Saturday, August 23, 2014

Beautiful Bad Dreams

Happily, I don't have many bad dreams anymore.  Strange dreams, yes.  But true nightmares?  No.

The past 3 nights, just before I woke up, I've had bad dreams.  But unlike my bad dreams of past years, they've been very beautiful.

On Thursday morning, I dreamed I was outside of a mountain cabin with my spouse and someone on the front porch.  It was autumnal with sun streaming through the trees.  I was at the side of the house and got trapped in a strange swirl of ice crystals, teeny tiny, sun-sparkly ice crystals.  I couldn't move, and I couldn't call out.  I knew I would freeze to death in a beautiful storm.

On Friday morning, I dreamed about a small house in a swamp.  I was following a female friend (she doesn't exist in my waking life).  For some reason, I needed to follow her into the house, but I realized we were surrounded by snakes in the trees, silver green snakes.  I knew they were very dangerous.  I couldn't go forward, couldn't turn around, was scared to stay in place.

And this morning, I dreamed that I needed to get to the airport, and I was relying on my mom and dad to get there.  But we were in a lovely seaside setting, and we couldn't seem to get focused on getting to the airport.

I can certainly play psychologist and figure out what these dreams mean, what my not-so-subconscious frets about, but that's less interesting to me than the cinematic nature of these bad dreams.  I don't usually dream in such beautiful colors and certainly not in my bad dreams, which tend to be dark and badly lit.  My bad dreams don't usually shimmer so much.  For that matter, neither do my good dreams.

And 3 nights in a row?  I don't usually have bad dreams so regularly.  I don't usually have dreams that looked like they were filmed by the same cinematographer.  What's happening in my brain?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was a function of aging?  If, in addition to aching joints, we had more beautiful dreams as we got older?

I'd prefer to have beautiful good dreams than beautiful bad dreams.  I'd like for this morning's dream to be the last for awhile.  I'd even go back to my boring dreams of office work if it meant my beautiful bad dreams came to an end.

I know some artists who would get poetry mileage out of these dreams, but I probably won't.  I'd love to be able to replicate the colors and shimmer of these dreams in paintings or film, but my skill set isn't up to that.

Now it is time to turn my attention to daytime tasks.  I have 2 online classes to prepare.  Luckily, I don't have curriculum to develop.  But I do have to go through the course shell to enter dates, a task which takes more time than you might think.

But the day will not be totally tedious.  I'll go to spin class and swim in the pool, when I need breaks from class prep.  We are grilling a brisket (and all afternoon task) and some rose snappers, a fish I've never heard of, but it looked like a beautiful variety of snapper.  Friends who live in the neighborhood, the ones who inspired us to get serious about moving to a better neighborhood, will join us.  It will be a lovely, late summer Saturday, beautifully lighted with colors of all shades, with no nightmares hovering near.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Questions to Answer about Your Manuscript

Two years ago today, I'd be getting the news of the restructuring of my school and my job.  I was told of the lay-offs of members of my department, including my own lay off.  Unlike my department members, there was a full-time job in the new structure for which I could apply.  Even though I did apply, and I did get the job, it was still unsettling.  It continues to be unsettling.

I've already written extensively about this day, most lengthily in this post, so let me not rehash it all here.

This week at work we got one of those e-mails from one of the people at the top of our company, the kind of e-mail that raises more questions than it answers.  The fact that the e-mail comes two years almost to the day after the last company restructuring does not help allay fears of the workers.

Today I will try not to focus on any of these issues.  I just found out that one of my favorite small publishers, Phoenicia Publishing, has an open submission period that closes at the end of this month.  The press is looking for proposals for nonfiction and fiction manuscripts.  I'm most familiar with the work that the press does with poetry.  But when I saw the call for manuscripts, I thought of not only my memoir/collection of essays, but also my collection of linked short stories.

So today, instead of letting my brain think about the possible meanings of the nebulous e-mail from the executive, I'll work on answering these questions for my submission:

"Your query should include a concise description of your book, a few sentences describing how it fits within Phoenicia's publishing focus, a short bio, and a description of the existing and potential market for your book."

I will let my brain think about whether to submit a query about my collection of linked short stories or my memoir project.  Hmmm.

I'll think of the questions that Sandra Beasley is answering for her upcoming book.  She gives us all a glimpse of this process in this post.  She says, "I know so many folks who--after jumping the hoops to editorial acceptance--are ambushed by the additional hoops it takes to sell the book. The Author's Questionnaire is meant to help itemize your contacts, expand your market awareness, and rehearse answers to likely questions."

