Poems and Stories

Poem in Your Pocket

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Ghosts of Critics Past

Grandma's Recipe

Old Fashioned Poetry

A Writer Gets Organized

Picasso's Boise

Poetry Arrives

Prison Walls

Snake Pit

Privacy Alert: Teen Journals


Keys to Vital Longevity

Poem In Your Pocket

Carry a poem in your pocket today
inside your shirt, next to your skin
the words will slip into your calendar of days
choose your poem wisely
you will change.

(c) Susan Reuling Furness 4/05 for Poem In Your Pocket Day

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A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness
. . . it finds the thought and the thought finds the words.
  – Robert Frost

empty page, an invitation
calling on concealed dreams
waiting for creative kiss
begging inspiration

unfilled page imaginings
teasing hope, inventing schemes
pulitzer or nobel prize
daydreamy expectation

herein lies an open space
enticement for new poetry
fantasy or mystery
brave imagination

now an empty nothingness
here something wants to live.

(c) Susan Reuling Furness 04/02 R -11/02


Sometimes It takes courage
More than we know
To keep walking and breathing
Through nefarious grief
Lost in the rubble of
Unthinkable anguish
Disbelief and despair
Weigh on delicate flowers
Still under pressure
Lies a reason for living
Flattened rose
Between parchment becomes
Pressed souvenir
Courage waits calmly
Through dark days of winter
Touches pressed flower
Anticipates spring.

(c) Susan Reuling Furness in Layers of Possibility Healing Poetry from The National Association of Poetry Therapy Members. Palabras Press, Calgary, Alberta, 2007

Ghosts of Critics Past

Memoir: Ghosts of Critics Past

Like every other writer, I felt insecure about putting words on a page. In many ways, I felt insecure about my life. The Write Path was born after an important personal experience at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

The ghost arrived on a thunderbolt. Though I didn’t hear him come in, I did hear the banging screen door at Staff House in the night.

As I begin to recount this story, I think I would rather tell a different one. I would prefer to tell a tale, which casts me in an alternate role – one portraying no ghosts, no insecurities, no hang-ups. Maybe I would prefer to write about a spiritual journey into the holy lands of goodwill and philanthropy. But, instead, it is this story that begs to be told. And so I shall tell it.

The Ghost of Critics Past arrived at Ghost Ranch in October 1998. He rattled my chains, opened my eyes, and left me changed forever.

In the beginning, a quiet retreat at Ghost Ranch intrigued me. I met my daugher, Jessica in Albuquerque, rented a car, and headed north. After a few unplanned detours, she spotted our destination. Massive cliffs dwarfed the buildings, nestled in a crimson canyon; golden foliage dotted the property. “Ghost Ranch,” I whispered beneath my breath. Little did I know or understand the truth in the name.

The Night before Critics
On the first evening thunder rumbled in the still night air. At dinner Bill Mackey, long time volunteer at the Ranch, entertained the guests with history and legend. Bill spun a yarn, which began in the late1800’s with the Archuleta brothers, homesteaders on 160 acres in the center of the present Ranch. Perhaps the Archuletas, who were cattle rustlers, concocted stories to keep curious neighbors away. One of these myths tells of a giant red cow that jumps from Kitchen Mesa to Pack’s Pointe at full moon. Anyone who sees this cow must surely die. Another legend warns of a red, thirty-foot snake – almost visible in the strata of the sandstone – which haunts the mesa and eats small children. There are tales of a herd of stampeding horses that rattle the windows and awaken people from a sound sleep, but can never be seen. Bill recounted how the indigenous people originally called the place Rancho de los Brujos, Ranch of the Evil Spirits, a name derived from the many accounts of hangings and ghosts here – including a true story of how one Archuleta brother murdered the other in a dispute over gold. Arthur Pack, owner from 1933 until the Presbyterian Church acquired the property in 1955, anglicized the name to Ghost Ranch. Before ending his talk, Bill knitted his brow. “Beware, you may encounter evil spirits during your visit.”

We left the dining room, scurrying under an angry dark sky. As the clock struck seven, eight visitors gathered in the library meeting room for the beginning of the workshop. Five of us had professional writing experience; three of us did not. I was one who did not. As the group’s expertise became known, I re-assessed my own ability. This is a bad idea . . . a set up for humiliation. My heart began to race. I turned to look at my daughter. She appeared unruffled.

An ethereal Logghe, draped with a mauve scarf around her shoulders, was speaking from a plaid sofa. I had to strain to hear her over he rising wind and thunder outside. “This class is designed to help you write with candor from the depth of your heart.” She continued, “To keep the group safe, we will limit our comments to ‘recall.’ This means we will not critique one another’s writing. Please listen closely when the others read, and when the reading is over, simply speak the words or phrases you remember.”

