Thursday, June 22, 2017

Fewer Fireflies?

On my trip to Mepkin Abbey, I heard a local (South Carolina local) show that had 2 biologists and a writer talking about changes that they've noticed with a variety of changes, from global warming to coastal erosion to the incessant development that encroaches on it all.  They talked about noticing fewer fireflies.  One of the biologists talked about his sorrow that his grandchildren aren't likely to run around chasing fireflies because there are so few of them.

I thought about what would be one of my last visits to my parents' house in Northern Virginia, before they moved to Williamsburg.  I looked out the back window into the dark night beyond and saw what looked like a sea of twinkling stars--but it was fireflies.  That summer, we wouldn't have had to work hard to capture a jar of them, but I was happy to sit on the deck and watch the show.

I think about my own childhood, back to the days before widespread air conditioning where we'd spend the evening hours on my grandparent's front porch.  We'd shell beans for the next day.  I'd ask my elders about life when they were my age, and they'd tell me.  As the world got dark, I'd collect fireflies in old Mason jars.  I get weepy just thinking about corn picked from my grandparent's garden and served almost immediately, with butter and salt.  I would pay good money if I could find tomatoes that taste like the ones they grew so effortlessly.

Here's a poem that I wrote years ago when we first moved here back in 1998; it's an example of how I transformed homesick yearning into art.  It appeared in the Palo Alto Review.

Setting Free the Fireflies


The apartment smells like my grandmother’s
house in the summer,
a childhood time before air conditioners
ruled the season.
Gentle breezes,
smelling of mowed lawns
and ripening tomatoes,
lapped their way around our beds.
The nights glowed
with that candle-like quality
which comes from distant street lights
beaming through window blinds
left open to the breeze.
Long after the yeasty smells
of my grandmother’s early morning baking
dissipated,
my parents crept into the bedroom
where I slept on sheets
made scratchy
from clothesline drying.
They took my jar
of carefully caught fireflies
and set my natural nightlight
free.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Happy Summer Solstice!

Once upon a time, as I was looking to reclaim spirituality that Christianity had obscured or obliterated, I tried to do more celebrating of solstices and equinoxes.  I do confess that the winter solstice has more appeal, that idea that we'll be getting more light with each passing day.

And here we are, at the apex of that light.  From here on until December, we will lose a bit of light each day.  Thirty seconds here, a minute there--most of us won't notice, until the day we drive in at the exact same time and think about how the light has changed.

Next week, my spouse starts a teaching schedule where he'll have class each night.  I have vague ideas of how to spend that time--I could go for a walk instead of having a glass of wine.  I could have salad for dinner--or no dinner at all.  Maybe I'll write more or read more.

Here's my concrete idea.  I've been feeling that I may be at the point where I'm done with my activists at 50 who are working at the for-profit arts school.  I still have a story or two to write, but I'd like to put together what I have to see if I have enough for a collection.  I'd like to read through the stories to make sure I'm not just repeating.

I've been thinking about writing a different kind of story, one that captures a voice, but doesn't have a traditional story arc.  I've been thinking about the school as being haunted, haunted by all the people who once were there but no longer are.  I've been thinking about a more short-form story.

Herein lies my problem:  I think I might be done, and then I have more ideas.

I have one of those windows about to open, and I want to seize this time to write more, whatever the writing might be. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Monastery Dog and Other Poetry Inspirations

This morning, I finally wrote a poem.  I looked back through my poetry notebook, and it's been almost a month.  It has been a humdinger of a month, between my online ENC1102 class with its intense pace of a piece of work due 4-6 days of the week, work which must be graded, and my trip to Mepkin Abbey.

Yet I also feel like I've been telling myself this story every month:  Last month was a humdinger, but the pace of my life should be calming down soon, and I'll get some writing done. 

Let me sit with this idea for a bit, before I come up with plan A, B, C and a back up plan for each.  This morning let me be happy that I wrote a poem.

I came back from Mepkin with a new poem in my head, a poem inspired by a time during our retreat when I watched the monastery dog sleeping in the sun, and I thought of a previous retreat where we talked about needing to find time to write.  I thought about the monastery dog who knows how to prioritize her time.  I liked the contrast.

Over the past week, I've thought of different contrasts.  I thought of a retreatent who brought her own organic food and didn't eat the food prepared by the monks.  I thought of us all at the Sunday Eucharist service, even though we all came from a variety of practices.

