Sunday, August 2, 2015

Time Travel with the Police

Yesterday afternoon was one of those times when I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed several places at once:

--My spouse and I sat side by side, working on our courses, talking about the best ways to teach certain philosophical ideas.  In some ways, it felt like our early grad school years, which were also our early teaching years.

--But we were talking about online delivery and assessment options, which we wouldn't have been talking about when we first started teaching, over 20 years ago.

--As we worked, we listened to old music by the Police.  So it felt like our earliest dating years.

--The music, however, was created earlier than that.  So, oddly, it also felt like high school, when certain radio friendly hits came through the speakers.

--We listened on CDs, though, which wouldn't have been invented when we first started dating.  I bought those CDs to replace vinyl, long since given away or sold for a mere fraction of what I paid to get them.  I don't like to think about how much music I've bought multiple times over.  I wish I could say I still continue to listen to the music, so it was worth every penny.  I cannot say that.  Sigh.

--Along with this time travel looping, I was impressed with how timeless some of those lyrics have remained.  Consider these:

from 1981's Ghost in the Machine:

from the song:  "Rehumanize yourself":  "Violence here is a social norm." (I probably learned this sociological concept here before in my Sociology classes)

from "Spirits in the Material World":  "We are spirits, in the material world"--I've been singing about Gnosticism since before I knew what it was.

from the song "Too Much Information":  "Too much information  running through my brain. Too much information driving me insane."

In fact, much of this album still seems relevant to me, even though I'm at a very different point in my life than I was when I first started playing it incessantly, around 1984 or so.  I could elaborate, but that seems like a post for a different day.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Fight for Habitat Here at Home!

Many of us have already expressed our rage over the shooting of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.  But how many of us have taken steps to protect habitat closer to home?

I got an e-mail about the proposed route of a electric transmission line right through the grounds of Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp in Arden, North Carolina.  You might shrug and say, "So what?"  But this camp is one of the last patches on underdeveloped land in the area just south of Asheville.  If the powerline goes through the camp, we will see great loss of habitat.

I am selfishly more concerned with its impact on the camp, which gives retreat opportunities to thousands of campers throughout each year.  We have so few places of refuge in this overdeveloped eastern seaboard--why choose this one for the powerline route?

You might shrug and say, "Well, what can be done?" 

Duke Energy is taking comments from the public until the end of the month.  Your comment could include any of the following:

  1. Lutheridge is a Christian Retreat Center and designated as a Caring for Creation Retreat Center by the North Carolina Synod. 15,000 guests come to Lutheridge each year to experience a time and place apart.
  2. Lutheridge consists of 172 acres that features natural and naturalized areas, and is the largest tract of such land in Arden, which is a crucial part of its outdoor activities and programs on a year-round basis. The loss of trees from the 150’ easement area would severely reduce the forest, which is an “oasis” in the midst of area development and a loss of natural habitat for bears, wild turkeys and other animals.
  3. Lutheridge serves 2,000 children every summer, 4,000 children year-round as part of 15,000 annual guests. The electric transmission line would negatively impact the visual and scenic beauty, ecological integrity of ecosystems and animal and plant species, and would endanger the outdoor environment and religious program areas, which depend on protected green open space.
  4. The proposed route of the electric transmission line would run very close to Whisnant Chapel where congregations worship six months each year and adjacent to the outdoor chapel, which is the site where dozens of families have scattered cremains of loved ones over the years.
  5. The proposed route would pass over the only large playfield at Lutheridge where thousands of children and youth play.
  6. The proposed route would pass over the new swimming pool and play area that was just completed May 2015 at a cost of $500,000.
  7. Lutheridge provides Christian summer camp and year round programs for youth and adults of all denominations, including programs for mentally challenged, low income and other special needs youth. Environmental education is also offered to area schools.
It's easy to register and comment.  Here's how:

Go to this link:  to

  1. Scroll down and click on Interactive Map
  2. Click on “Enter”
  3. Click on “Submit a Comment”
  4. Register – you will need to give your name and create a username and password
  5. Login – using your newly created username and password
  6. Select a Location for Comment – 2511 Hendersonville Road, Arden, NC28704. Complete the questionnaire and type your comment in the text box provided - then submit.

It's easy to go on Facebook and announce our outrage over Cecil the lion or global warning or habitat destruction.  Today, let's do something that takes only a few more steps and fight to protect a patch of undeveloped land in western North Carolina.  Let's save some trees.  Let's save some habitat.  Let's preserve a place of peace.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Tiredness

This morning, I awake with a sense of exhaustion.  Last night was oddly noisy for my neighborhood:  the pops of firecrackers periodically, along with some voices here and there.  My neighbors left a light on all night--it's right across from my bedroom, which also disrupted my sleep.