At this point, my pounding heart exploded into my throat. Read my writing out loud? You must be kidding. Can I escape without being noticed? My daughter, once again, appeared calm, like Joan and all the others sitting in the circle. Leaving didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind, so I sank into my chair hoping to disappear. After the first timed writing, Joan turned to her left. Susan, Camille, and Laurie each read a short masterpiece. I sank deeper into the chair. Jessica read next – a nice piece about her grandfather, Fritz. I was stunned by her insights and amazed by her command of the language. Can she be my offspring? She seems so confident. The pressure mounted as the reading progressed toward my side of the circle. There was no way to focus on the other stories; my mind was engaged in condemnation of the sophomoric words in my journal. When Joan called my name, I begged to pass.

But Joan has a way with even the most insecure. With a gentle nudge from Joan, I took the reading plunge as rain began to fall outside. I expected my fellow writers to point at me and laugh, the way my classmates behaved in second or third grade. But no one did. My daughter’s smiling eyes strengthened my resolve. My voice filled the room. Maybe I will survive after all. Maybe, just maybe, I can enjoy this.

This might be the end of my story . . . an uncomplicated account of conquering doubts. But ghostly tales are seldom so simple.

The Ghost Appears
The session ended before the stroke of midnight. My nerves, though frayed, felt a charge of excitement, not unlike the lightning streaking across the desert sky. The group darted toward Staff House, crossing the Ranch in a torrential rain. Through the sleepless night, a tempestuous wind howled and thrashed. The screened doors of our tiny rooms banged on the hinges.
So it was that the first ghost, looking exactly like a retired Methodist minister, arrived. In the morning, when the soggy group reassembled, Joan introduced a new member. The clergyman looked kind enough. Joan proceeded with the morning exercises while the Ghost Ranch spirits brewed another storm behind Kitchen Mesa.

But while I was watching the lightening bolts outside, my brain was turning a Victorian mush. A minister – oh my – I must be careful what I say in front of him. I tiptoed through the morning. My words were sunshiny and virtuous – the effect was uptight and priggish. Jessica’s work sounded like a New York Times best seller; mine like a first grade Bible primer. So much for “writing from the heart.”

Maybe it was the chili powder in the lunchtime enchilada that eventually made me forget my sanctimonious self. Somehow that afternoon, I got in touch with “my heart.” In response to a long-forgotten prompt, I delivered an angry memoir, which I titled: The Rules, The Rules, The Damnable Rules> it was written with no heed to my moral editor nor the Presbyterian minister in the room. In part, the piece contained a short poem:

Canons and codes and firm regulations
My family has rules for every occasion
Rules about money and rules about sex
Restrictions for speaking and silence . . .and best
Methods for washing and scrubbing and bathing
And one that says even the soap will need cleaning.

These policies smell like a primitive cellar
I’m rotting away just to stay out of trouble
I’m prickly, short-tempered, constrained to the core
My life has become an impossible bore
These damnable rules are a curse and invasion
My family has rules for every occasion.

The story, itself, was laced with other well-chosen expletives. There! I gloated silently. I’ve written some decent ‘from the heart’ material. But after I read, the pastor pushed his glasses atop his forehead and spoke, “It seems a shame for such a nice woman to use profanity in her writing.” He had obviously missed Joan’s talk about “recall.”

Bah! It was an innocent comment, but a dagger to the heart! I thought Sister Logghe could protect me from criticism. But the vicar’s condemnation humiliated the goody-two-shoes who wanted to please everyone. I cringed as if to avoid the backhand of an angry elder. This man sees me as a sinner, a scalawag, a reprobate. The chains of shame rattled as I looked to my daughter for comfort. She was staring at the cottonwood branches, bending in a fierce wind outside the window.

The Ghost of the Past
Oh the irony, I thought, gnashing my teeth. I came to God’s country to be fortified and encouraged, but instead I am struck by His sword. Suddenly, I lost touch with all the others in the room. It was as if I really heard the clanking, as if someone were dragging a heavy chain on the floor. My eyes beheld an apparition. The pastor disappeared, replaced by an ancient spirit – the Ghost of Critics Past – my very own haunting from my very own past. The ghost’s translucent body resembled my pot-bellied grandfather. The ghost, or was it the minister, had the gray hair and the sharp nose of my father. The voice resembled mother’s, but the words mimicked a host of family members, teachers, and even Reverend Gustave from my hometown church. Their reprimands, tongue-lashings, and admonishments filled my head.

Reliving the memories stung as much as living them the first time. I yanked myself back to the present.
My daughter was oblivious to my pain. I raised her on affirmation, encouragement, and praise so she could not see the haunting spirit in the library. One furtive glance in her direction showed the truth. No help here.

Humbug! What’s wrong with a few cuss words? Doesn’t that language convey the resentment in my story? Who gave this blustery bag of wind the right to critique my writing? I stood up and beat a hasty exit from the library. Gotta get out of here before I take the Lord’s name in vain and kill one of his faithful servants. In a darkened corner, outside the library, my pen cut angry words onto the pages of a journal.

The Censor

Burning, searing tears withheld
Behind a veiled curtain
She fights them off
The censor laughs
Pain, distress, disfavor.

Admonished time and time again
Chiding speaks her name
Trembling child
Parental scowl
Shame, disgrace, dishonor.

A critic commandeers her soul
Father, cleric, judge
Ten thousand rules
A stringent guard
Harsh phantom in her head.

