Monday, May 25, 2015

The Winds of Memorial Day

The wind has howled all night, as we have moved from Pentecost to Memorial Day.  I woke up with a vague unease, as I often do on Memorial Day.

Is it because of Memorial Day?   Even though my dad was in the Air Force, and then the Air Force reserve, for most of my life, I, like many Americans, have felt some ambivalence about the military. I have some trouble reconciling my religious beliefs which tend towards pacifism, to the necessity for military protection. There have been times in my lifetime where I've thought, at last, we're moving towards a world that won't need military action. And then the world launches into a new form of barbarism.
It is impossible not to realize the cost of war.  There's the money, of course, and the death of soldiers.  We may forget the other costs:  the families of military members, the injured veterans, the civilians damaged in so many ways, peace of all kinds shattered.

So, on this day which has become for so many of us just an excuse to have a barbecue, let us pause to reflect and remember.  If we're safe right now, let us spend a moment in gratitude.  Let us remember that we've still got lots of military people serving in dangerous places.  And recent events have reminded me that the world we feel is safe can quickly dissolve into conflict and war.

Oh so quickly.

Today, I'd like to be at a national monument, listening to one of the service bands perform. Or maybe I'd rather be in a contemplative spot, saying a thank you.  Or maybe something more festive.  I miss the small town parades; I know that my college town of Newberry, South Carolina will be celebrating in ways that remind me of the 1950's.  Now, I no longer know the stories of my neighbors.  I don't know whose great great grandfather/uncle served in which ways.

Now I live in a place that feels more like a future U.S., where English isn't the dominant language, where there are more recent arrivals than people with ancestors buried in the soil. Most days, I'm cool with this, and invigorated by it.

But today, I feel uneasy.  Part of it is the wind.  I've lived in states in the U.S. South where this kind of wind portends a fiercer wind later, as the heat has time to build to storms.

Part of my unease is how invisible the military feels to so many people today.  Once, all of my schoolmates had relatives, often a father, who had served in the military.  Now I find that I'm often the only one.  Growing up, I chafed a bit under the expectations of military family discipline.  Now I find myself thinking we might all be better if national service was required.

In his lecture several weeks ago, David Brooks responded to a question about the value of national service.  He said, "A kid from Connecticut living with a kid from Birmingham living with a kid from Cody, Wyoming--that would be valuable in many ways."

We've become a more stratified society in so many ways, and not just the economic ways that often trigger handwringing.  More and more, most of us tend to meet people just like us.  Maybe that's the source of my unease.

But most likely my unease comes from this day to honor the dead--while realizing that we are far from a world where we can beat our swords into ploughshares and practice war no more.

So, let me return to a valuable practice.  Let me pray to the One who has more power than I do in these matters.

A prayer I wrote for Memorial Day (see the end of this post) could also make a good poem.  Let me try some transformation.

The wind howls on this Memorial Day, as if the souls
lost to war have come to claim our attention.  The howls echo
the moaning of those who celebrate this day not by a grill
but beside a grave. 

At least those souls have graves.  On this day, how many honor
the bodies fertilizing foreign soil?  Civil War soldiers sewed
addresses of loved ones onto their uniforms in the hopes
that they would be remembered.

On this day after Pentecost, we welcome
visions of a day when soldiers have no jobs
to do.  We dream of the time when we beat
all our military metals
into instruments of peace.

This poem is different than the prayer I wrote for Memorial Day:

God of comfort, on this Memorial Day, we remember those souls whom we have lost to war.  We pray for those who mourn.  We pray for military members who have died and been forgotten.  We pray for all those sites where human blood has soaked the soil.  God of Peace, on this Memorial Day, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers.  On this Memorial Day,we offer a prayer of hope that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do. We offer our pleading prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Terrorist's HR Files

I have spent much of the week-end with my thoughts circling round and round on various subjects.  Some of those subjects will not surprise you:  how wonderful it is to have a 3 day week-end, how can I eat more fruits and veggies, which book should I read now/next, how did I get myself into this writing tangle and how shall I get myself out, do those clouds portend rain later . . .

But here's what you might not expect.  I find myself thinking about Osama Bin Ladin's documents and files that were recently released. I heard about some of the items released on Friday's edition of The Diane Rehm Show which covers international news. 

You may have heard about his bookshelf; I had heard bits and pieces about what he had been reading, and nothing surprised me.  Apparently he read lots of books about politics and industrialized countries, particularly in the U.S.

