Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Haunted by History: A Floral Cure

Yesterday before spin class, we were talking about Russia and the commercial airliner shot down over Ukraine.  I said to the spin instructor, "You should have brought that 80's CD; it could have been the Return to the Cold War ride."

We're all older, so we laughed.  But I've been thinking about the similarities.  I remember in 1983 when the USSR shot down a Korean plane.  I remember the escalation of tensions; it felt like we all held our breath to see what would happen.

It seemed we all held our breath a lot during much of the 1980's.

I think of the flare-up of tensions between Israel and Palestinians; it's happening now, and it was happening then.  I think of Syria melting down into an unrecognizable state--lots of Cold War parallels there.

Lots of people wring their hands and insist that times are worse now.  That's both true and not true.  As a reader of history, I do know how quickly these flare-ups can turn into conflagrations that consume a whole generation (see World War I, World War II).  I feel edgy for that reason.

Maybe I should adopt Rachel's solution of being careful about exposure to news and social media; before she decided to take a break from the Internet, she wrote this wonderful post.

I like Beth's approach to this tension in this blog post.  I like the posting of picture of a bouquet of flowers, the acknowledgement that we will always be mourning the lost.  She gives us a quote from an ancient text:

And some there be, which have no memorial;
who are perished as though they had never been...
Ecclesiasticus 44:9

I like that she gives us beauty with the sorrow. 

And so, I, too shall post some pictures.

I don't have any bouquets, but I have seen beautiful flowers lately. 

These flowers are from our time in Maryland, at a marina in Deale.

I'm amazed that the marina takes the time to plant such lovely gardens at a facility whose sole purpose is to exist so that boats can leave.

Of course those boats do come back.  The flowers make it feel like a home, or the home I like to think I would have, if I had time to tend extensive gardens on a huge plot of land.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Infusing the Special into the Every Day

A week ago was my birthday; I'm still intrigued by how many people asked what special things I had planned.

I couldn't resist.  I answered with a similar answer to the one I give about Valentine's Day:  every day should include special events to make me glad I was born.  Why do we only save this special mindset for our birthdays?

I realize that if you're the kind of person who does extra-special birthday events, like taking the day off, having a high calorie dinner, or planning a super vacation, you can't do this every day.  But you could do it more often than once a year.

Our lives would be more full of joy if we did more each day to remember that we're glad we were born.  We wouldn't have to wait for a birthday--or worse, a crisis medical diagnosis--to remember to celebrate.

And we shouldn't wait.  One day, and for many of us it will come all too soon, we won't be able to celebrate.

You might protest about the cost or the calories.  But think how many of your joys are relatively free:  rereading old books, discovering new books (with your public library card), spending time with friends, going to museums/galleries/readings/parks/____________.

So, don't delay.  Celebrate your birth today, and every day--even if it's 355 days until your next official birthday.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Quilting a Meeting

Yesterday, I took my time-sensitive quilting project to our church council meeting.   I've been on the lookout for chunks of time to work on it, and yesterday's meeting seemed perfect, with its start time moved from 10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.  I don't usually take copious notes so I thought I'd try quilting during our meeting time.

I've noticed that many of our members keep looking at their cell phones, so I didn't feel I'd be disrespectful by quilting.  In fact, I think I think checking one's cell phone is more distracting mentally than quilting.  One of our members has worked on knitting a prayer shawl, so there's been a precedent.

During my time at the Create in Me retreat, I crocheted a prayer shawl.  I worried that I might not pay attention if I was crocheting, but I found that just the opposite was true.  Having my hands busy quieted my mind.  And when I look at my notebook from that retreat, I find that I took notes too.

Yesterday, I found that the quilting calmed my mind in a similar way.  And when our meeting time went longer than scheduled, I didn't mind.  I made more progress, and that was good.

I wish I could take my quilting and crocheting projects with me everywhere, especially to meetings at work.  Alas, taking my projects to work is probably unwise--but perhaps I'll start thinking about meetings of other types as opportunities to get some quilting done.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Many Ways We Inspire

I felt such sadness hearing about the AIDS researchers who were on the Malaysia Air flight that was shot down over Ukraine.  This NPR story gave interesting details about one of them, Joep Lange: 

"Colleagues said Lange's success as an activist was largely a tribute to his personality. His humor was dry and a bit wry, but his manner was gentle. Stories of Lange's kindness abound.

He insisted on making Gayle's frequent layovers in Amsterdam comfortable, even though she would often arrive at dawn. Lange would pick her up at 6 a.m. and take her to his house for coffee, a stroll, a shower or quick nap. I'd always say, 'Oh Joep, it's too early. And he'd say, 'No, no, I'll be there.'

It will be hard for anyone to replace Lange, Gayle says. But she is confident that Lange's inclusive style will ensure that his work will continue, even after his death.

'The thing about a good leader is that they don't try to do it all by themselves,' Gayle says. 'They build teams. And Joep has built great teams wherever he's gone. So there are people who are poised and ready to take on the work that he started.'"