I'm still wrestling with the poem, but I'm happy to have work on paper to revise.

I thought I had written about the monastery dog before.  In a blog post, from 2015, I had written this:

"At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

Yet as my week-end at the monastery proceeded, I decided that the monastery dog was lucky.  She had a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks would take care of her.  Not every community has taken a vow of hospitality, after all. She could have been abandoned to a much worse fate.

And she had vast fields at her disposal.  No cooped up back yards for her.  Her joy at racing across the grounds made me happy too."

I thought I had written that poem, but I looked through older poetry notebooks this morning, and now I'm thinking that I planned to write it, but it's one of many poems that I never actually wrote.

The eternal question:  how many of these poem ideas should I return to? 

That's a question for another day.  Today it's time to return to the main campus for my week of trainings.  Today it's the student tracking system--another computer system that will be able to do far more than I will ever dream of asking it to do.

Yet another metaphor waiting for a poem . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mepkin Mind

It is 5:17 a.m. as I write.  A week ago, I'd be about to leave Mepkin Abbey.  The drive back to Florida was uneventful and felt speedier than it sometimes feels.  I was grateful.

This past week-end has been one of finally getting caught up--I did the last load of laundry on Saturday, and did some required IT security training yesterday which will mean I can keep teaching my online classes at the community college.  I got a haircut on Saturday, which wasn't overdue, but my shaggy hair was driving me nuts.  In between, we spent lovely time on the front porch watching the rain showers come and go.

This will be a week of heavy duty training at the Ft. Lauderdale campus, where I have no office, so I'm taking my own mug, my own snack, and trying to remember what else I might need when I don't have an office.

Let me create my own Mepkin retreat in my head, a Mepkin Mind, where I can return when I need the soothing of chanted psalms:



Let me remember my delight at seeing a hydrangea bush in full bloom:



Let me remember the river that has seen so much, even if it is never the same river twice:



Let me adopt the attitude of Abbey, the monastery dog, who is always happy to be near us:



If she's ever stressed, I never see it:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day: Caring for the Next Generations

It's Father's Day, and so of course, I have fathering and larger metaphors on the brain.  We live in a landscape more increasingly wrecked by poisonous models of caretaking; I'm thinking primarily of the fractured political world we inhabit, whether we want to or not.  We're at the end of a week where we saw a man shoot congressional male leaders on a baseball field during an early morning practice, and it didn't take long before we saw lawmakers derailing conversations into tired gun control arguments.  It's clear to me that we need a different model.

One of my early morning Father's Day readings was this wonderful essay by Parker J. Palmer.  He talks about the ways that his father, an Eisenhower Republican, modeled upright behavior for his children.  I am sure I am not the only person who finds herself yearning for more of that upright behavior. 

Every time I hear people spewing vitriol about Republicans, I think about my own father, my earliest experience with a Republican.  While we disagreed often over politics, we usually had reasoned discussions.  I think about our conversations about the U.S.S.R., which always led to a discussion about what freedom means.  At the time, in the early 80's, I assumed that the Soviet Union was taking care of the basic needs, like food and shelter, of all citizens, giving them a freedom from hunger and homelessness.  My father pointed out that the freedom to make one's own life choices was more important.

I will always wonder why we have to choose, and it was from my parents that I learned to think about these choices.  We spent a lot of family time in Lutheran churches, where our task was made clear again and again:  to care for those in the world who didn't have the advantages that we had.

I want to believe that everyone believes this fact to be true--that we have an obligation to care for those who are less well off.  Sadly, I have seen the behavior of those who govern who do not seem to have any sense of that at all--it's different from past political eras when we had conversations about how we help others by leading them to self-sufficiency.

I still believe that most of us have a yearning for a more civil society, where everyone has the potential for creating a better circumstance, at least--maybe not that everyone can have an equal shot, but some sort of shot at a better life.

On this Father's Day, I'm thinking of how many fathers I know who have done a good job on an individual level at caring for the next generation.  They're much more involved in their children's lives, regardless of the age.  They change diapers, they braid hair, they fix lunches, they teach children the skills they will need, and they help older children find their way in the world.

If we can do this for our own children, we can do this for all children who will come after us.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mepkin Photo Walks

A week ago, at 5:30 a.m., I'd have been walking back from my breakfast at Mepkin Abbey.  I have often thought about the fact that I so often keep monk's hours, although I worship less throughout the day than monks do.  At Mepkin last week-end, I woke up between 4 and 4:30 a.m., but that's not unusual for me.