I wondered if he read any fiction or any theology or any poetry.  If so, no one has noted it.  I thought about the strange places where my books might go.  Would I be mortified if a book I wrote wound up on a terrorist's bookshelf?  Or would I feel like somehow I had failed in my essential message?  Or is it ridiculous to think that way at all?

I've dreamt of having a book of mine adopted for a "Community Reads" event or a first year University 101 class at a university--lots of book sales there!  But what if Osama Bin Laden had ordered hundreds of copies of one of my chapbooks?  What if one terrorist cell had said, "Hey, read this poem!  I don't think we have to blow up buildings to affect change!  Let's feed the hungry instead."  And then another could have said, "Hey, I know what would really drive the U.S. crazy--let's help all those folks fleeing repressive regimes south of the U.S.  Let's create an underground railroad to resettle them in the U.S."

I know, I know, it's ridiculous to think this way. 

But what's really captured my imagination is Bin Ladin's HR files.  Commenter Greg Myre calls it "the universality of bureaucracy."   He said,  "You saw some very odd stuff in the application, such as, you know, if you are martyred, whom should we contact?"

An application to be a terrorist?  Now there would be an interesting mock application to create!

And there were expense reports.  I was both comforted and saddened to realize that not even terrorists are free from the tyranny of spreadsheets.  It's a different kind of martyrdom.

I keep thinking of assessment and rubrics.  I have this vision of a rubric to assess the effectiveness of various terrorist strategies.  In the current climate, I would not dare to write this kind of satire--well, I would, if I felt strongly enough about it.  But I spend quite enough time with spreadsheets and rubrics and assessment reports.

I shall, however, create a poem in the terrorist leader's voice.  It might start this way:

"From the distance of several continents, I can destroy
buildings.   . . .

Perhaps it will end in this way:

"Now I am become death, destroyer
of worlds.  Even the destroyer of worlds must balance
the books."

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Spinning a Title

--I've been working on getting my proposal for my memoir/book of essays ready to send to agents.  It occurs to me that I should settle on a title.

--My memoir looks at trying to balance my life as a creative person, my life as an administrator at a for-profit school, and my life as a church going Lutheran.  For a long time, I was loving the title "Monk or Marxist."

--Last summer, when I brainstormed book titles with a group of creative friends, however, they didn't like that title. I wrote about the experience in a blog post.  My friends came up with a different title:  "It's Hard to Be a Goddess in the Corporate World.  One of us thought that was too long and voted for Goddess in the Corporate World."

--But I'm not really a goddess.  And to me, that's a different book.  I would pick it  up expecting a book about pagan spirituality.  Or maybe something fluffier, like make-up, hair, and fashion tips for women with corporate jobs.

--Gods of Corporate Academe?

--Let me take a classic approach to titling a book; let me look at chapter titles.  Here are some which seem possible:
       --Incubating the Improbable (probably too many big words for a catchy title?)
      --Ministries of Interruptions
      --Mac and Cheese Eucharist (would people expect a motherhood memoir?)
     --Setting Sail in Tiny Boats

--Of those title possibilities, I'm pulled to Ministries of Interruptions.  It's clear and it gives a sense of the book.  The words are familiar.  I would pick up that book and read it.

--Would others be pulled to that title?

--Over the week-end, I'll flip through the manuscript and see if anything leaps out at me.  And soon I'm off to spin class.  I often get solutions when I'm spinning away in the dark.

--Spinning in the Dark.  Now there's a title!  A title for a different book, alas.

Friday, May 22, 2015

This Week's Online Inspirations

Lately, I find myself thinking about the wonders of our Internet age.  I know many people who have made great use of various music sites and services.  In my younger years, I might have too.

But more often, as I'm working on a wide variety of writing tasks, I find myself grateful for all the public radio shows.  Lately I find myself limiting the shows that analyze the news in detail.  Happily, there's a great deal of interesting stuff out there.

If you like to listen to people talk about their work and writing, don't miss this interview with NewsHour reporter Jeffrey Brown.  He's transformed the news, the headlines, wonderful quotes, all sorts of scenes into remarkable poems.

I admit that I was doubtful at first.  It sounded too gimmicky.  But the poems work as poems, not just as curiosities.

I also loved this On Being interview with Maria Popova, who created the website Brain Pickings.  Krista Tippett says of her guest, "She doesn’t merely curate, she cross-pollinates — between philosophy and design, physics and poetry, the scholarly and the experiential."

