What this blog’s about:


bookplate by Edward Ardizzone

Life is a journey fraught with distractions, detours, and setbacks.  Sometimes we can hardly imagine where we’re going, hardly remember where we’ve been.  This blog is my place to share the bright bits I’ve found on my journey. 

A life of reading and looking at art has helped me cultivate a sense of wonder.  Here’s  where I offer many reviews of illustrated and art books for all ages, including lots of children’s books (where some of our best artists are working.)  I focus on books that belong in print — that you can hold in your hands, flip through, and return to again and again.


the crowded desk of dreams

I love going to art galleries and also finding art in unexpected places.  I share links of interesting websites I’ve found. 

I share insights from my lifelong writing and drawing practice which has helped me get a handle on my slippery identity.

This is also my place to share my musings on living in the intentional community Bridge Meadows, a multi-generational community in Portland, Oregon, that helps families adopt children out of the foster care system. 

So, welcome.  

Your insights and stories are part of this conversation.  Please feel free to join in.  


~~Joy Corcoran

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The Limits of Gratitude


I remember the Thanksgiving I began the tradition of asking everyone at the table to tell something they were grateful for.  Before then, we might have said grace or not, depending on who was there.  My extended family’s spiritual practices ranged from out and out atheists to Southern Baptists.

I didn’t have a particular religion, but I was spiritual, whatever that means.  I was in my mid-30s.  My two children were 9 and 10, I believe.  I don’t remember who in the extended family was there, except my younger brother.

He was around 30 and had been dealing with schizophrenia for about a decade, mostly through denial.  We were all in denial.  I’d hoped that the prompt would help him find something inside himself to be grateful for.  He was an incredibly creative and energetic person at times.  I wanted him to see that in himself.  Or to be grateful that he had a place to live, or for the food we were eating.  Something.  Anything.

When we got to him, he scowled and muttered that he had nothing to be thankful for.

“Nothing?” I asked.

“Nothing!” he said.  It broke my heart.

My gregarious and kind husband relieved the tension by talking about being thankful for family and food and some other things.  I’d had lots of experience covering up a broken heart, so it was easy to get on with the festivities.  My brother left after he ate.

I think he only spent one more holiday with the family, but each Thanksgiving, I remember that scowl and statement.  I’ve actually become grateful for it.  It reminds me that gratitude has its limits.  It’s taken me years, but it taught me that I can’t brush away, cure, or repair the darkest parts life.

Minds, hearts, and bodies are so fragile.  Those who appear strong have invisible cracks and fissures on their souls that no amount of gratitude or denial can repair.  But we keep breathing and moving forward.

Unbearable things happen and we must carry them.  Some of us do it with grace, some of us with anger and despair.  I’ve carried my burdens both ways.  Sometimes I think anger and despair is the more authentic reaction, but the more I intentionally practice gratitude, the more I realize there are an infinite number of invisible forces helping me bear my burdens.

Since that Thanksgiving, my brother died a sad and lonely death, my own health has deteriorated from a disease called Transverse Myelitis that has compromised my strength, energy, ability to walk, and my ability to have a job.   Other loved ones have died, have suffered injuries and losses.  Wars have continued to mar and scar the world.  We rush blindly toward our own destruction.


And yet, and yet…I’m more and more grateful for the challenges and heartbreaks I’ve experienced.  I’m so much more aware of how one thing carries the other, how we are always in darkness and light, always fully alive but stumbling toward the mystery of death.

The book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford, is the story of the author’s journey to healing after being in a horrific car accident when he was 13.  His family’s car skidded off an overpass, killing his father and sister and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.  A quote from him that I hold close to me is:

“When I ‘left’ my body during my traumatic experiences, it was my body that kept tracking toward living.  It was my body that kept moving blood both to and from my heart.  Often, as we age and can no longer do what we once could, we say that our bodies are failing us.  That is misguided.  In fact, our bodies continue to carry out the processes of life with unwavering devotion.  They will always move toward living for as long as they possibly can.”