And then there was yesterday--that, too, left me exhausted.

I was set to have a good day.  I went to observe a faculty member.  He had a wonderful class, despite a fire drill.

I got an idea for a poem, which I started to write while I was observing.  I wrote the blog post yesterday about the Navy Hymn and the missing boys.  I wrote a poem that intersperses my lines with lines from the hymn. 

I plan to send it to Rattle, for their weekly competition, Poets Respond (more details here, if you scroll down):  "Every Sunday we publish one poem online that has been written about a current event that took place the previous week. This is an effort to show how poets react and interact to the world in real time, and to enter into the broader public discourse."

But the afternoon unravelled quickly.  I don't want to blog too much about it, and happily, I don't have to deal with that kind of afternoon often.  It involved a student who needed to switch sections.  I saw that we had lots of options to help the student--others did not agree.  By the end, we had a solution, but it required much more energy than it would have, had it been handled differently.

I'm trying to reflect on how lucky I am--I could have the kind of workplace where people routinely said ugly things to me, and I'd come home feeling blicky all the time. 

Instead I'm surrounded by people who are doing amazing things and who are willing to work to help students.  Most of my colleagues assume the best of the rest of us.  It could be otherwise.

So, let me focus on the good parts of the day.  Let me not focus on colleagues who are leaving--yesterday was a day of farewell celebrations and surprise goodbyes.  Let me think about the colleagues who are still here, the ones who appreciate poetry and teaching and innovative approaches and all that we do. 

Let me appreciate the people who appreciate me.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

For Those in Peril on the Sea

I've had the Navy hymn on my brain during the past few days.  On Friday, two teenage boys from South Florida headed out to fish.  They have yet to return home.  Lots of people have been doing lots of searching, but the field is vast. 

Their boat has been found much further north, but no one knows how many life jackets were on board.  Could the boys still be alive?

I hold out hope.  I think of the South Florida grandmother, Tillie Tooter, who went to pick her relative up from the airport and both she and her car vanished for days.  She was forced off the road and over the edge of I 595, where her car landed on the tops of trees below.  She caught dew in her socks and in her steering wheel cover while trapped in the car in the sweltering heat.

I know that the boys face larger odds, as the ocean is even more harsh.  I hope they have water.

There's a Yeti cooler that's missing.  A trainer at my gym says it's a high-end cooler--indestructible and unsinkable.  Maybe they're clinging to it.  Maybe there was water inside.  Maybe a sandwich or two.  But they can go without food.  I don't keep my sunscreen in a cooler, but I hope they have sunscreen.

My short story class has been reading Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat."  That naturalistic depiction of the ocean seems particularly timely right now.

Many of my colleagues at work are aghast that two fourteen year old boys would be allowed to go out fishing all alone.  Even with what has happened, I still approve.  I suspect that those boys are fairly well-equipped to handle what's happened to them, since they've been on boats since they were very young.

Ordinarily the ocean seems a safer place than land.  Then an incident like this reminds us of the power of the sea.

I have no boat and no plane.  I can't join the search in any meaningful way.  And so I fall back on what residents of the shore have always done:  I hope and pray and sing the old songs to calm the anxiety.

Here's a beautiful rendition of the first verse of the Navy hymn, if you, too, could use some calm.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Saint Martha's Lessons for Those of Us Trying to Carve Out a Creative Life

Today is the feast day of Saint Martha, one of the few named women of the Gospels.  You may remember her from the story in Luke, where she hustles and bustles with household chores and grows ever more exasperated with her sister Mary, who isn't helping. 

For a theological approach, see this post on my theology blog.  But here, I want to think about Martha and her lessons for those of us who are trying to carve out a creative life.

At first glance, it's counterintuitive.  Martha is not living a particularly creative life.  How can she?  She's much too busy trying to manage and micromanage.  And therein lies the lesson.

Martha scurries around so much that she can't be present for Jesus. How often are our current lives similar? We often get so consumed by the chores of our daily life that we neglect to make time for what's really important.

Keep in mind that even though the story revolves around women, men are not exempt from this paradigm. All humans must wrestle with the question of how to balance the chores that are necessary to sustain life with the creative nourishment that we need so desperately. Unfortunately, often the chores win.

I can hear some of us shrieking by now: "Yes, but those chores must be done!" Really? Are you sure? What would happen if you didn't vacuum this week? What would happen if you wore your clothes an extra time or two before laundering them? What would happen if you surrendered to the dust?

Jesus tells Martha that she worries about many things, and the implication is that all of the issues that cause her anxiety aren’t really important. It's a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again--maybe every day.