Approval when she stays in bounds
This bully’s regulations
But die she will
From unsung words
Victory for the censor.

Tyrant, free this captive soul
Emancipate the woman
Unshackle heart
And liberate
The depth of her expression.

Death to the Ghost
Emotionally spent, I returned to the group in the meeting room. Looking straight into the eyes of the cleric, I read The Censor. My voice was strong. The Ghost of the past cowered as another spirit, The Spirit of the Present, emerged: I was here, an adult woman, and this was now.

I wonder why it took so many years to finally defend myself. It seems that in speaking up to the minister, I spoke to an entire legion of critics. The rain stopped, the thunder silenced, and the Ghost of Critics Past vanished that afternoon. My seeming insubordination annihilated the apparition. Although the minister seemed unaffected, my voice was set free. Now, at last, the Spirit of the Future could emerge. I could walk away a self-respecting woman.

In the following days the group enjoyed a relaxed camaraderie. The reverend learned to give Logghe-style recall. Joan challenged us, nurtured us, and left us wanting more. With the storms past, the October sun highlighted azure skies, the towering red rocks, and the golden leaves beside the adobe buildings.

Alice Walker once observed, “writing is a sturdy ladder out of a deep pit.” Just as I climbed out of the pit of my past, many of my fellow writers purged their poltergeists here. This, indeed, may be the true of the ghost at Ghost Ranch, for as the winds rage and storms brew behind Kitchen Mesa, our banished phantoms howl from a deep pit beneath the Ghost Ranch library.


© Susan Reuling Furness
Published in Once Upon a Place: Writing from Ghost Ranch. Anita Skeen and Jane Taylor, Eds. Night Owl Press: Woodbridge, VA. (2008)

Grandma's Recipe

grandmas recipePotato (n) - An edible starchy tuber.

Mashed potatoes were Grandmother’s signature dish. But mashers ridicule me – whip me so to speak. Every Thanksgiving the starchy tubers win and I lose. Last year’s offering simulated wallpaper paste. Two years ago, Dad suggested I had improved the formula for superglue as gravy careened off impermeable blobs. The 1996 version doubled for mortar. One wonders why I don’t settle for canned yams covered with marshmallows. If Grandma had not established tradition, I would retire my electric mixer.

Time and again these pips of edible starch have the last laugh. Now as the hour arrives, nothing can disguise my angst. I tell the family, “You watch the game while I finish dinner.” Behind the kitchen door I am a wreck. I consider a shot of Schnapps to steady myself, but instead, I transfer the potatoes to a great bowl of uncertainty.

When I was a child, Grandma prepared the mashed potatoes. Hers were always perfect. For my grandmother, mashing potatoes was an athletic event. I watched as she poured steaming white spuds into an earthenware crock. Armed with a wooden mallet, she mashed and pounded. She was a demolition crew with a wrecking ball.

“Pour the milk, ” she directed me, “now the butter. . . a handful of salt.” I did exactly as I was told. The aging skin on her arms swayed with the rhythm of her mashing against the old stone crock. When the potatoes reached a creamy consistency, Grandmother wiped her forehead on her ruffled apron and presented the delicacy to the family.

These memories and her old wooden mallet are all that I have from my grandmother. A wisp of a woman, Katherine Morgan lived well into her ninety-seventh year, which is a tribute to her unyielding disposition. Never a quitter, her leathered hands did not rest. She re-upholstered furniture, plastered ceilings, hammered nails, and plied the hand plow. She shoveled coal and she shoveled snow. At eighty-eight Katherine climbed a ten-foot ladder to prune the trees. “Katie, just hire someone,” Grandpa said.

Grandma snapped back, “And spend good money? I’ll do it myself.”

She raised chickens, chopped off their heads, plucked feathers, and fried the birds to crisp perfection. The highlight of every Sunday was fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

Fifteen years after her death, I wear Grandmother’s tenacity like invisible skin. I dig in my heels. “I have a Master’s Degree. These potatoes will not bully me.”

Then again, I could avoid embarrassment . . . sprinkle parsley on whole spuds and call it good.”

Perspiration drips from my forehead as I pull the potatoes from the stove. Gnawing my cuticles, I scan the recipe in the Joy of Cooking. Anxiety is setting-up faster than the cranberry Jell-O. Did Grandma leave a recipe? Maybe I bought the wrong spuds. Maybe I should whip them in a crock.

Pressure mounts when the tender timer pops. The turkey, roasted in a newfangled cooking bag, is ready. Rummaging through the drawers, I paw around a mountain of utensils in search of the beaters for my portable mixer. The out-dated turkey baster and the ancient potato masher are pushed aside.
“ . . . so grateful for simpler methods,” I think. But as my fingers connect cord to power, something says, “these are supposed to be mashed potatoes.”

“That’s it!” I shriek. “I’ve been flogging the potatoes to death! Tossing the mixer aside, I resurrect Grandma’s wooden masher. The skin on my arm sways in rhythm to the mashing against the bowl. At last I have the upper hand.

Lesson learned. Expedience is not a perfect recipe. These hand-mashed potatoes look creamy, just like Grandma’s. From now on, I’m a devout masher. Potatoes, anyone?

