A Review of

Swimming From Under My Father

by Michael O’Keefe

51mgthfspyl-_sx339_bo1204203200_Well-written poetry drops into the mind like a smooth pebble. Each word can be savored, explored for multiple meanings, tasted and turned over. But there’s very little candy coating waiting to be dissolved. Very quickly, readers are compelled to return to the rock-hard certainty of that single word placed with great deliberation on a mostly vacant page. It’s feelings, bared to the bone, unmistakable, especially for those with shared experiences.

Actor, songwriter, poet Michael O’Keefe learned early on what power there is in sharing emotions. Nominated for an Emmy for his role as teenaged Ben Meechum in The Great Santini, he played the role of a child of an alcoholic with unusual intensity. Perhaps that was because he lived it before he acted it. In a collection of poetry titled Swimming From Under My Father, he takes us with spellbinding simplicity through the process of growing up that is often part of a recovery journey.

The first section is titled “Entering.” Like the first tentative sticking-in-of-toes, O’Keefe comments on the pain that brings all of us to desire recovery, hinting at the seductive and addictive qualities of those remedies we concoct to relieve our own pain. In “Onstage With The Leading Lady” O’Keefe observes “the theater is a drug that relieves the reality we suffer”. The price of that solace is the expectations of the audience and the risk of not meeting those needs as they are “waiting in the dark for a ritual to identify themselves”.

Anyone who tried growing up with the disease known as “cunning, baffling and powerful” will recognize the childhood deficits O’Keefe catalogs: trust, laughter, safety, predictability.

The section ends with a dawning sense of poignance in “His Thumb Hooked Me”. An old Romanian rabbi hitches a ride and O’Keefe finds small gifts in the absurdity of a chance encounter. “What do you do?” the old man asks. “I’m trying to forget,” is O’Keefe’s reply. Then a few more blocks down the road the poet seems to reach for something deeper: “my prayer is to forget,” he says, to forget “myself.” As if in answer to his prayer, by poem’s end, he seems to have forgotten the significance of the old rabbi altogether.

In the second section, entitled “Swimming,” we are submerged into deeper water: O’Keefe’s childhood, when “Things you had to do to survive back then:/Lie, hide, never cry,/and be STILL.”

The tension finds some relief in O’Keefe’s wry humor referring to his Roman-Catholic upbringing, the rapid family growth, and the unspoken effects of alcoholism: “Pop had a quaint two-quart a day drinking habit that/reeked from the basement on Alden Rd./to the community of Saints/Mom put her faith in daily.”

Anyone who tried growing up with the disease known as “cunning, baffling and powerful” will recognize the childhood deficits O’Keefe catalogs: trust, laughter, safety, predictability. As a grown man, now, he’s worked his way free of those losses, to some extent. But then the cruelest irony: the tormenter, the strong one, becomes weak, needy, confused. “My father’s tide is going out./Seeing his cognitive abilities/ in a puddle on the rocking chair porch/ I am kicked in the head by time.”

O’Keefe documents his own way out, a rescue in a sense, in the title poem, “Swimming From Under My Father.” It’s ambiguous, the road to the water hazy, the transition from car to water’s edge an awkward one, but there is redemption there, and grace.

Applying that grace to his relationships and the center of his life is the topic of the third section of poetry, titled “Emerging.” Mostly short, gently self-mocking and fully self-aware, the poet’s emergence into the grown-up world involves, among other things, “Confession,” “What We Have In Common,” “Love,” “Forgiveness,” “Lunch With My Brother” and “Five Ways of Looking At It.”

Finally, he acknowledges that we each struggle to do the best we can: “We abide here/ and nowhere touching nothing./ Especially not one and other./ This arm’s length between us/ is the only way we know.”

This book has only a few thousand words, but you’ll feel every one of them.

–Karyn Zweifel


Love Wins

Michael and me at Dragon*Con in September.

