Monday, July 19, 2010

Judith Fein Say, "Life is A Trip" and Discovers "The Tranformative Magic of Travel

Book Review
 Interview with Judith Fein

Charmaine Coimbra

Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel

By Judith Fein

115 pages, Spirituality & Health Books, 2010

I love travel. And I love Judith Fein’s kind of travel—adventure, learning more about the world, and discovering fascinating people from venues other than posh hotels in popular travel destinations.

Presently, serious budget cuts have amputated far-away travel from my life. And the news hints that I’m not the only one with severed travel funds. This is one of many reasons to pick up Fein’s new book Life Is a Trip: the Transformative Magic of Travel. At Fein’s side is her photojournalist husband, Paul Ross, who illustrates Fein’s adventures. One can hike with Fein down into the depths of an ancient tomb in Israel; climb into Guatemala highlands; and then turn a page and land in Micronesia or even on a small, but well-traveled road in Spain.

As with my last review, I’ve known Judie and Paul for a while, but that doesn’t mean I would automatically like their book. Truthfully, I’m blessed with writer friends who write wonderful books that easily catalogue into my tastes.

When Judie has edited my work, she encouraged me to dig deeper to find my voice. That’s a somewhat illusive challenge, but one essential to every good writer. Judie’s voice is clear, entertains and informs.

Besides her skillful adventure-verbalizing, Fein also scribes how each adventure broadened her spiritual quests. “To be honest, saying that healing interests me is a gross understatement,” Fein writes. “It is a great, driving passion in my life,” she explains in the chapter "The Sorceress’s Apprentice in Mexico," where her Central Mexico journey places her in the “the land of witches.” Magic, sorcery and self discovery keeps the pages turning.

Another chapter," The High Priest and the Camel Eater on the Holy Mountain of Blessings," voyages to the West Bank on Har Gerizim, the holy Mountain of Blessings where Fein visits the home of High Priest, Elazar B.Tsedaka. His lineage traces back to Moses. This privileged audience with the High Priest leaves Fein “a little skittish.” They discuss the Torah, healing, the soul and other matters of the spirit. Then Fein spews a cultural faux pas that could have her escorted from the room. Instead the wise man made humor of her ignorance. When the writer returns home a similar incidence occurs and she brings forth the lesson learned from the Holy Mountain of Blessings.

Forgiveness continues with her journey through modern Vietnam, she finds faith in an ancient tomb in Israel, and compassion in a Mexican prison.

The chapter that most inspired me (with the hacked travel budget) was "Happy Among the Hmong or At Home: Zen Travel." Fein and her husband, Paul Ross, are trapped in a damp, dank rental in what should have been sunny and warm San Diego, Ca. Even veteran travelers get irked—and the Fein-Ross duo was irked and bored. A notice in a local throw-away newspaper for a nearby Hmong New Year party caught their attention. “I didn’t know what to explore first: booths with native food and drink; stands laden with intricate embroidery, accessories, and clothes for sale; a lion dance; or a potluck with huge casseroles of food prepared and offered for free by Hmong women,” Fein writes about the exotic getaway that was twenty minutes away from their San Diego rental.

Sometimes life is a trip just around the corner filled with new Americans celebrating their cultural richness that is foreign to the likes of me.

At 115 pages, Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel is the perfect summer getaway for those who are busy going no place this summer. I’d even recommend Fein’s book to travelers on highways, in motels, on the train or in the air.

The book lands in stores Friday, July 16, 2010. Judie and Paul, however, will be in the air or traipsing across a unique part of the planet. Fortunately, I caught Judie for a few questions before her and Paul’s next most excellent adventure. Judie shared her ideas about full-time travel writing with ideas for others who play with taking this trip.

Charmaine: Was it the call to travel or the call to spiritual search that led you, as an already established Hollywood writer, to leave the stars behind and trek the world?

Judie: The Hollywood stars don't burn; they sear. And, speaking of burning, I was burned out. In Hollywood, I felt as though the soul was being sucked out of me. I had no idea what to do with the rest of my life, so I just sat still and thought about what I loved: travel. I have been traveling all my life. I lived in Europe and North Africa for 9 years. To me, travel is the Zen state. There is so much new stimulation every second that you can't be anchored in the past or the future. You have to be there, right there, in the present. And that is where spiritual connection and healing take place. So I figured out a way to make what I love be what I do for a living. My spirit called out for travel and I listened.

I have learned that if I don't listen to the call, my life is a series of disconnected actions. When I listen to the call, it all flows, like some of the great rivers of the world I have seen. I do not think you have to travel to the ends of the earth. You can cultivate a traveler's soul and mindset even if you never leave your home town.

Charmaine: It would seem that you and your husband, Paul Ross, have found the perfect scenario in that you work together, travel, write, photograph, and teach. Your bio says that your travel writings have appeared in over 90 "prominent magazines, newspapers and Internet sites." As a former freelance writer I know how much work that takes. Would you recommend this lifestyle to up and coming writers, or even to people who think they might have a great story-telling angle on their travel adventures?

Judie: There are two approaches in life: step-by-step or leaping. In this case, I would recommend the former.