© Susan Reuling Furness
Country Woman. (Nov/Dec 2003)

Old Fashioned Poetry

Old Fashion Poetry

When a student asks
What should I write?
I say, There are no rules
Just let it rip
Write like the Beatniks
Remember them?
Not the Beatles,
No, the Beatniks
Some young folks don’t know.

Oh! my mother hated the Beatniks
Emphasized both syllables
Beat' • nik' she would say
Spit out the words like
Spoiled chicken from the rubbish
“Beatniks write garbage
They call it poetry
They smoke reefer
Drink coffee
In dark dingy dens
Bohemians, Socialists who
Don’t go to church
Wash their hands, brush their teeth
It’s frightening,” she said.
“Beatniks write anarchy
Lines don’t even rhyme.”

We should pass a law against Beatniks
A decree banning poets except
Elizabeth and Robert Browning
Arrest Ginsberg and Kerouac
Squelch this rebellion
We should rule in convention
Before poetry becomes


© Susan Reuling Furness
03/11/03 R-9/15/05

A Writer Gets Organized

One morning, you walk through the door of your study, accompanied by a gripping fear. Somewhere in the heap of rubble of unfinished stories and essays lies a run-away statement. You haven’t seen your MasterCard bill for two weeks, but the $573 balance appeared in a dream last night. It was the third such dream in as many nights.

Time to get serious before the interest exceeds the balance due. You face the possibility of permanently destroying your credit- rating. Better get organized.

These are the simple steps to follow:
1. Sit down at the desk. This helps center your attention on the desk and focus your mind on the organizational task at hand.
2. Stand up. You need supplies to make this project successful. Organization takes planning.
3. Drive to the office supply store. You need file folders, colored tabs, colored markers, Pendeflex dividers, a file box, three-ring-binders, two staplers, a hole punch, paper clips, and bull nose clamps.
4. Charge the supplies on your MasterCard.
5. Stop at the coffee shop. You need caffeine to stay alert to the task at hand.
6. You also need the advice from a friend who you encounter at the coffee shop. Ask this person to shed light on the project; to share some serious thoughts about the existential meaning of your organizational resolve.
7. Check the time. If more than two hours have passed, you are losing sight of the project. Return to your car.
8. Revisit the supply store. Your friend suggests that you need color coded file folders. Return the manila folders and purchase the neon-colored packet instead.
9.  Return home.
10. Sit at your desk.
11. Eliminate any distracting unfinished business on your mind. Complete revision number eighteen of your latest poem. You will also want to complete the letter to your old college roommate in the paper pile. Organizing is time-consuming.
12. Finish revision number nineteen of your latest poem.
13. Eat lunch. You cannot concentrate if you are protein-deprived.
14. Return to the desk. Try to ignore the sunshine pouring through the window. Try to ignore your heavy eyelids.
15. Ignore the unpaid Visa bill. Scramble through the paper mountain. Unearth the MasterCard statement.
16. Write a check for $573. Look in the compost-mess for a stamp.
17. Close the study door. Drive to the post office for a stamp.
18. Next time, avoid your desk until the bill collector calls.

© Susan Reuling Furness
Focus Magazine (January 2003)

Picasso's Boise

capital boise“How would Picasso paint Boise?”

I was standing before the celebrated painting, “Guernica.” Picasso captured the devastation created when the Nazi bombs fell on that tranquil Basque city. As I studied the masterpiece, I thought of another scene of destruction. Might Picasso have seen Boise through similar eyes? How would he portray a city leveled by its own bulldozers?

Picasso died in 1973, just two years after my first glimpse of the capital of Idaho. This introduction to Boise was not a love-at-first-sight affair. The blemishes on the city’s face and scars from her past grabbed my attention. The streets, patchworks of asphalt repair and cavernous potholes, wandered past unremarkable scenery. I noticed no proud community, only deteriorating buildings and great expanses of dirt and gravel.

The year was 1971. Arriving as a stranger, late one Saturday, I booked a room in a fleabag motel in Garden City. After a restless night, I consulted a highway map and followed the most direct route out of town. My Garden City budget did not reflect the urbane image I had for myself. Boise seemed the antithesis of my dreams for sophistication. Visiting the “the City of Trees” seemed as exciting as watching weeds grow in a vacant lot.

Even then, Chinden Boulevard held the charm of cold gravy. I steered my sleek orange Camero east on Chinden to Fairview, past Koppel’s Browseville, Thriftway Lumber, and endless auto dealerships. Heading into downtown, I made the wide turn onto Front Street. Before my eyes, stretched the “Guernica” of Boise. The scene looked as though Hitler had also used Boise for target practice. I remember the dilapidated Union Pacific freight docks, leaning to one side and supported by decaying pillars. Acres of gravel were fenced with chain and identified as “city parking.” The thistles grew taller than my polished new car.

Pioneer Cemetery appeared more alive than Front Street did that Sunday morning. It is possible that I overlooked the stately homes on Warm Springs Avenue in my rush to leave this sleepy place. Although Piccaso might have stayed to paint the devastation, I had seen enough.