My life seems dark at times and I think I can’t bear another challenge.  I’ve learned enough, thank you very much.  Nevertheless, more challenges are coming for me.  As long as I walk this earth, along with every other human, I’ll struggle with loss and sorrow.

But I won’t let it blind me to the beauty of nature, the cycle of seasons, the comfort of good friends and the blessing of a roof over my head.

A week ago, I was talking to a child in the neighborhood about being caught out in a rainstorm.  She said, “I saw you!  You were talking to a plant.”

I laughed.  I was actually taking a picture of a maple sapling growing from the center of a rhododendron bush, but I was in fact, talking to a plant.  Or communing with it.  Capturing it, too, treasuring it.  It was a thing of beauty on a cold stormy day.  I’m glad I didn’t keep my head down and miss it.


I know one day, my life will be over, and I’ll flit away into the mystery.  While I’m here, I’ll continue to pay attention when I can, and cry when I need to.

I’m mortal.  That’s the thing I’m most grateful for.


I’ll end this with a link to a lovely review by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings of a posthumous collection of Oliver Sack’s essays that he wrote while he was dying, aptly titled Gratitude:


Thanks, my friends, for reading my post.

Spring Redemption


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Into the Dream World: The Art of Dan Rhema

“Many people ‘find religion’ after such an experience.  I had the opposite reaction.  People are always coming to me in the hope that my near-death experience will confirm whatever theological doctrine they profess.  But my experience actually brought me to a place where I no longer need answers to all the big questions.  I’m content to let the mystery be.” — Dan Rhema, I Close My Eyes to See


It’s been a few years since I first became acquainted with the art of Dan Rhema through his ebook, I Close My Eyes to See: The Dan Rhema Story as Told to Kevin Wilson.   

I continue to be fascinated by his art and story.  Whenever I feel that I’m being pretentious about aspiring to create, I can look back at his story and feel revitalized.  To me, his art opens channels to the creative spirit that lives in each of us, that compels us towards making our marks, and communing with the divine through that even shifting thing we call art.

When I was in my teens, I had epilepsy, and was literally thrown to the ground and given visions that I still struggle to decipher.  My experience drew me to stories and art.  And while I didn’t suffer nearly the extent of transformation that Rhema did, I find many  truths in his work.

Dan Rhema suffered a life altering illness and near death experience. In 1991, he was living with his wife, Susan, and 3 daughters in Mexico, directing an international training center. An epidemic of Dengue fever spread through the town and he and Susan and two of their young daughters became infected.   Dan contracted 3 different strains of it, which deteriorated into meningitis and encephalitis.


Memnoch by Dan Rhema


He says, “I traveled out of my body and began journeying down a long dark tunnel. As I progressed down the tunnel, I remember thinking that I did not want to die without my wife and children being with me. My progress down the tunnel ended and I began the long struggle back to consciousness, one level at a time.”


The Red Way by Dan Rhema

His illnesses ravaged his memory, which became “like swiss cheese,” with holes and detours. Things he remembered were out of context and disjointed. He felt like his head was on fire. He felt like he was floating and had to grip the headboard of his bed to rest.

Goddess of the harvest

Goddess of the Harvest by Dan Rhema

Before the fever he was very minimalist in his possessions, afterwards he was compelled to collect objects all the time. At a family reunion, he discovered he could remember things if he put them in a story.

He began to keep a dream journal. Although before the fever he never did art work, he began to create assemblages that took on a life of their own. He began to paint with his fingers like a child.


Awaiting the Dawn by Dan Rhema

These compulsions made him fear he was going crazy, but through them he began to be able to reconnect aspects of his life and mind and soul. He had created 15 sculptures, unsure of them, afraid they were a sign of insanity.  Then Susan found an article on outsider and visionary art and it helped him accept the truth of his own creative nature, and his own mysterious existence.


Remembering Kenya by Dan Rhema

He re-created himself.

