School’s Out, Vacation’s Here!

I love June–the weather, the strawberries, and the end of classes. June has always meant time for lots of reading, swimming, and vacation. And this June, I’ve decided to take a vacation from blogging.

Toad Hall's cabin by the pond
Toad Hall’s cabin by the pond

Since my book, The Altar of Innocence, came out in January of 2015, I’ve blogged every week, with either my own thoughts or the thoughts of several wonderful guest bloggers. Like many writers, I work hard to offer fresh ideas to readers and to engage people on a variety of topics. But for the next couple of months, I will be reposting some of the favorite blogs that continually get lots of readers.  I’ll also post several of my favorite poems for reflection. Then in September, I’ll start back up with blogging again.

Because I’ve been a teacher for my whole career, I’m attuned to the school calendar. So stopping for a break in June and resuming in September feels right to me. I will be working on my new book of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, and planning a book launch for the fall. I hope to see many new and old friends at the readings, and most of all, I hope everyone will enjoy reading the new book as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Here’s a preview of my new collection from the latest edition of Dragonfly, a magazine put out by HopeWorks in Howard County. They graciously published three of my poems. I’ll be participating in their launch reading on June 16, 2016, at 7pm at the Owen Brown Community Center in Columbia, Maryland. Come on over if you’re around.

Freshman’s Lament

Because no one saw him steal in the side entrance
and creep into the locker room
that echoed with the silence of steel boxes.

Because no one saw him grab the girl
as she stuffed her blue gym suit into a duffle bag.

Because no one saw him shove her to the floor
and steal her freshman smile.

Because no one heard her cry
echo through the deserted basement.

Because all the mysteries of sex and power were twined for us,
as inseparable as the white laces of our saddle shoes,

we blamed her for what happened. All that year, we whispered and jeered,
smug in our little homeroom cliques.

Who would want to have sex with her?
She’s so plain. And she’s fat.

I wish I could hold her now, apologize
for all I didn’t understand
about violence and force and shame.

I’d sit with her at lunch time, promise to stand by her.
Give her back
her innocence.

Holding on and Letting Go: A Year in the Life of a Book

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”
~”Seasons of Love”, from Rent

Ann with the first book I unpacked

“I love the song “Seasons of Love,” and I remember humming along with it  well before I ever saw Rent.  The opening lines came back to me when I began to think about how to measure my first year with a published book. Was it really only a year ago that I had my opening reading on a cold February night at Zu Coffee in Annapolis? Cliff Lynn and Rocky Jones emceed the evening, with Cliff introducing the readers and Rocky providing music with his bongos. So many of my friends came to cheer me on, and I have special thanks to each of them. To Grace Cavalieri for her unfailing support and belief in my work, to Laura Shovan for her keen insight and good ear, and to Debby Kevin for her help with marketing and promotion.  My children were there at the first reading–Brian took care of video taping the reading and Christella sold the books for me so that I could talk to people while I signed copies for them.  The evening was magical, and I was humbled to have so many folks attend my first reading and buy my book, The Altar of Innocence.

I think that I could perhaps measure the year in friends–old friends who have celebrated with me and new friends that I’ve met while doing my readings in Baltimore, Annapolis, and DC.  To begin the list, I want to thank three good friends who are part of the meditation group that has become such a valuable part of my life.

Jane Nitsch and her husband, Gerry Cohee, have been steadfast in their support and love.  Jane and Gerry invited me to read my poems as I was shaping them and they offered both critique and support in a safe atmosphere. Additionally, they hosted my book party last May, graciously opening their home to many other friends who attended  my reading party. Thank you, Jane and Gerry.

Renee Rogers is another friend from the mediation group. Her special contribution came in the form of beautiful bookmarks that she designed and produced as party favors for all of the guests. The bookmarks are elegant and graceful, and now I give them  as a special treat included with every book I sell. Thank you, Renee.

Barbara Morrison invited me to read with her and to design a program  exploring memoir using our poetry. The program is called “Looking Back to Move Forward,” and we explore the themes of innocence, secrets, and burdens that emerge in both of our books. Barbara’s book, Terrarium, looks at her life through the lens of place. She does an amazing job of capturing both the joy and the sorrow of childhood as she leads readers to her favorite childhood haunts in Roland Park. Thank you, Barbara.

I want to thank all of the wonderful people who have come to my readings and shared their stories with me. It is deeply humbling to write a book that delves into difficult personal and family issues–alcoholism, depression, and verbal abuse–and to find that my stories touch my readers’ lives and create a bridge of experience that we can share. No writer could ever ask for more.

Here’s a shout-out to all of my guest-bloggers who have so faithfully contributed their talents and stories, helping to expand my readers’ horizons with their fresh perspectives. Here’s to Patricia Van Amburg for her thoughtful guidance as my critique partner and for the many hours she has worked with me to refine my poetry. Here’s to Peter Brunn of New Day Campaign, who invited me to be part of his work of using the arts to end the stigma around mental illness and addiction.

Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hamden
Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hampden

And lastly, here’s to my wonderful children, Brian and Christella Potts. They have always believed in my work and encouraged me to write poetry when no one else thought I could. Most importantly, Brian and Christella encouraged me to resist the urge to censor my story. I am so grateful for the advice that they both offered: “Mom, no one can tell you how to make your art.”  Thank you, Brian and Christella.

How do I measure my past year?

In friendships, and laughter, and fearless abandon. It was all about love.

Enjoy the music!

Are These Feelings Normal?

Last fall I saw the play Next to Normal at Center Stage in Baltimore. All I knew about the play was that it was a rock musical about a woman with depression and  the harm that the  disease inflicts on  both her and her family. “Great storyline,” I can hear people saying facetiously. “I think I’ll pass. “ But the storyline in Next to Normal is very much like my story.