You can imagine my shock and dismay when my husband accepted a corporate position here. With the memory of my first visit to Boise haunting me, I packed the Camero and followed a Bekins van across Interstate 84. It was August 1973. As is often the case, half of Idaho was ablaze with raging grass and forest fires. Smoke engulfed I-84, making driving hazardous and sightseeing impossible. Looking west, I saw only a thick noxious cloud-- no Pioneer Mountains, no Snake River, no Malad Gorge. I could only discern the front row of sagebrush struggling in the desert heat. The gloom in my heart matched the smoky gray of the skies.

Those were the years of Downtown Redevelopment; a 20-year legacy that ravaged Boise’s vintage homes and buildings, then left the citizens with only dust. The visionary project was to make way for a bright new city center, but no one agreed on how the makeover should look. Would it be Daumtown or downtown? A regional mall, or nothing? Would Boise always look like it had been destroyed by the Furher’s bombs?

My tenure in Boise lasted long enough to for me to taste the pie at Manley’s Truck Stop and hamburgers at the Dutch Oven. After a year, a corporate transfer sent me packing. I left in the Camero, for the sophisticated life in Dallas, Texas. After watching weeds grow and cows graze on Fourteenth Street in Boise, the big city life dazzled me. Good-bye downtown politics. Hello Neiman-Marcus.

Five years later, in 1978, my husband’s company dropped another bomb. We were to anchor in Boise again. I traded my beloved Camero for a family car to make room for two babies and a dog. In my new Toyota, I followed the Bekins truck back to The City of Trees. I suspect motherhood had changed my starry-eyed dreams. I anticipated a safe and manageable city. I had not been able to afford Neiman-Marcus, but the Bazaar ran great sales on baby clothes. As I unpacked my belongings, I decided to discard my bad attitude about Boise.

The next morning, I picked up the Idaho Statesman. I was shocked. Nothing had changed. Different public figures replaced the 1973 cast of characters, but Front Street still lay in ruins. The cows on Bannock still waited for something to happen. The city fathers still chewed on their decisions. We were to hang in suspense for several more years while additional buildings fell to the wrecking ball and the Eastman Building went up in smoke. “Keeping the faith” was difficult .

But Alive after Five and theCentre on the Grove come to those who wait. A new Mayor Kempthorne promised relief from the agony of self-destruction. With the bravado of Picasso, the Mayor splashed his portrait on the side of a building to announce progress. Main and Idaho Streets were excavated and rebuilt, as the city primed for bus lanes and old-fashioned street lamps. We held our breath. Then, suddenly, The Grove, a convention center, and two parking decks emerged. Another decade passed. Dozens of buildings and projects were added to the canvas.

After thirty years the cows have vanished from downtown. Today I shop The Eighth Street Pedestrian Mall, watch hockey at the Bank of America Center, and tango in the Rose Ballroom. Although weeds still grow on parts of Front Street, I have redeveloped my attitude. Who would guess in 1971 that I would fall in love with this downtown lady? I have come to treasure her renewed beauty, respect her citizens, and call this place my home.

My newest car drives much like the old Camero, but I prefer to walk these days. I stroll downtown to drink coffee or shop. My children live in bigger cities, but I think I’ll stay here. Stepping onto the Greenbelt, I marvel at the smell of cottonwoods, watch the sunrise over the foothills, and notice the skyline of the growing city. I think Picasso would paint Boise in a favorable light.

© Susan Reuling Furness. – Winter 2000

Poetry Arrives

It was at that age poetry arrived in search of me. –
Pablo Neruda

Poetry arrives in the middle of the night
A 3 a.m. musing while sane people sleep
Foggy verses creep on little cat feet
Slam Cat wants out to play
Purring sweetly at first, then his howling grows mournful
Lines scratch at me
Nuzzle me
Paw at the covers.

Damn it, I curse
But he won’t go away
I pretend to be sleeping
You can’t fool poetry.

Rhythms waltz on the bed frame
Tap under the mattress
Taunting and teasing
The Muse and the mood
It’s a marathon mambo
An all-night ordeal and
The last couple standing is
Paper and Pen.
Hand out the trophies
Competition over
Poetry wins.

Rhyme schemes torment
Like clamoring children
In the backseat, while I try to drive
Still singing their song
Their John Jacob Jingle
Not the least bit profound . . . Yet
They won’t settle down
Poetry will not go away.

I have never been martyred
Nor political hostage
No torture
No slander
No cold prison floor
My husband adores me
My children won’t leave me
My family raised sweet corn, no one raised hell.

Still poetry honors my personal bondage
Offers asylum
Refuge, relief
Puts up with my humor
Consents to kvetching
Thou doth protest
Too much.

Why do I battle this nattering menace
When poetry is clearly more clever?
I take a deep breath and pull back the covers
Make room two
Let Poetry in.

Prison Walls

Together we protected
Restrained and contained
People trusted us to maintain
Law and order
We imprisoned the offender
The rapist and murderer
Pinned down the rampant thief.

Listen closely, you will hear
Clanging shackles and keys
Inhale deeply, you will smell rancid
Taste the anguish and defiance
The criminal’s contrition
Did we teach him the lesson to
Respect and Obey?