It was a quick story, but it said so much to me about what makes a good human and an enduring legacy.  I thought about what I'd like people to say about me when I'm dead, and that news story about covers it.  I'd like to have done important work, but not to have lost sight of the humans around me.  I want people to tell stories of my compassion and kindness.  I want to have inspired the people around me, so that there will be the will to endure in doing the important work when I'm gone.

There are weeks when I feel like I've done no important work at all, when I simply corral e-mails.  And then I have a day like yesterday, when I meet a friend for lunch, and she gives me a birthday card.  On this card, she wrote about what she admired in me.

Here's a choice quote that I want to record so that I remember that people are paying attention, and the way we live our lives does matter, even when we're unsure that it does:  "When I read your blogs or your poems, I'm reminded that to truly live one's creative life is a choice, and I watch you live that creative, extraordinary life all the time.  It's so very inspiring to watch!  Through your example, I am reminded that t creative life, lived honestly, is a true joy."

Wow!  What a great birthday present--and so very needed in my work week that consisted of cleaning up my e-mail inbox, which always makes me reflect on how so many of the e-mail exchanges are about very ephemeral stuff, not terribly important when written, even less important later.  It's been a week of paperwork and shifting deadlines and lots of angst from others that I cannot alleviate.

I needed that reminder that I am more than the sum of my e-mails.  And if I'm being honest, I had some of those moments this week at work too.  I helped students with schedule snafus, I helped to finalize some of the stuff from the move that remains unfinished, I tried to be present for everyone, even if I couldn't always help.  That quality of being present:  it may seem like the least important thing, but it may be the most important.

It sets a good example, and more people are watching than I realize at the moment.  May I always be an inspiration!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Our Bodies, Our Genders

I've been catching up on old NPR stories.  This story about transgender issues was on Fresh Air; it's worth a listen.

The three guests have written Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.  They modeled the book on the classic feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book written by lay people, not doctors.   It was full of information that wasn't available elsewhere.

It's hard to remember those days, when information wasn't available via the Internet.

I remember discovering the book in my college's library. It felt like a dangerous book to me. It talked so openly about sex and female bodies. It talked calmly about all the things that could go wrong and how one might right those things. It approached the human body from a health and wellness perspective. It had pictures. It had that 70's sense of earnestness and honesty that was immediately appealing. At first, I only read the book when nobody else was in the library--I didn't want to be caught reading it. As the year progressed, I grew in maturity to the point where I was able to actually check the book out of the library and read it openly.

I thought of that book when I listened to the authors talking about puberty and the betrayal of their bodies.  I, too, felt betrayed by my body in adolescence, but I don't feel like a male trapped in a female body.

I'm more medieval.  I just feel trapped in a body, as if I'd be better off, if my soul could break free of this earthly vessel.  I suspect I'd feel that way if I'd been born male too:  appalled by all the fluids and fleshly issues that are so distracting from the real purpose of life.

I understand how problematic that world view can be.  The book Our Bodies, Ourselves helped me make enormous progress in accepting my body.

And middle age has taken me further.  In this age when so many of my friends are stricken with bodies that are no longer healthy, I've found a new gratitude for mine.  I no longer spend much energy on how my body would be better if ______________ (so many ways to fill in that blank!).  Now I'm grateful to be free of disastrous disease, to be able to breathe freely, to be able to bend and stretch and make it through the day with energy and enthusiasm most days.  If I weigh more than I wish I weighed, well at least that flesh is healthy.

I do wonder, too, about the transgender people who finally get the surgery.  Are they happy or are they surprised by elements they hadn't considered?

One of the Fresh Air guests said, "Of the trans-women that I know, who have gone through transition, those who have had the softest landing, who have succeeded in that transition, are those who were feminist before, when they were men.  . . .   You understand what you'll be up against.  You can't build a life around stilettos and sponge cake.  The person who goes through transition thinking that being a woman is a big gender party is probably in for a big disappointment." 

I find myself, though, wondering about our insistence on a binary categorization.  We're male or we're female.

But what if there are more?

 I've often said that gender is a spectrum.  I have a BA in Sociology, so I will also say that I think that where one lives on the spectrum is deeply affected by our society.  I will also admit that recent advances in various scientific fields make me think that our biology has as deep an effect on our gendered lives.

How would our lives be different if we saw gender as a spectrum?  How would our societies be different if we thought less rigidly about gender?

The issue of gender, especially transgender issues, may come to be seen as one that's as important as the Civil Rights struggles of the 50's and 60's. And books like Trans Bodies, Trans Selves will likely be very valuable as we have the discussions we need to have.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Quilting and the Hours

Yesterday, quilting threaded its way through my day--a delightful thread!

I started the day with a Facebook message.  My cousin's little girl went to get a blanket from her closet, and she pulled out the quilt that I made when she was born.  She asked her mom about quilting, and her mom said that maybe I'd show her some day.