She posts the entire set of questions, and it's eye-opening.  For those of us who look them over and have a default response of having failed miserably at making contacts, she reminds us, "I suspect many writers see the heavy emphasis on contacts in the media and freeze up. But you know more people than you realize. Consider all 360 degrees of your life: your identities as a teacher, a community member, a volunteer, a parent, an alumna. Don't fixate on promoting your writing exclusively to other writers. If anything, those other audiences will be more excited at the novelty of you writing a book."

Those are the words I'll return to for inspiration.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Frazzle Dazzle Day

Yesterday was a day of ups and downs, a real frazzle dazzle of a day.

It began oddly.  I went to my gym which is part of a hospital.  As I walked down the hallway, the alarm lights went off and a voice over the P.A. said, "Code red in the mechanical building."  Over and over the voice said that, and the lights flashed.

Code red--fire, right?

But no one seemed alarmed, so I went on up to the 8th floor.  There was limited electricity, meaning no fans and no music for the spin class room.  But we decided to go ahead anyway.

Halfway through, we were plunged into darkness.  Still, we continued to spin.  By the time we were done, still no power.  So, I made my way down the steps and went back home to shower.

Oddly, the whole experience restored my good humor.  I had woken up in quite a funk, thinking about how I had accomplished nothing in my life, I would never be published again, I would never achieve my full potential.  How I hate that kind of funk!  Luckily, I've read enough biographies of creative people to know that these funks are normal.  Luckily, I've been through them enough times to recognize the lie in the hissing voice that rears up in my head occasionally--and I know that if I sit tight, and continue to do the creative work, I'll be O.K.

By late morning, I was rewarded.  Kathleen Kirk sent me an e-mail to let me know that my poems were up at Escape Into Life.  You can see them here.

I have long admired Kathleen's work, both her own creative work and the editing that she does.  I've loved the way she paired poems and art.  I've often wondered what she'd do with my work.  What a treat to find out.

Through the years, I thought about sending her some poems.  But I worried that there might be some reason why she had never suggested that I submit my work.  I didn't want to put her in a difficult position by reaching out.

So, when she asked me to submit poems, I was thrilled.  And yesterday, when I went to the site, I was thrilled again.

I love that the Internet makes this kind of pairing--poems and art--possible.  In the days of print journals, it would be prohibitively expensive to create this kind of feature.

And then it was off to the mock accreditation meeting.  It was a long meeting, full of good information, but it left me feeling frazzled.  I spent the rest of the afternoon copying every field trip permission slip from the past year, e-mailing the copies to myself so I had a PDF file to keep electronically, hole punching and putting the paper copies into a binder.  Today I'll do the same for every syllabus for every course that I oversee that's in the catalogue.

It's work that's necessary, but not exactly inspiring.

I ended the day by going to an artist's studio.  The artist is doing amazing things with bird cages.  Picture a bird cage with paper dolls from the 1950's hanging inside.  Picture a birdcage with rusty objects hanging from perches--or with sparkly bits dangling. 

The artist had invited a select group, and I felt immensely honored to be part of it.  We ate and discussed school stuff and art stuff and happily we stayed away from politics and the world situation.  I drove home with my frazzle mood dispersed and my dazzle mood restored.

Notice a theme?  Throughout the day, it was the endorphins produced by exercise and art that got rid of the frazzles and restored me to dazzle.  Hurrah for endorphins!  Hurrah for exercise!  Hurrah for art!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Environments, Large and Small

--When people ask me why I don't have pets, I say, "I can't even keep houseplants alive."

--But that's not exactly true.  On Memorial Day, I bought plants that found their way into 4 pots that have spent the summer on my front porch:



--Some of the flower plants in the 2 big pots have died, but overall, those 2 pots have thrived.  I lost a batch of mint, part of the basil, and a batch of dill, but the other herbs (mint, basil, and rosemary) are hanging on.




--However, I must confess that the big pots are not nearly as bushy as they were the first week-end that I brought them home from the Home Depot.




--When I was scrolling through my Feb. entries, looking for posts about my latest revision of my book-length poetry manuscript, I came across this post and the line "be the asteroid":  "I heard a scientist say that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs; this time, we're the asteroid.  What does it mean to be the asteroid?" 

--The planet doesn't need us.  The human species may die off, but other species will survive.  Still, I continue to water the plants on the porch, plants who rely on me for water.

--I've also been thinking about the environment on a bodily scale.  Earlier this year, I had two colleagues and my best friend from high school diagnosed with cancer, 3 different kinds.  I thought about God, who loves all of creation, even the cancer cell.

--I've felt moments of shaken faith many times in my life, but that realization, that God loves all parts of creation equally, from me to the cancer cells that may kill those whom I love, that realization shook me for a few minutes.