A century ago
As mortared sandstone, we stood
A backbone against heinous crime
But they shut us down
They made a museum
Hung festooned party lights on
Turret and guard.

Now marriage vows are spoken
In a house across the yard
Some cynics say
Nothing’s changed.

Susan Reuling Furness 4/10
Prize Winner - Idaho Historic Society Prison Poem Contest 2010

Climbing Out Of The Snake Pit

Writing . . . has been a sturdy ladder out of a deep pit. – Alice Walker

A group of nervous writers come clutching journals, gnawing on pens. Assembling in my office, they will spend the early weeks developing trust for each other and learning to silence their internal editors. I assume my work with this group is straightforward. I will tease their creative juices. I will cheer their self-confidence. I will nourish their voice on the page. I am prepared to do this work. Or am I? Rob is one of the eight. I know his problems are thorny. He had an affair. I also know that when the fur flew at home, Rob re-committed to his marriage.

Still he courts the other woman in his mind. As a result, his self-respect is in the toilet. I recommended the writing group, but I did not foresee the writing collision between Rob and another writer, named Josephine. During the third session, Rob pens a poem divulging the mental adultery he commits daily. The eyes of the other writers show compassion. Josephine reads next. I do not anticipate her story about another infidel, her husband, who continues to cheat. As Jo’s story unfolds, I feel apprehension rivet the room. The Golden Gate Bridge stands with less tension than holds this group together. “Dear God,” I muttered, “What do I do now?”

* * * *
Sherry’s husband did not re-commit after his affair. She writes with the Tuesday morning group. In the second week of the ten-week session, she details her tears of loneliness and despair. But in the fourth session, while sitting cross-legged on her chair, Sherry reads, “My family is on the lamb.” I think the phrase is poetic. “My five children left with my husband,” she concludes. The temperature in the room drops forty degrees. “Oh my God!” I whisper, “What now? This is no metaphor!”

* * * *
This is what I do for a living. I walk a precarious scaffold to help others build a stairway to self-confidence. It’s scary business. Sometimes I stop breathing as the drama unfolds. I stumbled onto this career path by dumb luck. Just as Alice Walker found “a sturdy ladder out of a deep pit,” I learned first hand how writing leads the way to better life, a better me. In September 1998, I was non-writer in search of something. God knows what. But both God and I knew I was bored as a therapist. This was my second or third career, depending upon how you counted, and my creativity was languishing. Though many consider counseling an art form, I grew increasingly restless.

A friend suggested I might like to write. “Ha!” my reticent skeptic replied. “Yeah!” my inner artiste shouted. So it was, that I soon sat in a “Write from the Heart” workshop in New Mexico. Joan Logghe, an accomplished poet, sat draped in a mauve shawl. She looked ethereal as we began. “Write freely, quickly, without concern for grammar, structure, or form,” she said. And so I did. After the first exercise, we read aloud. The first two readers, Camille and Laurie, delivered print-ready masterpieces. I soon realized that the group consisted of five professional writers, a retired Presbyterian minister, and me. My confidence retreated and a familiar, pig-headed self-doubt rushed to the forefront.

What was I thinking? I’m just a therapist. Get me out of here! But somehow, I stayed. On the second day, my writing felt bolder. As a storm rattled outside, the group leader suggested that we use a repetitive form to write about anger. Okay, I can do this, I thought. Truthful, congruent words flowed from my pen like water over Niagara. The story I wrote portrayed my life with the evil trolls – my critical family and friends. I laced the story with some well-chosen expletives to demonstrate the depth of my anger. As I finished reading, the graying vicar pushed his glasses atop his forehead. Apparently he did not remember the “no criticism” rule. He spoke. “It seems a shame for a lovely woman to use such vile language.” Arrgh! – a dagger to my heart – acid on my tiny crumb of confidence. I wanted to bolt again. Yet, somewhere from the depth of my unconscious, poetry nudged me. I do not remember the next assignment. Instead, my racing mind fixated on the anger I felt about this new censure.

The pen sliced the paper as a rhyming tirade exploded in my head. At the next pause for reading, I looked straight into the eyes of the cleric and read The Censor. My voice was strong. Deliverance! The clumsy poem, and the simple act of reading it, defeated an entire legion of critics. I spoke, not just to this stranger, but to all the faultfinding quibblers in my life. My unbridled pen had cut beneath the layers of social norms and told the angry, unedited truth. That truth led me from a snake pit of intimidation. I was free. I had signed on for a writing group, but I knew this was therapy. I also knew, in that moment, I could help men and women find confidence through writing. I would create an oasis for thirsting people back home.

* * * *
As a group leader, I watch pens scratch words of disillusionment, secrecy, and shame. Writing helps soothe these dark, dark feelings. Paper and pen carry the writer toward hope and creativity. But sometimes a writer like Sherry or Josephine falls flat onto parched desert sand. How do I manage the unforeseen hazards? What if a whole group tumbles into a bottomless pit?

