Monday, April 20, 2015

A Poem for the Fifth Anniversary of an Oil Spill

Five years ago, oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.  I anticipated utter disaster, the disappearance of the reefs at the Keys.  Happily, so far, that hasn't happened, although the Gulf waters aren't exactly recovered.

As you might sense from the title, I seem to be working on a series. The first pantoum I ever wrote was "Alternate Apocalypse," with that same first line. It talked about dealing with the reality of global warming, which wasn't the apocalypse I would have predicted, if you had talked to me in 1985. Back then,  I expected nuclear war.

As the economy crashed, I wrote a different apocalypse pantoum, also with the same first line, which talked about economic apocalypse.

So, when I saw a call for poetic response to the oil spill, I couldn't resist another pantoum. I expect to keep writing them for the rest of my life. I'm not sure they'd make a good book all by themselves. I worry they'd be so depressing taken together that no one would buy such a book.
 This poem first appeared at the Poets for Living Waters site, which is still up, if you want to spend time today reading more poems about the oil spill and the larger issue of ocean health.

Alternate Apocalypse #3
We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.
We didn’t anticipate a plume on the ocean floor,
an unstoppable gusher.
We thought we would run out of oil.

We didn’t anticipate a plume on the ocean floor.
We assumed precautions had been taken.
We thought we would run out of oil.
Now we worry the flow will never stop.

We assumed precautions had been taken.
We thought there was an emergency plan.
Now we worry the flow will never stop.
We face a future of oily seas.

We thought there was an emergency plan.
We thought they cared about the environment.
We face a future of oily seas,
a fishless existence our fate.

We thought they cared about the environment.
Now we watch migratory birds slicked with petroleum.
A fishless future our fate,
we cry over lost treasures.

Now we watch migratory birds slicked with petroleum.
We hear the stories of generations living on the water.
We cry over lost treasures,
marine animals, an ecosystem, an ocean, a planet.

We hear the stories of generations living on the water.
All these cultures will evaporate:
marine animals, an ecosystem, an ocean, a planet.
We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Vista Untouched by Humans

Yesterday, my spouse and I took the motorcycle down to Key Largo.  Earlier in the week, my spouse and his brother had done some exploring by motorcycle, and my spouse wanted to explore some areas on foot.

It was a tough ride on the Turnpike for me on the back of the bike--very windy.  But soon enough, we were at the Botanical Site off Card Sound Road in Key Largo. 

It was a beautiful walk on a very hot day down shady paved paths.  The highlight of the day:  we came across an overlook of sorts.  We stood on rocks and looked down at a small lake--or would it be a pond?

What made it unique?  We looked and saw no evidence of humans:  no cell phone towers, no parking lots, no houses, no boats, nothing--not even the path on the other side of the lake that we knew was likely there.  We imagined the first travelers through the area seeing the exact same vista.  We imagined people saying, "We should settle here."

We walked back and talked about how rare it is to see a vista with no evidence of humans.  We could hear traffic nearby, but we couldn't see the cars.  We looked at the path and realized that we were probably walking on an old coral seabed--not surprising, since the area was once under water.  We talked about the fact that it likely will be again in the next several hundred years.

Our whole afternoon stretched out before us.  We decided to keep going south--who knew what we would see?

Lots of traffic, that's what we saw.  Sigh.  After catching sight of a trail of brake lights that went on and on, we turned around. 

Still, I'm glad we went.  I'm glad I had a chance to see such an unmarked landscape.  I'll be looking for others.  I assume they're rare--but maybe I just haven't been observant.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Hawaii Retrospective with Photos

Two weeks ago we'd have been waking up near a different ocean in Oahu.

We've seen similar views of the coastline on the Atlantic, but how different was the view from the other side of our balcony!

On the shores of the Atlantic ocean, we don't have mountains that rise out of our beaches.

In many ways, the plant life is similar to what we could find in our own yards.

But I've never seen plumeria/frangipani flowers with quite these colors in the yards of South Florida.

The sun rises out of our ocean, instead of setting into the sea, as in the picture below:

I told my dad that I have so many pictures of sunrises and sunsets in my computer.  But it's irresistible to capture more.  And why not the setting of the moon?

All too soon it would be time to go.  We left our extra food here, and I left thinking about why we don't see this kind of good idea in more places.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Good Friday, 2015, Flying Westward

Two weeks ago, we'd have been getting ready to go to the airport to make our way to Hawaii.  Because we knew we'd be leaving early, we didn't go to Maundy Thursday services.  Because we were in the air all day, we didn't go to Good Friday services. 

But because the stream of the liturgical year is always moving below the rocks of my regular day, I was aware of what I was missing.  I did my own recognition of the holy days, but it was strange to observe them alone.

Wendy has a post about flunking Lent.  I flunked Holy Week.  Or maybe I just made a D.