Every year, my parish family compiles a book of Lenten Meditations. We’re each asked to read and reflect on the day’s assigned scriptures from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospel. This year, I chose to write about the epistle: 1 Cor. 13:1-13. Here’s what I wrote:

Choosing between the readings assigned this year was tough. I want to share with you that the voice of God from the burning bush was actually the voice of Charlton Heston, Moses’ own voice, as portrayed in the classic “The Ten Commandments.” I’d like to talk about how I struggle with belief, like the boy’s father from the Gospel reading, and how his cry “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!” resonates for me. But that would be too easy.

Instead, here’s a confession: every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, for almost thirty years now, I gnash my teeth or cringe or crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that. I can’t be always kind or eternally patient; I get angry without cause. I hold grudges. This winter, by God’s grace, I keep reading. I’ve spent so long being angry at St. Paul for pegging me as less than perfect, I’ve missed the rest of the story.

Every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, I crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that.

What has come to me, softly, gently, is that God is describing Her feelings for me. God is telling me I can know everything, endure all hardship, even move mountains, but it means nothing until I know in my heart and my head just how perfectly I am loved. Love is the key.

A friend of mine was photographed last year holding a sign saying simply “Love Wins.” When I saw those words, my heart expanded three sizes or more, just like the Grinch. (I’ve already confessed my commonalities with that mad, sad green creature.) Forgive me, deep thinkers and theologians. That’s my spiritual core in two words: Love wins.

If it’s human love, it will be flawed. No matter how desperately I might strive for it, I can never be anything other than human in this life. I hurt people; people hurt me. I can work to love myself better, I can try to be a more loving sister, daughter, friend, mother, but I will fail, at times spectacularly, just like everyone else.

But leaning into God’s love, I’m discovering a love that never fails. One which “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” At precisely the right time in my life, in the winter of 2016, I have shed a little more resentment, looked deeper into my fears, glimpsed, dimly, that which I have yearned for all my life. I am fully known, and perfectly loved. Love wins.

Buttery Feet

Wise Woman lore:

When you move to a new house, slather butter on all four paws of your cat. By the time she’s licked herself clean, she’s comfortable in her new environment and won’t wander back to the old house.

I don’t know where I picked up that bit of wisdom, and I certainly don’t know if it works for cats, but here’s how it works in my life:

As my energy level increases, and my anxiety level fluctuates, sitting still to meditate becomes problematic. (let’s not talk about the painful process of trying to quiet my bubbling brain).  A couple of years ago, when the concept of self-care began to sink in, I discovered the pleasure of massaging my own feet.

Then, a delightful tiny epiphany. If I massage my feet with shea butter, cocoa butter, or some such, I am stuck sitting cross-legged on my bed until my feet are not too greasy to walk on my old wooden floors. If I get up and try to walk around with buttery feet, it leaves ugly footprints and there’s the very real prospect of busting my butt.

Sufficient incentive to stay still. If I breathe deeply, I reward myself further with the intoxicating scent of cocoa or the sweet, cotton-candy fragrance of shea butter.

I cannot muscle my way into good meditation practices, good health, emotional sobriety, happiness, joy or serenity. When I am open to the loving whisper of a power greater than myself, I can smell, touch, see and live these gifts, miracles of the commonplace.

30A: A Love Story

This is the cover photo for Good Grit’s first issue; 30A A Love Story is the cover story and I’m proud of it!

I’m honored to be a part of a new magazine of the South, called Good Grit. If you’re not familiar with it, please check it out in print, or online. Buy a subscription. It’s beautiful. The Harvest issue has just been published and it’s a keeper too.


By Karyn Zweifel

My mother was born near the geographic center of the continent, oldest child of a teacher and a mail carrier, about as distant from the sea as it is possible to be. Surrounded by waves of golden grain as far as the eye could see, she dreamed of the ocean, endless ripples of blue fringed with white. When she finally made it to the seashore at age 22, it was in reality a homecoming; “I knew when I saw it that that’s where I came from,” she says. “I just cried, it was so beautiful.” To this day she feels more connected to the universe at water’s edge than anywhere else on earth.

