbed her thermal lunch bag and crumpled issue of Mother Jones and locked her car door.

“Excuse me.”

Jia glanced up into the dark brown eyes of a young man with disheveled blond hair. He was dressed in a frayed gray top and loose khaki shorts. A broken bicycle inner tube hung over one of his shoulders; a lumpy backpack against the other. Don’t look at homeless people, her father had warned her. They only want something for nothing. Just look away, pretend they don’t exist.

When the stranger stepped closer, Jia could smell grease and dumpster trash emanating from his bronze skin. She wasn’t sure if he was homeless or drunk or just in need of help. But she could not look away. She could not pretend he did not exist.

“Can I get a ride to the Pedaler Shop?” he asked. “It’s down Mendocino on College, about a mile or two from here. I need to fix my bike.” He lifted the broken inner tube for emphasis.

Jia’s gaze wandered from the man to the bike leaning against the willow tree next to the dumpster in the parking lot. The man followed her gaze, saying, “Yep, that’s my bike. I popped a tire going through a construction site.”

In a world of Jerry Springer, date rape, and online sexual predators, it was no wonder Jia heard her father’s voice: Don’t talk to strangers. They are dangerous. You could end up dead. But Jia suspected this man was as harmless as the bird with a broken wing she nursed back to health several months ago. Twirling her keys between her fingers, she said, “I have to start work in fifteen minutes.”

“If we leave now, you’ll be back in ten.”

Jia popped the trunk, and the stranger quickly dismantled his bike. It fit perfectly.

“My name is PAL.” The stranger extended his hand. “That’s short for Paul Alexander Loreau.”

“Jia,” she said, accepting his hand. “It means beautiful in Chinese.”

PAL studied her for a moment. “Your parents named you appropriately.”

Jia felt the blood rush to her cheeks.

Without hesitating, Jia unlocked the doors. She tried to keep her eyes in front of her as she drove, not on PAL who sat beside her with his elbow leaning out the window. A warm breeze ruffled her hair. She welcomed the distraction. Pausing at a stop light, she could feel PAL’s curious gaze traveling the curves of her body before resting on the blue river of veins on the back of her yellow hand where her mother’s wedding ring circled her third finger. “You’re married,” PAL said.

Jia felt no need to correct him. She didn’t open up to anyone, not even strangers. But she struggled to focus on the road. Her thoughts kept returning to the stranger sitting beside her. She had an odd desire to tug him into her arms and kiss his tight mouth until his lips blossomed. She had been alone for so long, she could not remember the last time someone had noticed her. In her head, she heard her father say, He could be tricking you. You could get mugged. Then what would you do? No money, no car. You’d be lucky if he left you alive.

Pulling into the parking lot of the Pedaler Shop, Jia pointed to her watch. “I can’t stay.” But what she wanted to say was, I can’t go.

“I don’t expect you to be late for work on my behalf.” PAL reached into his backpack and pulled out a wadded ten dollar bill. “For gas,” he said.

Jia lifted her hand and shook her head, but PAL unzipped her purse and tucked the ten dollar bill inside.

“It’s my gift.” He waved good-bye before carrying his bike into the air-conditioned store.

My father’s wrong, she thought. He didn’t hurt me. She reached into her purse with a trembling hand and retrieved the crumpled ten dollar bill. For a moment, she stared at the rip in the center of the bill just below Hamilton’s face. She smiled with conviction. He did not want something for nothing.

The clock on the dash changed to 2:57 pm. Three minutes before her shift started.

Jia zipped up her purse and backed out of the parking lot and merged with traffic. Although PAL was gone, she could still smell him sitting beside her. She rolled down her window, hoping the warm breeze would erase the smell. But the wind acted like a whisk in a bowl, beating up and blending the mixture of grease and perspiration and desire. Jia turned around at the nearest intersection and headed back to the Pedaler Shop. She parked her car and stepped into the air-conditioned store. PAL was standing between aisles of bikes waiting for the technician to fit his tire with a new inner tube.

He glanced up, startled to see her.

“I’m not married,” Jia said. “The ring was my mother’s. I wear it to feel safe.”

A slow smile spread across PAL’s face. “What are you doing for dinner?” he asked.

“Having it with you,” she said.

If you enjoyed this short story, you will love my upcoming short story collection, The Human Act and Other Stories from All Things That Matter Press. To be notified of the release date, visit my Fan Page or post a comment below.

Short Story Collection to be Published

A few posts ago, I asked readers which they would prefer to read next: a collection of short stories or another novel.

Most readers preferred to respond by email rather than publicly post. Ninety percent said they would prefer to read a collection of short stories.

I began the search of querying agents and publishers hoping to find someone interested in publishing an eclectic mix of stories written over a period of 20 years and spanning the themes of hope, love, grief, disappointment, and longing that are universal in the human experience.

I am proud to announce All Things That Matter Press has chosen to publish The Human Act and Other Stories for a tentative release date of Winter 2012.

Stay tuned for more information.

And thank you for your continued support. Without you, there would be no short story collection.