I Close My Eyes to See is a beautiful telling of how he did so. The text is minimalist and the story unfolds through the art. The photographs of it by Steven Clark are crisp and vivid.  This was the first art book I’d read on the computer.  The sculptures are muted and have a floating quality; the paintings are bright and imbued with intense energy. I think the lighting of the screen gives the work a glow and presence that wouldn’t be there otherwise.  I like being able to enlarge the image and see the details and textures.

midwife to creation

Mid-wife to Creation by Dan Rhema


The narration through the art is moving and deeply engaging.  This is what recovery looks like.  It’s miraculous and frightening and amazingly rich with beauty.

The art tells the story not so much of survival but of rebirth. There are deep spiritual overtones. Dan says. “I continue to live with one foot in this world and the other foot in another world.”


Declining Nude by Dan Rhema

I am especially grateful to read this book as we go rushing into the holiday season and are inundated with mixed messages about rebirth and gift giving.  Our lives can change drastically at any given moment.  The facades we build and cling to are the real illusions.  Going deeper into the mystery is the real gift.

This book is a real gift, unique and hard-won, that floats between reality and unreality; that celebrates the mystery of the future and the divinity of the present.

I encourage you to look at Rhema’s  website, where you can find links to buy the book, as well as get a look at his children’s books and other ventures.

I’ll close this post with a quote I found on his site:

“That we come to this Earth to live is untrue: we come but to sleep, to dream.” – Anonymous Aztec poet


Self Portrait by Dan Rhema

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Bullies Transformed


“We went home and did all the things we always did.  But for some reason it was different.  I tried to look at them with “new eyes” just like I did with Miss Mary, hoping I would find something different.  I didn’t talk much, just tried to study them like I was meeting them for the first time.”  — Mina aka Mini Mouth, from The Offenders by Jerry Craft

I have two boys – brothers — I tutor in art and reading.  The younger one is 5 and the older is 10.  I usually work with them separately, but every once in a while we get to meet together, and a few weeks ago, we did.  They were each working on sock monsters – creatures made from various stuffed and mutilated socks.  Sam, the 5 year old, noticed a book on my desk, The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention , by Jerry Craft, and was intrigued by the cover.  So I read him the title and subtitle.  His brother Jack came over for a closer look.

“How can you save the world while serving detention?”

“I just got the book,” I answered.  “I don’t know yet.”

Jack flipped through it quickly. “It’s a chapter book,” he said dismissively.

“No, look,” Sam said.  “There are pictures.”  Then to me, “Can you read it to me?”

For the next few sessions we read the about how bullies became super-heroes – sort of.  A freak accident gives five middle-school bullies the characteristics of the kids they bully and a special power linked to the change.  It’s a surprising transformation and kept both boys intrigued.  How are these new super-kids going to save the day when their self-esteem is at an all-time low?


Both Sam and Jack have problems with attention deficit disorder.  They’ve both experienced bullying.  They’ve dealt with it different ways.  Sam is only 5, but even so, he’s been put in “time-out” often.  Jack is more of a quiet kid, who tries to get along with the teacher and ask for help.  They have an exotic last name and a mixed heritage.   They haven’t found a way of “fitting in” yet.

The Offenders represent a full range of ethnic and economic backgrounds.  It’s written in different voices, each child tells their story, the way their transformation impacts them, and the way they learn what it means to have compassion – both for others and themselves.  Except they don’t sound that clinical.  The characters talk in the language you’d hear on the playground, giving it an authenticity in the midst of fantastic adventure.


Though it’s mostly a chapter book,  Craft is also an illustrator and author of the comic Mama’s Boyz, we’re treated to a bit of the comic strip format.


There’s also a flip book along the bottom pages, another charm of this well designed book.

I loved how this book brings to life the idea of redemption in a way that even a 5 year-old can understand, and that a 10 year old can find exciting.

I think part of the charm and authenticity comes from the fact that Craft wrote this book with his sons, Jaylen and Aren.  The boys made sure the story was accurate for slang, clothing, texting and video games.  It was published only last year, so it’s very timely – both in characters and themes.