First, commit to traveling deeply.

Second, when you travel soul-first, you will stumble into stories. Stories that no one else can write but you.

Third, write one story, and make it 1,000 words or less.

Fourth, try to sell it to a local paper. It can be a freebie paper, a niche paper or a paying newspaper or magazine. It doesn't matter. If that doesn't work, try to place it online. Do not even think about money. You need clips. Proof you have published. Then, when you contact an editor, you will have a published piece to show. It will build from there.

I work l6-hour days. You don't have to do that. Or you can do it. It's your life, your trips, your writing, your experience, your rhythm. If you have a mate, he or she can perhaps share your experiences by learning more about photography and videography. Then you can "work" together, even if it's not what one or both of you do for a living.

Charmaine: Did you ever think that perhaps another career, other than writing, makes more sense?

Judie: The word "career" is almost comical to me, Charmaine. This isn't a career. It's a passion. I write because I HAVE to write. The world doesn't make sense to me until I write. That's how I figure things out. And I HAVE to travel. What I read in magazines, newspapers, on websites does not express or describes the world as I encounter it on the road. So these are necessities and not just career choices. I do not live lavishly; actually, I live modestly. I don't have big desires or needs. So, thankfully, I don't have to worry about a career and a career path. Life is zipping by. I do what seems necessary, what feeds my soul.


All photos by Paul Ross

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean The following book review by Christine Heinrichs was originally published in the Summer 2010 edition of Earth Island Journal (

Deep Blue Home

By Julia Whitty

246 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

Reviewed by

Christine Heinrichs

In her new book, Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean, veteran journalist Julia Whitty reaches back over a 30-year career devoted to the oceans and synthesizes her experiences into a work that is equal parts personal memoir and environmental history book. Deep Blue Home delves into the influence of oceans in human culture and spirit, while at the same time documenting how human technological ingenuity, fueled by greed and accompanied by a lack of foresight, is devastating the undersea world.

Whitty, an environmental correspondent for Mother Jones, is first a documentary filmmaker, with more than 70 nature documentaries to her credit. Her stories and articles have been recognized with many awards, including the O. Henry Award. In Deep Blue Home she shows off this storytelling prowess. The book begins on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California in 1980, where Whitty spent a field season, April through June. She was there as an assistant to another graduate student, Monica, studying royal terns, along with researcher Enriqueta Velarde, then a graduate student completing her dissertation on the breeding colony of Heerman’s gulls.

Young, unattached, intellectually voracious, and personally adventurous, Whitty is open to the wealth of biodiversity and human experience the island offers. Originally brought to the island for bird research, she packed her snorkel, too, and so spends time under the sea as well. Her filmmaker’s eye catches everything from the tiniest plankton to fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals.

Whitty chronicles not only the wildlife on and around the island, but also Isla Rasa’s human drama. Among the three women, the irritations of daily island life rub raw, culminating in an explosive argument over whether to confine the breeding colony and band the chicks. Confining them makes them easier to study, but vulnerable to being picked off by predatory gulls, ravens, and falcons.

After introducing her passion for nature and open water, Whitty takes her readers to the far reaches of the ocean, following currents that run across ocean boundaries. Such divisions are convenient for humans, but meaningless to the birds, fish, reptiles, invertebrates, and mammals that migrate across them. “The three-dimensional realm of the ocean is layered with watersheds running over and atop one another in multiple directions,” she writes.

Whitty travels the globe, from the frigid waters of Newfoundland, watching icebergs float south to melt, in 1984, to the Galapagos, where she films whales in 1987, then to the Hydrate Ridge, 50 miles off Oregon’s coast, to look for extremophiles, in 2006. These organisms of the chemical soup known as a “cold seep” are too far from sunlight to rely on photosynthesis; they live instead by chemosynthesis in a frigid environment of methane and hydrogen sulfide.

The depiction of this underwater life is fascinating – inhabited as it is by both mammals with familiar characteristics and otherworldly organisms, such as moon jellies – and Whitty makes it all the more so by explaining the science of this hidden world. As she immerses the reader in this world of water, Whitty details the biological basics, and historical and literary backgrounds of the species she observes.

To help readers understand each species’ risk of extinction, she includes the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ listing for each species.

That knowledge is particularly painful when it comes to whales. The destruction and cruelty that have reduced what may have been as many as 10 million whales to the present estimate of 500,000 is difficult to comprehend. Such a loss reverberates through the ecosystem, with far-reaching effects.

Whitty draws freely on historical and mythological sources to portray the power of the oceans in human culture. She finds inspiration in Hindu literature’s Mahabharata, India’s Rig Veda, the Greek pantheon, Norse mythology, and the cave art of Baja California.

“Working the ocean still requires a delicate finesse between audacity and deference,” she writes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jackrabbit Highways

Jackrabbit Highways
A Book Review
Charmaine Coimbra

When I’m chasing wild hares across their erratic paths, I’m too tired for reflective and meaningful reading. Recently I corralled the metaphoric hares, and then rode Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner to Los Angeles for a girlfriends’ day.