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God’s Grace In Neon Letters

Clear Creek in God's Back Yard
Clear Creek in God’s Back Yard

by Anonymous

with Karyn Zweifel

From Recovery Campus Magazine, Summer, 2015

I am no stranger to the disease of alcoholism. I have two aunts with many years in recovery and a brother still struggling. So when my husband and I visited our oldest son, Andrew, during his first semester of college out of state, I was very concerned about his behavior.

“…now I understand how the stigma of addiction and mental illness causes so much pain. Parents need to be more open, be willing to say ‘I’m really struggling,’ and get help for themselves and their children.”

He’d joined a fraternity, and during our visit, my mother’s intuition kicked in. I could tell it wasn’t just the normal college drinking experience. Andrew was secretive, and what we saw at the fraternity house was alarming. Andrew did not do well academically that first semester but convinced his dad to give him a second chance.

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It’s Simple, But Don’t Let Anybody Tell You It’s Easy.


Have you ever heard the piebird sing?

“Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot ‘manage,’ you will never find the True Manager. So God makes sure that several things will come your way that you cannot manage on your own.”

–Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water

The bestseller Breathing Under Water was republished in 2011. A companion journal will be published in late July, with reflections, discussion questions, and room for notes as readers explore the idea that we are all addicted to something
The bestseller Breathing Under Water was republished in 2011. A companion journal will be published in late July, with reflections, discussion questions, and room for notes as readers explore the idea that we are all addicted to something

These simple words are likely to strike a chord of recognition in almost every human being. Rohr, known world-wide for his focus on transformational and mystical traditions, has written more than twenty books about spirituality, recovery and relationships, and his writing style is straightforward and concrete.

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Sharing Space In The South

Version 2I love my hometown. My family moved to Birmingham when I was ten, so I didnt have much say in the decision, but Ive made a conscious choice to stay here over and over through the years. Ive only regretted it intermittently, usually in August or a hellish hot September.

I saw poverty at close range for the very first time on our journey south, and it struck me to the core. With the advantage of hindsight and more than forty years, I recognize the irony: coming from an affluent suburb in the Midwest, poverty was in fact all around me; I just never saw it, since I never left the elevated interstate highway on my journey from one enclave of privilege to the next.

Since then, traveling back and forth to the Midwest to see family (and satisfy my wanderlust) has given me lots of time to think. I am always happy to go north and west, and equally happy to leave. Overstuffed with family, memories and togetherness, driving east and south toward Alabama, I never feel quite at ease until I hit Memphis.

In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not. That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners. 

It took me years to figure it out: the Midwest is fairly homogenous and mostly light-skinned. I see people of color going about their daily lives just like me when I get back to the South. It feels good, somehow, to exchange a smile or a joke with people who dont look like me. Even though they dont look like me, they are somehow familiar, even comforting. In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not.

That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners. (I hope you dont mind, in my better moments I do consider myself a Southerner.) Black and white, we live in such close proximity we dont have the luxury to pretend the otherdoesnt exist. Its easy enough to celebrate racial harmony when the nearest black person is in a different school district. In the decades since desegregation, living elbow-to-elbow naturally creates friction.

As ten-year-old me went swimming in the newly desegregated Birmingham City pool in Crestwood, I was astonished to observe the soles and palms of the boisterous black kids surrounding me. They were a vivid pink, just like mine. It quite simply blew my mind.

That was one of the first in a long series of tiny epiphanies about togetherness and otherness. Instead of only thinking about things which make me separate, without really knowing it, I also began to store up observations about what makes us alike.

My fourth-grade class at Comer Elementary School had a single black student. She and I both kept to ourselves, I noticed. I invited her to my birthday party, and she came with the rest of the girls, uncomfortably dressed in her Sunday best. That day I was introduced to the sweet-savage Southern nicety that theywere often happierwhen left to themselves.I only gradually came to understand that my isolation was temporary and self-imposed, while hers was not.

This unceasing patter of seemingly insignificant observations has changed me. Often I feel certain they are a gift from God, a source of spiritual growth. Sometimes its inconvenient, like the realization that the lady who beat me to a prime parking spot deserves it just as much as I do. No matter what, seeing these commonalities makes my love for my hometown deeper, richer and at times, more difficult to reconcile with easy platitudes about race and racism.