Popova's got all sorts of wonderful wisdom, like this nugget:  "And I think — the thing is, I don't think hope is a baked-in faculty, that you're born either with or without. It's a conditioned response. So we can respond to horrible events that do happen in the world and we do need to actually attend to and try to understand and help. We can respond to those with hope. And we can can respond to them with resignation, which brings us back to this notion of the sort of reparenting. Because I think when we have a foundation of wisdom and of assuredness, I guess, that comes from people who have lived long ago and have gone through horrible things and through beautiful things, that then we somehow are better able to rest in that and know that despite what happens, yes, we should show up and think critically about it, but despite it all, at the base level, there is this hope that is the human experience."

If exploring different time periods gives you inspiration, don't miss this interview with Steve Inskeep on The Diane Rehm Show.  He's written Jacksonland.  In the interview, he makes the subject of Andrew Jackson so fascinating that I'm tempted to read the book.  But since I'm not likely to have that kind of time, I'm glad to have been able to hear this smart conversation.

He also talks about his writing process--after all, he's one of the hosts of NPR's Morning Edition.  He talks about balancing his work life and his writing life.

And if you want to go further back in time, don't miss this show about Joan of Arc.  Helen Castor has written a new history of the woman and her time period.

If you want to go WAY back in time, go to  the Cosmos and Culture blog at the NPR site;  this piece captivated me on Thursday when I read it.  I know that we're looking back into the past when we look into a telescope, but I never thought of it this way before:  "Looking at the night sky is like looking through a time machine into the past; every image comes from a different past, a sort of kaleidoscope of times, each telling a different story."

Even this cosmic reality has interesting implications for humans:  "Who knows where the atoms making up your body came from? They are a collage of different stories, coming from different regions, remains of stars that died 5 or more billion years ago in the neighborhood of what would become the solar system."

I've had a great writing stretch--I'm glad to have had the company of great radio shows as I made my way through the week.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Writing Cycles, Life Cycles

Once I typed my poems into the computer soon after I wrote them, and sent them right out into the world. In those days, I sent a lot of poems out to journals, poems on paper, stuffed into envelopes.  I used my with spit to seal the envelopes and affix the stamps.  I needed a mass of poems, because I was sending out so many in a month, so I needed to have those poems typed and ready to go.  I used to read the advice of more seasoned writers who said we should wait a season between writing and sending. 

Sometimes I did.  I never made substantial changes.  For the most part, I continued to write a poem, wait a few days, make a few changes, type them into the computer, print a batch, and send them.

Now they hibernate in a drawer until I have time to type. Now I often return to them a year or more after I wrote them. It's good for the revision/editing process, although I confess I'm still not making substantial changes, but it means I'm sending less material out into the world. 

This morning I was working with poems that I wrote back in March of 2014.  I read one and started to weep.  I'm going to say it's an effective poem.

I wonder if it works for a reader who might not catch the Ash Wednesday imagery, the hint of Easter, a reader who might not realize that Mardi Gras is more than a drinking holiday.  But would readers who think of Mardi Gras as a drinking holiday be reading my poems?  A girl can dream.

I read the poems and can see the thread of the lectionary readings that tinge my metaphors.  Or is it just because those words are always lurking in my subconscious?  Bones, breath, ash, beads, water, wine, flame, stars:  some future grad student can weave a dissertation around these words.  Or maybe it's time for a new batch of sestinas.

I'm also beginning to send poetry manuscripts out into the world again.  As I was typing this morning's poems, I had a vision for a different chapbook, one that is more overtly spiritual/religious.

I remember meeting a friend for coffee in 2002 or 2003.  At that time, my friend was the age that I am now.  I told her of my plans for putting a manuscript together and sending it out into the world.  I talked about how I would publicize the book.  My friend marveled at my energy and my plans.

Now I look back at my younger self, and I, too, am in awe.  But back then, I had a lot more unstructured time.

It would be interesting to know if I really did so much more in my younger years.  I suspect the truth is closer to this:  some years, I send out great amounts of material for possible publication, but other years I don't.  Some years, I get manuscripts finished, but other years I don't.  Some years I write a lot of poems and fiction, while I'm a more fallow field in other years.

Much of my life is cyclical in this way:  I see the same cycle in my exercise.  I'm always exercising, but some years it's more frequent and vigorous, and in other years, other priorities take over.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating--it's the returning to the process that will ultimately change the trajectory.  My hope is that I can keep realizing when I'm not quite on track and return to my good practices more quickly.  That's the consistency that will keep me constant.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wednesday Wonderings/Wanderings: Words and Language

--Occasionally, in my role as an administrator, I read a rough draft here and there.  Occasionally, I'm helping a colleague with a project.  But more often, I'm helping a student.