We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. For some of us, charging through our to-do lists is a way of quelling the anxiety. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to take time to work on the creative aspects of our lives that matter most to us.

Give up one chore this week and use that time to return to your creative practice.

There's one other story about Martha that gives valuable instruction for those of us struggling to find our creative lives.  We also see Martha at the story of Lazarus, her brother, who has been dead in the grave for several days when Jesus comes.  She is convinced that her brother would still be alive if Jesus had gotten there in time.  And she's worried about the smell when Jesus orders the grave opened.  Here she is, about to witness a miracle, and she's worried about the social niceties.  She wants a miracle, but she wants it on her terms.

I see the same thing in many a creative life.  I've had chapbooks chosen for publication, but I yearn for a book with a spine.  When I get the book with a spine, I expect to yearn for something else yet again.  We live in a time where distribution of words is miraculously easy--and yet I often wish that someone else would do the hard work.

I've seen friends who finally get the book deal, and then they complain over items that seem minor to me, issues of copyediting which baffle me as I watch the battles from the sidelines.  I see so many instances of creative types trying to micromanage the miracles coming their way.

I have hopes that our creative lives will follow the model of Martha.  Even though she seems slow to understand the lessons of Jesus, he doesn't get exasperated and send her away.  He continues to try to shape her, gently and insistently.  He tells her that she worries about many things, but that her sister sets a good example.

The sister, Mary, is fully present.  My hope for us all is that we, too, can be fully present to our creative life, to that which needs us to bring it into the world.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Poetry Tuesday: "The Fifth Demon"

I spent some time last week thinking about Mary Magdalene as her feast day came and went.  It's not the first time.  In this post, I come back to these thoughts:  "I think of Mary Magdalene and the ways her life was changed by her discipleship.  I wonder if she ever missed those demons or if she spent every day in deep awareness of how much worse her life could be and had been.  I wonder what happened to her once her brief time with Jesus was over."

I've played with these ideas before.  I've written several versions of a poem that imagines the demons of Mary Magdalene.  Here's the latest one:

The Fifth Demon

You moderns read about my demon
possession, and you think of The Exorcist:
gravel voices out of the mouths of schoolgirls,
mouths that spew gobs of green goo.

I tell you, it wasn’t like that. Each demon
had a unique personality, a tone
that only I could recognize. In the night,
the hiss of their suggestions soothed
me into sleep. By day, their constant
criticisms and complaints proved motivation.

And then I met Jesus. His voice
filled my head and crowded out the demons.
His stories left me slightly dizzy,
like I had spent weeks sleeping
on a sailing ship and returned to land.

I miss the fifth demon most.
I lost them, and then I lost
him, and now I have only the tomb
of my empty mind.

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Grandfather's Writing Process

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister, of the LCA variety (one of the branches of Lutheranism that merged into the ELCA).  He went to seminary during the Great Depression.  My grandmother kept the letter that the seminary had sent, the letter that encouraged him to stay on the farm because at least he would have food.

He ignored that advice, went to seminary, and spent the rest of his life as a Lutheran pastor in small towns in the U.S. South.  He saw a lot of changes and stayed faithful, as he understood that word.

Before he went to seminary, he was an English major at the University of South Carolina.  I still have a few of his poems.  I will always wonder how his poet's brain influenced his preacher's brain.

He died in 1984, when I had just turned 19, so I didn't have a chance to get to know him as an adult.  I will have to be left with a pieces of paper and the memories of others.

Last week, my mom and dad who were visiting, gave me an envelope with 2 of his sermons.  My mom says that he always started by taking a sheet of blank paper and folding it in half.  His sermons filled both sides of that paper.  My mom says that sometimes he'd make an outline and preach from the outline.

The pages that I now have were typed, and I thought about how long it's been since I held typed pages in my hands--pages typed on those old typewriters that actually pierced the page at various places--or did my grandfather type more aggressively than most?

I wonder if he wrote a rough draft by hand before typing?

The theology in the pages seems solid.  He's trying to teach his flock how to live a faithful life, but it's not the light, fluffy, God will reward you kind of preaching.  I can imagine listening to his sermons week after week and learning something or taking a nugget with me to sustain me through the week.

I could read these pages and not realize that my grandfather was a poet.  They aren't filled with symbolism or strange comparisons that a metaphysical poet would make.  They were written before some of the important archaeological finds of the 20th century, but even if they had been written in 1970, I imagine that my grandfather would have ignored the historical developments that give us a different look at Jesus.

Once that might have been a drawback for me, but these days, I admire what my grandfather was able to do:  to take some fairly advanced theology and bring it down to matter to the lives that people are actually living.