Sugar stealing biker midgets and other hazards.


(From Pizza Pie Chronicles, Pavo Magazine, 2010)

Okay, I’m a middle aged white woman. I look like somebody’s mother because I AM somebody’s mother. I don’t look the least bit mean or intimidating. Friends and even complete strangers (delivery customers) worry about my safety. Justifiably so, it seems. When we were trained, the manager assured us casually we’d be robbed sooner or later.

But I am a sensible person. It’s hard to rob a person in a moving vehicle. I trust my instincts and believe me, if I think it’s not safe to get out of my car, I won’t. Some nights have spooky moments. My phone loses reception in all the worst places. One street started off okay, nice little ranch-style houses, a streetlight or two. But before the numbers counted down to my appointed destination, the road petered out into gravel. The last streetlight was busted. My headlights illuminated further down the road, where the gravel ended and the red clay rutted track led uphill and out of sight.

Next to me was an old one-story house, with boarded up windows, sitting crooked on the lot like it’d been dropped there by an absent-minded giant. Oh, the rest of that road looked so dark. You know in scary movies where the audience shouts “Don’t go down to the basement! DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!” — I had those kind of vibes. And unlike the pretty young heroine in the movies, I paid attention to those vibes and whipped my little car around and headed back to the store.

The map for delivery drivers posted on the wall of the store has great swathes marked off in bold black: “NDAD”. It didn’t take long to figure out that meant “no delivery after dark.” I drink lots of caffeine and stay alert.

Of course some (or most) of the fear for my safety is based on the race thing, whether people are willing to admit it or not. So it’s ironic that my first brush with trouble would happen in the nice mostly white suburb on the fringes of our delivery area. I was delivering to a business, with the word “shop” in its name. I got there and across the street I saw what was clearly a biker bar. This shop, then, must be where those leather-clad hooligans got their bikes tuned up and decked out.

The owner of the shop saw me headed in with a load of pizzas and wings, and graciously held the door open for me. With a bad feeling in my gut, I saw the repair shop had a pool table. And a bar. And it smelled like liquor, and it was cloudy with cigarette smoke. I set the food down on the bar and turned around to get paid. A man in black leather came towards me waving a fifty. He was a little the worse for drink. I later heard this place has a rep for pretty good home brew. He actually looked like he was about to fall down.

He handed me money and I said politely (as I’d been trained) drivers weren’t allowed to take fifty dollar bills. He waved the money again and said I’d better take it, the extra $10 was my tip. So I took it and turned to leave, holding the now empty thermal bag. Really bad vibes practically turned the air purple. “Hey,” the drunk biker said. “I want that bag to keep my beer in.” His buddies stopped playing pool to watch a more entertaining game.

“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t sell it to you.” I know I sounded prim. I wanted to sound like a Sunday school teacher. I was clawing behind my back for the door knob. He interrupted me. “Sell me your hat. I want your hat.” His buddies laughed. This was fun.

“You can buy one at the store, sir,” firmly, a “don’t bully your classmates” tone. I turned and put my hand on the door handle.

“But I want some sugar. What if I stole it?” From behind, he reached up and put his forearm across my throat. A classic choke hold. But notice I said, “reached up.” He was short. I mean, really short, like five or six inches shorter than I am. It was kind of like a five-year-old in black leather and whiskers taking on a tenth-grader.

In the weeks that followed, I have thought of so many ways I WISH I’d responded. People have (of course) told me how I should have reacted. If I’d only bent my leg at the knee and raised my foot up sharply, there would’ve been a connection. I could have screamed and then extorted money from all the biker dudes. I probably could’ve copied some lame karate move from a spy movie and thrown him. That would have been real entertaining.

But I did none of these. I twisted loose and jumped in my car and drove away as fast as I could. I stayed mad a couple days, until I told the story to some friends. One of them positively howled. “Sugar stealing midget bikers!” I told him I was stealing that. And I can’t wait to go back. I know what to do now.