* * * *
The writers tiptoe into my office on September 12, 2001. They begin writing from a prompt on the board. After twenty minutes, I interrupt the silence, “Find a place to stop. It is time to share what you have written.” Patty, one of the first to arrive, volunteers to read. She begins, “ Kevin and Sean were on top. The fire is still burning. The boys are still missing.” Reality sets in slowly. Patty’s nephews were on the 104th floor of yesterday’s catastrophe in New York City. “Oh dear God!” I mutter under my breath. “Can I proceed?” I had known that facilitating groups would not be easy today. I wrestled with my plans last evening, trashing the suddenly trite “Conformity or Creativity?” theme.

I fumbled through resources until I landed on a Gandhi quote for the whiteboard. Terrorism and deception are weapons, not of the strong but of the weak. The quote would work. Beyond that, I could only hope people would write what they needed to write. They did. Patty did. Everyone did. Their heartfelt words spoke to the reality of the day. The journals candidly chronicled fear, grief, bewilderment, anger, and total disbelief. The writing recycled memories from other disasters – Oklahoma City, Beirut, Hanoi. Group members revisited grisly accident scenes, catastrophes, and deaths.

* * * *
To tell the truth, being a writing and poetry therapist terrorizes me. Debris lies under the skin of every writer. An innocent writing prompt can detonate a nuclear bomb for an individual or an entire group. Still I have learned to trust that words will show the way out of any pit. Writing in a journal will relieve the pain and confusion for anyone who will pick up a pen or pencil. I trust writing to the bottom of my toes. Even when I am baffled as a leader, another round of writing will show the writers to emotional safety and sanity again. And so it was that on September 12, 2001, I trusted a favorite healing exercise. I call this one “Change the Channel .” It works every time. On September 12, we wrote from the dark side for nearly ninety minutes.

The group needed to address the horror and despair. But, I also knew I could not leave them on the smoke and ashes channel. Near the end of the session, I took the leap of faith to lighten the airwaves. “ Feelings are like stray cats,” I began. “They will sleep on your doorstep, but if you don’t feed them, they will move on. I know you need to acknowledge these heavy feelings,” I continued, “but now that we’ve spent some time with despair, I want you to write the word ‘hope’ at the top of your page. Then put your pen on the paper and see what happens.” Pens flew across the journal pages. I held my breath.

I wondered if the group believed this assignment was insensitive. But when we read, the reception was clearer and brighter. Patty wrote an ode to heroes. Tim wrote a letter to compassion. Someone painted a relief, by describing a day on the mountain. The despair lifted, at least for the moment. Hope lived again. One poignant word, a simple prompt, helped these writers climb out of the snake pit of despair. Hope lived for Patty and the others, just as courage was uncovered for Rob, Josephine, and Sherry with a “Change the Channel” assignment. Indeed, there was no need to panic. There never is. Writing will show the way, if only we trust paper and pen.

© Susan Reuling Furness
The Writing Group Book: Creating and Sustaining a Successful Writing Group. Lisa Rosenthal, Ed. Chicago Review Press: Chicago. (2003)

Privacy Alert: Teen Journals

privacyYour mother looks guilty. As you arrive home, she scurries from your room, singing, “Home so early?” You find her cigarette ashes on the journal page where you wrote that she forbids you to smoke.
She recently began to refer to marijuana as ‘Skunk-weed.”
She suddenly remembers the names of all of your friends.

If you see these signs, Mom is reading your diary. Here are ways to stop her.

1) Write “Hi Mom!” on page forty-eight. Sketch a skull and cross-bones in red.
2) Compose a fictitious account of your involvement in a drug deal.Tell your therapist in advance so he can prepare for Mom’s call.
3) Threaten public humiliation. “If you read my diary, I’ll tell the Human Rights Commission the real reason you fired our African American housekeeper.”
4) If all else fails, hide your journal inside a parenting book entitled How to Build a Trusting Relationship with Your Child. She will never find it there.

© Susan Reuling Furness – 09/2000, R- 2012.


Mother tells me, don’t be so sensitive
She watches my heart shatter
At the blush of setting sun
As tulips fade
As eagle snags a sparrow
Thin-skinned she says
I cry at headlines
Hardhats Demolish Native Oak
Terrorists Bomb Ice Cream Parlor

Thirty-one flavors of violence
People, children, an infant die
What about the passersby?
Mother sees my heart in tatters
Too sensitive, she scolds.

Maybe she is right
But am I the only one?
Surely some general aches as he flattens native growth
Human growth
A suicide bomber must have a mother
Does she think he is thin-skinned?
What about Arafat? What about Sharon?
What about the soldiers?

I hear peace workers visited the desert compound
As the leaders talk and talk and talk
A young woman spies the Kleenex
Does Yassar Arafat cry?
I want these men to weep when a baby’s blossom fades
When the sun descends blood-red
When a church is torn asunder.

Mother tells me I am too sensitive
But I grow fond of saying
It is a good thing.