I was immediately thrilled and thought of projects we could do, if she asks me sooner rather than later.  I wondered about all the old-timey things that my spouse and I know how to do (sewing, canning, candlemaking, quilting, playing our own instruments, cooking), and I wondered how I feel about being seen as an expert or a resource.

Of course, I'm happy on the one hand, but also sad that so many of these skills have vanished from the larger population.  I thought of the time I asked my grandma to show me how to quilt and she was baffled about why I'd want to do that when I could buy a perfectly good blanket from Wal-Mart for so cheap.

I thought of Alice Walker, the writer who made me want to learn to quilt.  I thought of the quote that I found this morning in an essay* about how she came to write The Color Purple:  "And so, I bought some beautiful blue-and-red-and-purple fabric, and some funky old secondhand furniture (and accepted donations of old odds and ends from friends), and a quilt pattern my mama swore was easy, and I headed for the hills."  And finally, her characters felt more free to speak to her, and she wrote and swam and quilted. 

My spouse was at choir rehearsal, so I spent the evening working on a time sensitive quilting project.  I like to have something on while I quilt, so I popped in my DVD of The Hours.  I did my first big quilting projects when that movie came out; I remember getting the DVD and watching the movie with the commentary off and then with it on, along with every special feature while I made serious quilting progress.

I thought about first reading the book.  I was commuting to the University of Miami and reading it on public transit.  I wanted to tell all of my fellow commuters about the book.  I had just finished reading Mrs. Dalloway, and I was blown away by what Cunningham did.

The movie was an interesting choice, given the amount of death, disease and loss that this year has brought.  I found it hopeful, despite its depressing parts.  Part of the movie was filmed on my street, and it was thrilling to recognize the houses.

Maybe I will read the book again this summer.  Maybe I'll return to Alice Walker.  I've enjoyed rereading some of her essays this morning. 

And of course, both Alice Walker and The Hours reminds me of my own work that I need to get done as an artist.  I want to believe that there will be plenty of time, but this year has shown me that there may not be.

*"Writing The Color Purple" in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Of Atomic Bombs and Other Apocalypses

Today is an important nuclear anniversary.  On this day in 1945, scientists exploded the first nuclear bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.

Robert Oppenheimer named the site, and when asked if he had named it as a name common to rivers and mountains in the west, he replied, "I did suggest it, but not on that ground... Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: 'As West and East / In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one, / So death doth touch the Resurrection.' That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, 'Batter my heart, three person'd God;—.'"

I love a scientist who loves John Donne.  Metaphysical poetry and atomic weapons:  they do seem to go together in intriguing ways.
I hadn't remembered until doing some Internet wanderings that the explosion was scheduled for this date because Truman had an important meeting with Allied leaders in Potsdam on July 17.  Bomb as savior?

Oh, so many poetry possibilities!  There's the desert aspect, the prophets that so often emerge from wilderness areas.  There's the fact that this part of the country has become a detonation point for various immigration fights through the last four decades.

Those of you who have been reading this blog and/or my poems for awhile now will be saying, "Haven't you already explored this poetic terrain?"

Indeed, I have.  Yet I think there may be more to do.

It's also the birthday of Tony Kushner.  I remember long ago, in 1994, my friend who dreamed of writing plays told me about Angels in America, which she had just read.  It happened to be available from the Quality Paperback Book Club, so I ordered it.

I consumed it in one sitting.  It has haunted me ever since.

I watched both Angels in America and Perestroika when they came to the Kennedy Center during the mid-90's.  Wow.  Sometimes I forget the power of live theatre.  The HBO version came out in the early years of this century, and it, too was powerful, but when I'm watching something on a screen, I assume that part of the power comes from high-tech sorcery.  With live theatre, I give all the credit to the humans on the stage.

I have spent the years since wondering about the idea of writing that tackles the big issues of an age.  I've thought of August Wilson writing a play that represents the life of African-Americans during the twentieth century, one play for each decade.  And he pulled it off!

Some days, I think I dream too small.

It's oddly comforting to think about Angels in America, a play written about a dark time in American history.  I remember the early days of the AIDS crisis, when we weren't quite sure of the cause and how to prevent it and even as we discovered more about it, the thought that haunted us was that maybe there were additional transmission routes that we hadn't found yet.  The disease seemed more ravaging in those days, as people went from healthy to corpse in six months or less.  And then, as now, the government seemed helpless--or worse--in the face of the devastation.

And yet, here we are, into a generation or two saved by protease inhibitors.  There's recent talk of a pill that prevents transmission.  Darkness can be split apart by light.

I have hopes that ten or twenty years from now, we'll look back and say, "We were at a turning point, but we didn't see it then.  The world was about to emerge into a better place, but boy did it look bleak then."

And what writers/works will we see as the documenters of that dark time?  As a writer, is it better to document the dark time or to dream of the brighter future?