If my camera takes good pictures at night, I can't figure out how to give it those commands.  I spent some time in the early morning as I walked to breakfast trying to capture the full moon:



A week ago, I would miss the Eucharist service on Saturday morning.  I was waiting for my friend to knock on my door for a walk, and somehow we missed each other.  I looked at my watch, realized it was 7:25, and not only was I going to miss my walk with my friend, but also the Eucharist service.

So I decided to take a walk by myself.  It was a different kind of communion service.



I have been walking the Mepkin grounds for over 10 years--sobering to realize.  I've been taking pictures since 2009.  I brought a camera to the retreat with me; I was determined to figure out how to make it work.

Let me hasten to say that these are not super sophisticated cameras that I have.  I don't change lenses.  I keep the auto function on, even though I could be the one making the artistic decisions--there are only about 9 choices on the slightly more sophisticated camera that I inherited from my sister when she decided that she would mainly take pictures on her iPhone.  In fact, one reason I would get a smartphone is to have an easy camera feature on a device that would fit in a pocket.



Since I have been taking pictures at Mepkin for 6 years now, I challenge myself to find new angles.  For example, here's a picture of a statue that I took in 2009:



Last Saturday, I noticed that some of the tree branches and twigs behind the statue have a thorny appearance.  I tried to capture that aspect.



Of course, the advantage of taking many pictures is that you get the occasional surprise.  My spouse delighted in this one, with Spanish moss not thorns, which I didn't even remember taking:



I feel like I see the world differently when I'm walking with the camera.  I notice angles and colors and the way the light changes a shot.  I can't always control what the camera sees, however.  Here was another shot that my spouse liked.  The cross didn't have this glow when I saw it with my eyes, but the camera caught it:



One of my friends asked me how I learned to take such good pictures.  I said that I take a lot of bad pictures, and every so often, one of them stands out.  It's one of the blessings of a digital camera:  one can take lots and lots of pictures.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Many Ways of Looking at Exile

A week ago, I'd have already been on the road for 2 hours.  This morning, similarly, I've been awake for awhile, but I've been grading.  However, my mind wanders back to my time away at Mepkin Abbey.

We gathered to talk about the power of story.  We talked about the types of stories we might tell, and we focused on these four:  Hope, Exile, Repentance, and Home.  Our leader pointed out that almost any story can be framed as a story of one of these elements.  And since it was a retreat at a monastery, we focused on how religious traditions, particularly Christians, have seen these elements in telling our stories of the larger faith.

I thought we'd be writing our stories, but we told our stories--one of our retreat leaders modeled the process by telling by telling his story as we moved through each module.  We discussed, and then we broke into groups:  first pairs, then a group of 3, then 5, and then for our final gathering, we stayed as a large group and each person took a turn.  It was a great way to help us get to know each other.

During the retreat, the topic of exile was the element that most moved me to take notes.  I have always had this sense of exile--that I'm displaced somehow, never really home, never finding my larger tribe.  I've always seen this feeling/condition as one that needed fixing--and as soon as possible.  As we discussed exile, I had a moment of insight:  what if this feeling of exile is the norm?  Or what if it's actually a preferable state?  After all, when we're in a state of exile, we remember our true home (God or Heaven or something better, if you're not inclined to use religious terms).

We are to live our lives fully while holding onto them lightly.  Think about what this means:

--If we're in exile, we don't need to hoard anything.  We might as well use it.

--Exile re-orients us away from our things and illusions about our lives and towards what really matters.

--If we didn't end up in exile, we might forget we need God.

--When we're displaced, we're more in tune with the moment.

We talked about this idea in spiritual terms, that our true community (church, God, social justice co-workers, etc.) may not be the larger community (the U.S., the world).  But I also see this dynamic in places where we might not expect it to be at work; for example, how do we deal with the fact that we may feel in exile at places where we'd expect to feel at home, say, at church?

I wrote an e-mail to a friend upon my return.  She responded:  "I know, however, that I would have been abjectly unhappy if I had stayed in the village where my cousin still lives today.  So, what to do:  follow your dream of the big world, or then regret having lost your home for the rest of your life."

She's hit on an essential question:  how do we remain faithful as we live our lives as resident aliens?  The answer to that question is as varied as humanity itself.  More to come!