© Susan Reuling Furness   5/13/02 rev. 6/06/02

Keys To Vital Longevity

Everyone knows that the Baby Boomers are turning sixty. As post-World War II babies reach seniorhood, the press and media flood us with a thousand ways to stay beautiful and alert. Sifting through the ads, the books, and the articles can be overwhelming. Sometimes the onslaught feeds a sense of cynicism. One might conclude that, like Ponce de Leon, everyone is seeking The Fountain of Youth. Furthermore, the cynic might conclude that, in the America tradition, entrepreneurs want to take advantage of our quest to stay young.
Yet we all know that youth cannot be bought or sold. No one can stop the hands of time nor change their year of birth.  Fortunately, however, youthfulness and vivacity lie within our control. Vitality is an attitude available to people of all ages. Spirit and spunk determine if we act young or old.
Most experts agree on what needs to happen in order to maintain vital life energy. Included in the advice are ways to keep a sharp mind. In general, the lists say:

•         Maintain a positive attitude – Attitude is the number one - indicator of longevity.
•         Exercise your mind – A life-long learner stays mentally alert and - combats dementia.
•         Stay in touch  – A solid network of caring people is another - indicator of longevity. 
•         Take time to reflect – Periods of prayer, meditation & - journal writing work wonders.
•         Eat well. Sleep well. Stay active  – Everything your mother - preached long ago.         
•         Believe in something bigger than yourself and give something - of yourself.    

Staying young-of-heart and young-of-mind means we must buy into a commitment to do the things on this list. There are those who will run themselves ragged trying to stay young, a counterproductive strategy to say the least. If we want the years ahead to be quality years, there is work ahead but vitality and mental clarity need not be painful or difficult. It helps to know an activity, such as writing in a journal, is enjoyable while it achieves many of the longevity objectives at one time.

Perhaps Ponce de Leon sought the Fountain Pen of Youth. Studies of journal-writers find that a pen, a notebook, and a few easy lessons in how to keep a productive journal will help us stay on top of the mental and emotional game.  Writing helps diminish the chances of mental decline. Best of all, if a writer will address difficult emotional issues, he or she will find negativity declines and enthusiasm and optimism grow.

Adults, just like children, develop new brain cells daily. Mental connections are replaced, replenished, and multiplied every day. What stimulates the mind, young or old, to grow?  Recently, neuroscience discovered that novelty feeds the brain and helps it stretch and grow. Doing something different, trying something new, and learning new things are like fertilizer to the brain.

Gaining insight into your live is no exception. Learning to understand yourself and your life stimulates the development of new and robust neurological pathways. In turn, this growth helps us accommodate new situations and keep a positive attitude.

Activities involving rapid-eye-movement (REM) set the stage for this growth.  CAT scans show that any REM activity works to advance the integration of new and existing knowledge.  REM activities include quiet wakefulness, meditation, and private reflection. Each of these activities happens when you sit down with a journal.

A journal also helps help make sense of past life troubles and traumas. Even primitive man drew hieroglyphs to help understand saber-tooth tigers, hostile tribes, life and death. Modern men and women possess the same innate need to put events in order. From any kind of chaos we are driven to this end. 

Unlike cavemen, we use paper and pen to figure things out. Whether you argued with your mother, or a friend dies, or, or you were just diagnosed with osteoporosis, writing provides a way to untangle emotional confusion. When thoughts are not sorted, the mind is compromised and the brain continues to re-run an old problem in an effort to figure things out. We feel “out of sorts,” until we find resolution.

Grief, sorrow, and stress cannot be avoided in life.  Just the same, if we can sense of these things, the brain waves flow freely and we feel less stress and enjoy greater health. So it is that those who use a journal to work out problems fare better than non-journal writers
Writing is helpful to replace negativity and discouragement with optimism. It helps us regain balance and improve our mental and physical health. A 1997 study of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients found that patients who wrote about stress experienced a 28% reduction in symptoms. Those who did not write showed no change. Patients in journaling groups with HIV-AIDS show consistent increases in white blood counts. James Pennebaker’s research into trauma recovery finds that one single session of writing about a trauma raises white blood counts, lowers pulse and blood pressure, and reduces a health concerns.

Finally, we know that aging people must continue to deal with complex problems while the body grows older and less robust. Keeping an optimist outlook can be a challenge. Once again, writing helps. CAT scans made during meditation and reflective activities, (the REM activities) show sweeping alpha and theta waves, which flow more freely than the waves of an alert and engaged mind.  Alone with our thoughts, it is easier to find answers to what bothers us. As Virginia Woolf once spoke, “Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth comes to the top." Reflective writing allows answers to surface, keeping dismay and pessimism at bay.

It seems like such a simple thing – to sit down for fifteen or twenty minutes and let our thoughts wander on the page.  Keeping a journal is a superb resource for promoting vitality and longevity. Writing helps build optimism, improves health, untangles confusion, and helps resolve trauma. Writing with a group adds social support  to the benefit of writing this way.  A journal writing habit is an inexpensive, enjoyable, and powerful means to vitality during the years ahead.

© Susan Reuling Furness

What People Are Saying...

Susan Reuling Furness and my fellow Write Path group members provided an atmosphere where my unspoken thoughts and feelings were actually important enough to write down. Susan is superb at building a safe, supportive environment and helping each person tap into the healing power of their own creativity."

~ Peter B. - Licensed Professional Counselor