And it was good for an oldster like me to hear what school is like for a boy who is learning to read, and for one who is reluctant to read.  The games they play, the things that make a kid cool or uncool, the way school seems like an alien battleground – these were all side discussions inspired by the book.

Jerry Craft has illustrated and written many books.  He has a great website and is a very accessible author.  Read more about him here.


For a great picture book that brings to light what a super power really is, see this post on the book The Day I Lost My Superpower.

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you like it, you can subscribe by email in the side bar on the right, and never miss a post.

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Wordstock Loot

I got to go to Wordstock: Portland’s Festival of the Book, 2015, this last week-end and had a blast.  It was held at the Portland Art Museum, and even though it was raining buckets, thousands of people attended.

I only attended one talk, though there were lots of authors there.  It was with illustrator Brian Floca who discussed how he illustrated Avi’s new book Old Wolf.  He was warm and wry and showed slides of how the book was written and illustrated.

As much as I would have liked to hear more of the authors, my time was limited and I really wanted to shop for books.  It was so encouraging to see so many small and independent presses showing their books.  The festival room was packed, too.  We inched forward through crowds to find delights at each table.  I thought I was aware of most of the publishers in the Northwest, but I wasn’t.  I hope to be sharing books from those newly discovered publishers over the next few months.

I’d been wanting Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, illustrated by Allen Crawford, since last year when Portland-based publisher Tin House released it.  An exuberant presentation of Walt Whitman’s exuberant poem, it’s a gorgeous book.  Crawford has a unique and playful style.  His website shows not only the illustrations of this book, but some of his other art and endeavors.


Beautifully designed cover


Crawford’s process


The text goes in every direction animating the book




The other two book I bought were actually McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a magazine/book hybrid that defies description.  On their website, they say:

McSweeney’s began in 1998 as a literary journal that published only works rejected by other magazines. That rule was soon abandoned, and since then McSweeney’s has attracted work from some of the finest writers in the country, including Denis Johnson, Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Heidi Julavits, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Ben Marcus, Susan Straight, Roddy Doyle, T.C. Boyle, Steven Millhauser, Gabe Hudson, Robert Coover, Ann Beattie, and many others. At the same time, the journal continues to be a major home for new and unpublished writers; we’re committed to publishing exciting fiction regardless of pedigree.

Each issue of the quarterly is completely redesigned. There have been hardcovers and paperbacks, an issue with two spines, an issue with a magnetic binding, an issue that looked like a bundle of junk mail, and an issue that looked like a sweaty human head. McSweeney’s has won multiple literary awards, including two National Magazine Awards for fiction, and has had numerous stories appear in The Best American Magazine Writing, the O. Henry Awards anthologies, and The Best American Short Stories. Design awards given to the quarterly include the AIGA 50 Books Award, the AIGA 365 Illustration Award, and the Print Design Regional Award.

I was able to get one of their classic McSweeney’s Issue No. 16 (2005) (I got the pictures from their website)


Beautifully bound little package


A comb named Timothy?



A novella by Ann Beattie, a story collection, a story printed on a large deck of cards, and that comb

and a more recent Issue 47 (2014):


a lovely case announcing  intriguing authors

And each story is published in its own chapbook.

And each story is published in its own chapbook.

But wait -- layout all the chapbooks together and you get a floating cityscape that mirrors itself

But wait — layout all the chapbooks together and you get a floating cityscape that mirrors itself!

McSweeney’s is an innovative publisher and I’m so glad they’ve stayed in business.  They recently became a nonprofit, so hopefully they’ll be around for many more decades.  In addition to the Quarterly, they’re publishing fiction, art, comics, nonfiction and children’s books

So in my purchases, I went for quality over quantity.  I also made a very long list of books to acquire in the future.  So stay tuned.  I’ll be sharing my best finds.

You can never have too many stories.


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Rock, paper, conscience


Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letter and Photographs from the Petrified Forest, edited by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr, is a fascinating peek at the ephemeral nature of human life and the permanence of stones.  There’s a myth that says if you remove a rock from the Petrified Forest, you will be cursed.