--I find it rewarding in the midst of administrator tasks, to work one on one with a student.  Sometimes they're students who want someone to take a last look at their portfolio, a last proofreading.  Sometimes, it's a first year student.  Thus, I read a wide variety of writing.

--When I was working with a student, the student said, "Because of my autism, it takes me awhile to get the words right." 

--I said, "I'll let you in on a secret:  even people without autism usually don't get the words perfect right away."

--Not for the first time, I thought of the fact that so many of us believe that writing should be easy; after all, we use words every day, right?

--And we do a poor job of talking about writing as having a variety of purposes and a variety of audiences.  The paper that you're writing for your teacher is different than the e-mail that you'll send the teacher and it's all different, probably, from the texting that you and your friends do.

--I'm beginning to think of texting as another language, not just another form of writing.  More and more I get an e-mail written in texting language, and I have to write back to say, "I have no idea what this is supposed to mean."

--Maybe it's not texting as a different language but voice recognition software that approaches English as a Second Language.

--I think of the discussions about the meaning of words that I've had in recent weeks.  We've talked about the meaning of the word "support"--as in "Do you support this student's appeal?"  We've talked about the word "possible"--as in "Is it possible for the student to pass this class?"

--Sure, if we believe that past behavior is a predictor of future behavior, we'd interpret that question differently than someone who wants to believe in the possibility of human change.  The question is really a math question, in the case of the particular form where we find the question.  Mathematically, can the student possibly pass the class at this point?

--We think of mathematics as a clean language, a black and white language, a language which leaves no wiggle room.  But I wonder if we think that way because we aren't trained in Math. 

--Maybe a Ph.D. in Math would shake his/her head over my belief that math is a more precise language.

--Suddenly I find myself longing for more time to dive into the issue of language.  I'd like to spend the morning reading books about chaos theory.

--Instead, I'll head to the office and herd the e-mails and the forms and the numbers.

--Once men herded cattle (and yes, I'm using gendered language on purpose).  Now men and women herd words.

--But will our words change a continent?  How I long to believe! 

--But as I sort through old e-mails (so many in one day!), I find myself full of doubt.

--And worse, the words that might change a continent are left to moulder in unsent packets of submissions.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Morning Writing Report

--Yesterday's post led me all sorts of places.  I used the same pictures, but transformed the text into a more spiritual meditation in this blog post on my theology blog.

--I wrote a poem.  I took these lines: I've built an altar out of abandoned houses of crustaceans.  I added to the sentence:  and corals calcified into rocks.  I made a poem that talks about the oceans voracious appetite for our valuables.  I used the image of the detritus from cruise ships.

--It felt good to write again, to have a poem that has potential.

--I also wrote a bit for my online class.  It's their first essay, which requires them to argue for a change in law or policy.  I wanted to give an example of how points could overlap and what to do.

Here's what I wrote:

"Your thesis statement will clearly state the change.  For example:

Undergraduate education should be free to everyone who pays taxes.

Then you need to come up with three or more reasons why this change will benefit more people than it hurts:

--Free education means that more people could go to school.
--Free education opens up opportunities to more people.
--Free education means that poor people aren't excluded.

Now, take a look at those 3 points that I just constructed.  Clearly, I have more work to do.  They could be separate and complete points, but right now, they overlap too much.  Let me try again:

--Free education means that more people could go to school, since a student wouldn't need the cash to pay the tuition.
--Free education means that people could return to school to get further training or to open up new doors in terms of careers.
--Free education would strengthen the economy, since businesses that need their workers to get trained wouldn't have to pay for it.  It would also provide more opportunities for teachers and everyone else connected to the education field.

There's still some danger of overlap with these three points, but as long as I'm careful, I could proceed."

--I also wrote an early e-mail to my dean, who wanted us to choose 2-3 processes that could be made more efficient, and to give 2-3 possible solutions.  He set a Tuesday deadline but didn't give a time.  I decided to get it done.  At one point I tried to delete something and deleted the whole thing, just as I was almost finished.  Grr.  I wrote it again.  Since the processes are so unique to our institution, I won't post them here.  But that task did take almost an hour.

--I wrote a page of my short story.  I remember years ago when I could write 20 pages of a short story at a time.  Those days are not these days.   But I'm happy that I'm writing at all.