On Maundy Thursday, I did have communal meals, but nothing like some Maundy Thursday meals I've had in the past (the occasional Seder, the pot luck dinner).  A group of work friends went to lunch in our work neighborhood; someone paid for our lunch, including the to-go lunches that we were taking back to colleagues who couldn't leave their desks.  That would have been strange any day, but it felt especially weighted with meaning on Maundy Thursday.

On Maundy Thursday evening, while the rest of the Christian world washed feet and stripped altars, we shared a simple meal of hamburgers with a friend and then did our final packing.  Again, our activities fit a Maundy Thursday theme in a way, but a strange way.

We got up early on Good Friday and made our way to the airport.  We waited for our first flight, and one of our fellow travelers told us about his recent heart attack and renewed life:  an Easter story!

In the Dallas airport, an announcement invited us all to the chapel for a Good Friday service, but didn't tell us where the chapel was.  I wondered if the worship planners did what they would normally do, or if a Good Friday service in an airport chapel would be substantially different.

And then we got on the plane for our almost 9 hour flight to Hawaii.  I thought about all the mortifications of the body that a long flight requires.  I won't go as far as to call it a crucifixion; I'm very clear about the agony involved in that punishment.

We flew west, so the falling of the night was always behind us.  I'd love to be the kind of person who sleeps on a plane, but even on overnight flights, I have trouble.  On a flight where the sun doesn't set, it's even harder.

We ended Good Friday sitting by a pool under the light of the full moon.  We drank tropical drinks and ate fried chicken.  Even my best poet self can't make that experience fit into a Good Friday theme.

Yesterday as I thought about making a poem about any of this, I looked up John Donne's "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward."  It's never been one of my favorite Donne poems, but I find it comforting that even in the seventeenth century poets wrestled with the intersections of the liturgical year and the rhythms of business life and needing to attend to other concerns, not just spiritual ones.

The first two lines of the poem intrigue me:

"Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,"
I think of staring out of the plane window and imagining that I could see the curve of the earth:  spheres of all sorts!
And here we are, one week later, and I'm still looking at strands of imagery, trying to think about how to weave them into whole cloth. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Practice of Paying Attention

We may not think of the practice of mindfulness as being part of our creative practice, but I would argue that it should be.

I'm also interested in the intersections of mindfulness as a spiritual practice, even though mindfulness hasn't been stressed in my Lutheran/Christian tradition. 

In short, the practice of mindfulness can enrich us on so many levels--so why is it so difficult?  Why do so many of us avoid this practice?

One obvious reason:  if we are mindful, we are not mindful just of joy and beauty.  Mindfulness means letting ourselves feel grief and loss.  Many of us try to numb/avoid these feelings.

In her new book Small Victories:  Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott reminds us that only by grieving, by letting ourselves feel that emotion deeply, do we move beyond grief.  Her essay "Ladders" in the book is an amazing exploration of the process of grieving.  She talks about the strange phenomena of full grieving often having moments of connectedness and joy.  She says, ". . . finally grief ends up giving you the two best gifts:  softness and illumination" (p. 35).

But it's not only grieving that can give us these gifts.  Jane Hirshfield reminds us that a creative practice can give us softness and illumination too.  In this interview, she reflects on her twin practices of Zen meditation and writing poetry:  "Both writing and any spiritual practice are technologies to exceed your own capacity for presence. Both are learned by entering them over and over, and both are without any arrivable-at destination. You don’t write a poem and say, “Good, I’ve done that now.” It’s more like breathing: you finish one poem and begin another. The same is true of meditation. One breath leads to another. Some breaths are transparent, some are filled with silent weeping. Some tremble on the cusp of disappearance, others become the sound of cars or birds. Closely attended, any moment is boundless and always changing. You emerge from these kinds of undoing awareness and you know it is not you yourself who are all-important. You know something of the notes of your own scale."

I'm thinking of mindfulness because of my recent holiday experiences.  On the plane ride to Hawaii, my reading light didn't work and the in-flight entertainment was also not working, so I spent much of the flight looking out the window.  I was amazed at the beauty of the country underneath me.  At points, I wanted to run through the plane reminding people to look outside.

Of course, most people were sleeping or looking at their electronic devices.  They probably wouldn't have appreciated my enthusiasm.  How much do we miss because we forget to look?

At the resort, I also noticed how many people sat and pecked at their screens.  Part of me understands.  Part of my route to mindfulness, after all, involves writing, which involves a computer.  But part of me wanted to say, "Here we are, at a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific, and what are we doing?"

No doubt about it:  mindfulness is tough, whether it's being mindful of our losses or of the surrounding beauty.  But many of our best teachers make it clear that the rewards of mindfulness are great.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Writing Inspiration Whilst on Holiday

It won't surprise you to find out that I've come back from my vacation with all sorts of writing possibilities in my head. 