The four-hour ride through farms spotted with discarded rusting trucks, and bovines feasting on the rich El Nino-fed grasses just a few feet from the Pacific Ocean, gave me time to read and savor the poetry of Sheila Cowing.

In full disclosure, I’ve known Sheila for 20-something years. She is a writer who I respect and lust for her “play with wording” mastery. Sheila graduated from Barnard College and earned her MFA from Goddard College’s part-time writing program. Framed awards, like the New Jersey Arts Council’s Distinguished Artist Fellowship, a Poet and Writer Reading award and a Recursos Discovery award grace her walls. Her published works include Stronger in the Broken Places, a full-length poetry volume.

Cowing’s 2009 Jackrabbit Highways juts along paths of loss, wonder, anger, self-revelation and discovery.

Like a quick-moving jackrabbit, Cowing’s precise word movement is as pleasant and juicy to read as the first bite into a September-ripened tomato as noted in her poem “Tomato.”

My late sister wrote poetry, but never saw it published, just like most of us who dabble in verse. A good poet can retell a 300 page novel in less than 300 words. That’s the poet’s art.

Sheila took some time from her spring gardening chores to answer three questions about how and what it takes to become a published poet.

Charmaine: Sheila, you have succeeded in the poet’s world. Yes, “it doesn’t pay,” (like you wrote in “Why Poety? It Doesn’t Pay!,” which you note is for your father) but you are a published poet. How many poems did it take to reach this status?

Sheila: What it required was passion and determination. I was well into my forties before I began to realize I could touch my dream. When I began to publish in literary journals thirty years ago, competition was not as great as it is now. I had the encouragement of my new MFA from Goddard’s short intense residency program, the first of its kind. I’d studied the market. And yes, I began to publish fairly easily.

Charmaine: You wrote in “A Blowing Yellow Crocus”, “The words are as tough to loose as the cold is to hide from,” — every writer’s dilemma. Still, you have managed to tackle in slim-language subjects we all recognize. So how do you loosen the words?

Sheila: I no longer wait for the right words the way I used to. I jam any old words onto the page, right or wrong. They can be corrected later. They will be corrected later. Most of them are. I am an inveterate reviser. Some poems have thirty or forty revisions. It doesn’t matter in the least how many revisions they have. The point is get the idea down fast. The first idea may well not be the right idea. In fact I don’t even trust the first versions. The poem you quote came out of my obsession with the contrast between arriving Christmas cards and the tsunami that had just struck Aceh, and yes, the right words were hard to find.
When I’m stuck, I have exercises I use. I have three books I use (when I remember I have them!) that contain these; the first chapter of one is called “Finding the Word Horde.” But of course there’s many the time I find myself simply staring out the window.

Charmaine: Everyday many women sketch words in prose. To have those words recognized (without paying to have them published) is a dream. What would you say to the woman who has written poetry all her life and would love to see it gainfully published?

Sheila: I admire this woman in her solitude. “The act of poetry,” wrote the Italian poet Caesare Pavese, “is an absolute will to see clearly.” I hope she has shared her poetry with others, has perhaps worked with a group talking about poems and literature, so that her words are not merely sentiment, as her chances of being another Emily Dickinson are pretty slim. I hope she has read and will continue to read a great deal of contemporary poetry. I do know that much of what passes as contemporary poetry is obscure. I subscribe to Ploughshares from Emerson College in Boston, and to The Threepenny Review from somewhere in California, and one reason I do is because I can usually understand the poems I read in these magazines at least after a second reading.

Frankly, it isn’t easy to publish a book of poems. You start by trying to publish one poem, studying the market and sending out five or six poems, waiting five or six months until your stamped, self-addressed envelope comes back from that editor, then you ship those poems right out to the next market on your list. Once you’ve published say 10 to 15 poems from your book, you begin to look for a market for the entire book.

But there is another way, self-publishing. There are publishers listed in the books I list below or in the magazinePoets and Writers who specialize in self- publishing. As far as I know, these kinds of presses pay part of the cost and the author pays the rest.

I tried the contest route, and was hopelessly out competed. On occasion I would win an honorable mention, but so what…it was easy to become discouraged. This route took years.

There is a paperback volume called “The Directory of Poetry Publishers,” now in its 25th edition, put out by Dustbooks, P.O. Box 100, Paradise, CA 95967. It costs $25.95. It’s excellent. Another volume comes from Writers’ Digest Books. I have the 2009 version. It’s called “Poet’s Market.” It’s published by F + W Publications, 4700 East Galbraith Rd, Cincinnati, OH 45236. It cost $27.99. These books list information about many of the markets for poetry today and they issue new volumes each year. And there’s the magazine Poets & Writers. I subscribed for years.

I don’t know what to say by way of encouragement. There are women who have written poems all their lives who emerged full-blown. I believe Ruth Stone was one; she’s now in her late 80s, and she’s won all sorts of prizes. Amy Clampbitt was another. I’ve admired some of her work.


Jackrabbit Highways is published by Backwaters Press, 3502 N. 52nd Street, Omaha, NE 68104-3506. It is available at