Editor Ryan Thompson took a trip to the Petrified Forest and its Rainbow Forest Museum, where a few letters of conscience were displayed.  Drawn to their “humor, heartbreak, and humility,” he began the project that lead to this book.  He sifted through 1200 letters, the first from 1934, that spoke of the misfortune that followed those who left the forest with illegal souvenirs.

002People are concerned that the rocks be returned to the place they were taken from, but because of “their unknown provenance, these specimens can not be scattered back in the park;” Thompson writes, “to do would be to spoil those sites for research purposes.  They are instead added to the park’s ‘conscience pile,’ which sits alongside a private gravel service road, a bit of dramatic irony that only furthered my interest in the phenomena.”


The conscience pile

I can’t tell you how much this book delighted me.  It has several of my favorite elements – ephemera, stones, and space.  As it unfolds it becomes a poignant look at how people interpret the concept of luck.  What causes sorrow and hard times?  Throughout our lives, we are faced with many, many difficult situations.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was as easy to solve as getting rid of a cursed stone?


The letters change as they move more towards the modern era, where an awareness of our impact on our natural resources and our parks is more defined.

005There’s an insightful interview at the back of the book with Matthew Smith, Museum Curator at the Petrified Forest National Park.  He manages “an extensive collection of objects that encompasses one of a kind plant and animal fossils, cultural artifacts and the conscience letter archive.”  The way people remember the forest on return visits is skewed.  It reveals both the inaccuracy and the embellishment of memory.  The early managers of the forest have added to the confusion by manipulating photographs to “persuade the public to help them preserve the National Park and not see the wood disappear.”


The layout of this book is gorgeous.  The photographs of the petrified wood on clean white space are breathtaking.  There are random blank pages that made me pause.  There is room in this book to ponder the material, the ephemeral nature of our letters and sorrows, and the permanence of the stones, no matter where they eventually land.


I so enjoyed reading the various hand written letters.  They’ve become rare in the past few decades and seeing them in all these different manifestations was touching.  I was fascinated by the types of paper and the way each letter was composed.  It felt like an archaeological expedition into the concepts of luck, confession, and even redemption.


Bad Luck, Hot Rocks has a website where you can see some of the letters and photographs, but the book itself is most lovely and engrossing.


Ryan Thompson lives and works in Chicago, IL where he is an artist and Associate Professor of Art & Design at Trinity Christian College. His current research examines various powers humans ascribe to the events and ephemera of the geologic. His work has recently been included in Cabinet Magazine, Fotograf Magazine, Making the Geologic Now (Punctum Books), Reframing Photorgraphy (Routledge), and Format P Magazine. More at:  http://departmentofnaturalhistory.com/

Phil Orr loves building things, particularly out of the discarded, salvaged, unwanted, or forgotten. Much of his work focuses on these objects and the complex relationships surrounding them. He makes a living as a carpenter in Urbana, Illinois where he lives with his growing family.

Bad Luck, Hot Rocks is published by Ice Plant, an independent press based in Los Angeles that focuses on small print run artist books, with an emphasis on photography.  Their designs are impressive and result in books that feel good in your hands and your head.


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Marko Kitti’s Jasper Jinx Series

There are many reasons for self-publishing.  A lot of publishing is based on trends, sales and publicity.  I love many traditionally published works, but I’ve always been drawn to the unique, quirky and original.  I’ve found that in the small presses and in self-publishing endeavors.

One recent find was the work of Marko Kitti, a Finnish writer who now resides in England.  He’d published four books in Finnish, but decided to write one in English after someone challenged him and said that his English wasn’t good enough.

The result is Jesper Jinx, a middle grade chapter books series.  Jesper is the most unlucky boy in all of Puffington Hill.  He’s constantly having his tricks backfire on him.  And he doesn’t quite know how to stop himself from trying more.

Kitti decided to self-publish, not sure his quirky work would find an audience.  But he’s found enough of one that he’s now got 4 books in the series, and they are translated into many different languages.