I don't find Hawaii itself to be inspiring, like I did the desert Southwest of our Christmas 2012 trip.  I came back with some poem ideas that led to some poems that surprised me, and I wrote a short story that one of my writing friends declared my best ever.  That short story was in some ways inspired by the poems I was writing.

Would I have had any of them without that trip?  Hard to say.

One thing I love about a cross-continental airline flight in the daylight is the view of the land below.  I love the way the land changes from verdant green to what I know to be prairies to the harsh landscape of the desert.

On this trip, my spouse had just read a book about the Comanche, who spent much of their lives, if they were male, on horseback following the buffalo, making their way through an unforgiving land.  We talked a bit about that, while looking down at lakes that are clearly drained of most of their water.  I may try writing a poem that uses some of these images.

I'm also interested in the shapes from the air: human-made things follow a rigid geometry, while things like lakes and rivers seem much more fluid and softly-shaped.

I expected to keep seeing images and possible poems once the plane landed, but instead, my brain went to short stories.  I thought that a connection of linked stories could be cool.

What would link the characters?  The resort where they work.

I wouldn't want it to be an upstairs-downstairs kind of book.  What do I mean by that?  A short story about a resort guest followed by a story about the cleaning staff.  That seems too clich├ęd. 

As we moved through the week, I thought about how many other lives that resort touches:  the dive instructor and the guy who works on the boat.  The astronomer who shows guests the stars which are in different positions in the sky (the North star is only directly above you if you're in the Arctic--did I ever learn that?).  The photographer who schedules photo shoots with the guests.  The pilot who takes people up in a glider, and the staff on the ground--while my sister was up in the glider for 20 minutes, we stayed on the landing strip talking to the guy who works on the planes while working to get his pilot's license.  The surfers who formed a company that teaches tourists to surf.

Could I make these kinds of stories fresh and new?  Or would it begin to seem repetitive?  I'm not sure, but I wanted to capture this idea before it slid away as I returned to regular life.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Footsteps Past and Present

In many ways, yesterday wasn't a terrible re-entry to regular life.  It's never easy getting back to the office, even if I've only been away a day or two.  I'm astonished at all the e-mails that come in a regular day.  I was out of the office for 5 work days, 10 days total, and e-mail came the whole time.  It took much of yesterday morning just to deal with the accumulation of e-mail.

The day had low points; since I woke up in a fairly contented mood, I won't destroy the mood by recounting them.  Instead, let me talk about the high points.

While I was away, I checked e-mails every few days--not the ones from my main workplace, but my private e-mail.  I got a message from my Living Lutheran editor.  She told me that The Lutheran has an electronic newsletter, and that they wanted to run a copy of my recent piece on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

Of course I said yes.  What a delight to pick up the phone yesterday to find the editor at The Lutheran on the line.  We chatted a bit, and I asked if she was looking for writers.  We talked about my interests, and she said she'd keep me in mind.  I'll start thinking about stories to pitch to her.

I also found out that my earlier editor at The Lutheran has a different post at a sister publication, Gather.  Now is a good time to get back in touch with her.

I ended the day by having an early dinner with colleagues present and past.  We planned to go to the Ft. Lauderdale Historical Society at the New River Inn for a talk on Florida's climate past, present and future.  Yet a different former colleague was giving the presentation. 

We ate at a nearby restaurant that has $5 hamburgers on Mondays.  From there, we could walk to the New River Inn for the presentation.  Two of us were on the team that interviewed and hired the colleague giving the talk.  We've celebrated the completion of the doctoral studies of one of us.  In short, we've been colleagues for so many years that we're now friends.  It was a treat to be with them.

It was an additional treat to explore the RiverWalk area.  I'd never been to that particular section, the oldest part of Ft. Lauderdale.  One of our colleagues brings her students to the area on writing field trips, so she gave us a mini tour complete with interesting background on the history.

It was an interesting juxtaposition to the climate change lecture we'd just heard.  So little of original Ft. Lauderdale still exists, and it's been lost not to rising seas or hurricanes but to development.

But for one evening, we could enjoy a walk along the New River, in the footsteps of ancient Native Americans and traders of all sorts and capitalists of every stripe--as well as ordinary Floridians, out to enjoy a lovely evening, and scruffier types slumped on park benches.  Did they feel the whisper of the history that surrounded us?  Did they think about the future when it would all be under water, both literal and metaphorical?

Likely not.  Many of us choose not to keep competing realities in our heads.  It's similar to the balancing act that many creative types try to maintain.  We work at our jobs that pay the bills, while at the same time giving time and attention to the work that feeds our souls.

If you need some inspiration on that front, here's a great interview with poet and Zen expert Jane Hirshfield.  It's part of what led me to contentment this morning.