I had no idea how closely the scenes of the play would mirror my own experiences, especially as the mother. The main character, Diana, has suffered from depression on and off for years and is currently entering another very dark place. Her husband, Dan, struggles to keep his job, help his daughter, and support his wife. The daughter, Natalie, feels alienated and confused, and the son is a mystery. I had a lump in my throat as I watched the story play out.

The playwrights, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, captured the experiences of this family and their struggles so well that the play won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Score. I was stunned and felt like I was watching my story in many ways. Especially when the Diana sang “I Miss the Mountains” where she mourns the loss of the peaks and valleys of emotion she used to feel. And of course, the character in the play was supposed to have bipolar disorder, so she had to take mood regulators, which flatten out your personality and render you “normal.” And indeed those drugs often help people to live happy and productive lives. But as someone who has experienced mood regulators, I resonate with Diana’s yearning for the mountains.


My doctor labeled me as bipolar II, mostly because he thought I was “too happy” when I took antidepressants to get out of my first depression. I describe how I felt about that exchange in the poem “The Hopkins Doctor Diagnoses Me” which is in my memoir in verse The Altar of Innocence. I disagreed with his diagnosis and fought the idea of mood regulators, but because my depression was so long and so deep, I acquiesced and tried several versions of them. (Full disclosure, I have been depression-free since 1997 and medication-free since 2002.) I remember feeling like I had a heavy, wet, Army blanket on my personality. I had word-finding problems, and I gained 50 pounds. But the doctor would not listen to me when I said that I had a higher-than-average happiness level and lots of energy to get things done. “I’ve always been like that,” I told him. But when you’re a psych patient, you are easy to dismiss as non-compliant if you don’t want to take drugs.

Thankfully, I got well and eventually got off of all the medications, and I’ve been well for a long time. I do have highs and lows, and I have the coping skills to manage them. I journal, meditate, and go to acupuncture regularly. I have a good mix of social time and alone time. But most of all, I see those rolling hills of emotion as vital to who I am. Those rolling hills are normal for me.

Here’s an audio version of the song followed by the lyrics. Enjoy! I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we define “normal” in our current paradigm of treatment. Is there room for disagreement? For nuance? Is there only one “normal”?

Mountains By Yorkey and Kitt

There was a time when I flew higher,
Was a time the wild girl running free
Would be me.
Now I see her feel the fire,
Now I know she needs me
There to share
I’m nowhere.
All these blank and tranquil years
Seems they’ve dried up all my tears.
And while she runs free and fast,
Seems my wild days are past.

But I miss the mountains.
I miss the dizzy heights.
All the manic, magic days,
And the dark, depressing nights.
I miss the mountains,
I miss the highs and lows,
All the climbing, all the falling,
All the while the wild wind blows,
Stinging you with snow
And soaking you with rain
I miss the mountains,
I miss the pain.

Mountains make you crazy
Here it’s safe and sound.
My mind is somewhere hazy
My feet are on the ground.
Everything is balanced here
And on an even keel.
Everything is perfect
Nothing’s real…
Nothing’s real.

And I miss the mountains.
I, I miss the lonely climb.
Wand’ring through the wilderness.
And spending all my time
Where the air is clear
And cuts you like a knife
I miss the mountains…
I miss the mountains…
I miss my life.
I miss my life.

Making My Book REAL

Velveteen Rabbit

“’What is REAL?,’ asked the Rabbit one day….”

And when a writer really loves an idea, a book can become real. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit in the eponymous children’s book by Margery Williams, for a writer’s story to become REAL takes a very long time. (In fact, you might find bald spots and missing buttons just like Rabbit!) It’s not just the writing that evolves, it’s the believing in yourself that takes time to develop. Like many writers I know, my “Not Enough” voice peppered me with doubts, whispering things like, “Well, that poem is pretty good, but will you ever be able to write lines like that again?” Thankfully, I know enough now to banish that voice to a far corner in my house and ignore her.

Writing a book involves a willingness to put in long, solitary hours and to believe utterly in the future possibility that someone, somewhere might take a chance on your work. In my case, that meant a publisher taking a chance risk on someone who had never published a book before. But every step of the way, I kept refocusing on the small, daily tasks of writing a new poem or reworking some stubborn lines, or coming up with fresh images. The Altar of Innocence —my goal—loomed in the distance, like a lovely cottage surrounded by wildflowers. I could imagine it, and I knew one day I’d find it. But meanwhile, there were other tasks at hand. I used my ability to take a “yes, and” view—something I learned from improv classes. I visualized my end goal while working on very discreet daily tasks in order to get there.

I focused on one thing at a time with dogged persistence and refused to get lost in all of the “what ifs” that inevitably crept into my consciousness. Before I knew it, a box of books arrived on my porch. Early and unexpected. Ecstatic is not too grand a word to describe how I felt at that moment.   I hauled the box inside, hoisted it up on to the counter, grabbed the Exacto knife, slit the tape, and pulled off the layers of paper keeping my babies from sliding around. All the while, I prayed that they would be as beautiful as the proofs from the publisher.

When I finally held a copy of my book — MY book — in my hands, I felt a rush of gratitude to everyone who believed in me enough to help me make my book REAL. And gratitude for the editors along the way who published my poems, faithfully submitted, one-by-one—even those rejected over and over, and those published right away. And always, every step of the way, my dreams guided my efforts. It’s as if all of my experiences—as a mother, a teacher, a workshop leader, a writer—all of those lessons about love and loss, disappointment and setbacks—have guided me on the path to making my dreams become real. And I could almost hear what the Skin Horse advised the Velveteen Rabbit:


“‘It doesn’t happen all at once……You become. It takes a long time.’”

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