There’s a lot of playfulness in Kitti’s work, including the voice he’s chosen to tell the stories.  Jesper, a real boy he says, approached him, The Scribbler, a bored writer who hasn’t found anything to write about in the quiet of Puffington Hill.  Jesper says:

“You must promise not to tell anyone.  If my mum and dad find out, they will have me grounded for the rest of my life….You will write a book about my amazing true stories, but you will never get my permission to publish it.  Got it?”

We are sworn to secrecy about reading these stories.   The Scribbler writes what Jesper says, but then cats, squirrels, and other characters get their say-so, adding details and humor to the stories.

This has proven to be a good book for a certain 10 year old reluctant reader I know.  We’re reading it together on my Ipad Kindle.  The idea of reading is much more palatable to him on screen than on paper, since he’s always behind in his homework and he associates books with work.  With this series, he’s reading ahead on his own.

The different voices in the stories have given us a way of talking about how stories are told.  We also get to discuss the difference between American and British English.  Then we get to talk about different cultures.  My young friend is enchanted by the idea that a boy who has a lot of “failures” can also be the subject of a book, and find a sense of pride even when he gets many things wrong.

We’ve read Jesper Jinx and Jesper Jinx and The Sneezing Season and are looking forward to the rest of the series.

If you’d like to learn more about the Jesper Jinx series, here’s the website for the books.


Marko Kitti also has a blog you can read here.


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Exquisite Haunting: Just So Happens by Fumio Obata

001 We’re all haunted by our past – for better or worse.  Not just our own past, but the past of our parents and ancestors.  In our fast moving culture, we’re haunted by the traditions we shed as we try to fit into modern life.

In the graphic novel, Just So Happens by Fumio Obata, a young Japanese woman who has settled in London, is doing her best not to look back, to develop her own world and personality.  But an exquisite ghost is dancing through her life, a masked Noh performer, forcing her to reconnect with her past.


In London, Yumiko has a good job and a good fiancé.  Then she receives news that her father has died and she has to go back to Japan.


Plunged into the rituals of death and the structure of Japanese life, she finds herself oddly removed and unemotional about her father’s death.  She’s sarcastic and annoyed by the commercialization of the funeral rituals.


Her ghost leans in on her, pushing against Yumiko’s façade.  And she pushes back.  In the tussle, she finds new strength, a way to grieve, and a way to bring the spirits of her past into her life without losing her hard won identity.


The scenes are beautiful and Obato’s use of space really pulls you into the story,


I’ve read this book twice, marveling at the lovely illustrations, and the intimate storytelling.  In its subtly, it makes a forceful statement about how identity is constantly shifting around our own image of ourselves, the expectations we’re trying to live up to, and the demands of our heritage.  We shift between the dream world, the real world, and what we perceive as our history.


The metaphor of the Noh dancer speaks on many levels, and though she’s a symbol of a particular aspect of Japanese society, she speaks to all of us as we perform our own dance of balance.


Fumio Obata was born in Tokyo and moved to England in 1991.  He studied illustration at the Glasgow school of art and the Royal College of Art in London.  He’s worked in animation, comic books and illustration.  He has a great website that showcases his full range of intriguing artwork, and a blog, which I just discovered and started following.  It includes his personal and informative coverage of the triple disaster that struck Japan in 2011: Quake News From Elsewhere:  Life After the Tsunami.”

Just So Happens is beautifully bound by Abrams Comicarts.  A good comfortable book to hold and read, the muted colors of the illustration give it an autumnal feeling.  I found the rich visual storytelling most illuminating in pondering mortality during this season when I watch leaves fall, celebrate Halloween and the Day of the Dead, and remember my lost loved ones.


Front of book under the cover


Back of book

“An old relative told us at the end of it…’You see how ephemeral life can be? So make the most of it while you can…’  I knew someone was going to say that to us.  People always try to finish it off with a cliché like that.  To give you a reason for the things you do.  And we are changing all the time. So are our ambitions, desires and purposes…The important thing is to find something that never changes in you.”  — Fumio Obata

I found a bit of that something in this book.  I hope you do, too.


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