--I've been intrigued by disease for many decades.  I'm lucky enough to be able to be fascinated by Ebola from a distance.  For a look at what it means close up, don't miss this postcard in The New Yorker.  It's a description that hearkens back to medieval days and the black death:  "The hospitals of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, are full of Ebola patients and are turning away new patients, including women in childbirth. American Ebola experts in Monrovia are hearing reports that infected bodies are being left in the streets: the outbreak is beginning to assume a medieval character. People sick with Ebola are leaving Monrovia and going into the countryside to search for village faith healers, or to stay with relatives."

--Civilizations have collapsed before.  This blog post talks about why one Bronze Age, interconnected civilization disappeared, and it makes disconcerting comparisons between that civilization and our own. 

--We can try to comfort ourselves by saying that the seas won't swallow our front porches until we're dead and gone, that our U.S. health care system could handle Ebola when it comes to our shores.  But it doesn't take much to tip the balance away from civilization and back towards a life less attractive.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Clerking for Death

It's interesting to me what issues consume people's time, especially if the issues aren't affecting them directly.  For example, I haven't been following the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri with the same interest as many people--I'm judging interest by news coverage and Facebook updates and blog posts.  I have not been taking sides and choosing between Israel and Gaza.  I have been keeping an anxious eye on Russia and the Ukraine, but not enough to write much.

No, I have been consumed with the Ebola outbreak.  Yesterday I saw an article or two, a mention here or there, about a clinic in Liberia that was mobbed by protestors.  That led to the patients and workers running away, and then the looters took things from the clinic, like infected mattresses.  Yikes.
I thought of all the disaster movies I've seen, the ones that deal with disease.  The scene sounded like something right out of a movie--the way the disease would get out to the wider population.  How strange when the daily news sounds like something straight out of a movie!

I find myself thinking about all the health care workers who do not run away. I cannot imagine working in those conditions, the sub-par facilities, the lack of basics like gloves and disinfectant, the incredible heat, the lack of running water, the lack of electricity--so much aching need.

In the wake of the various clashes in Ferguson, some of us have talked a lot about the privileges our skin color achieves for us.  I don't often see people making the link to Africa and the current Ebola crisis, not in the same breath.  It's as if people are talking about racism in the heartland of America or racism in how we treat disease in the various countries of Africa, but rarely linking them.  

I, too, am not going to make those links.  However, I do find myself looking west to Ferguson and then looking fearfully to the Ebola outbreaks to my east.  I find myself wondering if the time will come when we'll look back to Ferguson and marvel at the population who had the luxury to clash while the efforts to contain Ebola were so paltry and so ineffective.

There are questions of wealth and national sovereignty at stake.  I understand, sort of, why first world nations can't just sweep in and take over.  Even the delivery of basic medical supplies (aspirin, clean water, gloves) is compromised by the history of first world interactions with the continent of Africa. Ah, the legacy of colonialism:  so much already written!

If I had time and inclination, perhaps I'd write an essay connecting Ferguson and Ebola from this direction:  how does our history hamper our good efforts and intentions?

As always, I sit with my white privilege, my access to good health care, the clean water and flowing electricity that I so often take for granted--and I feel that sickening guilt.  I think of what consumes my days, the accreditation reports, the assessment documents, the annual performance reviews.  I wonder if I should be doing more with my life.

Could I write a poem that somehow encapsulates all these issues?  I've doodled with something I might call "Love in the Time of Ebola."  But then I came across this post on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa blog, and my brain shifted direction.

He created an erasure poem with the title "Clerking for Death."  I went with a different approach:

Clerking for Death


You would think that Death,
having taken so much from so many,
would have secured better office
space.  But I still report
to Death's chambers to learn
all that I can.

During coffee breaks, we lowly
clerks trade ideas for more effective ways
to conduct business:
the glittery, brittle attractiveness of new weapons,
the terror that oozes out of every new disease,
a multitude of accidents unconceived until now.

I have already been to school
for many years, and again, the breadth
of all I do not know surprises
me.  I take careful notes.
When I have a practice
of my own, I will be prepared.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Summer Flickers

Today is the first day of school for our public school students.  I was just feeling like I'm getting settled into summer, and now it's over.

Of course, it isn't really over, at least not in terms of weather.  As if to remind us, yesterday was one of those ferociously hot days, with a heat index of 110 and no breeze.  As I walked across the church parking lot, I could swear I felt the asphalt oozing.  We hid in the house all afternoon--it was just too intense to go outside.

Happily, we so rarely experience that here.  It's usually 92 or so, with lower humidity than the rest of the South, and a good breeze from the east.  Record breaking heat is in the 96 degree range.

Until we moved here, I lived in places that routinely had a stretch of days where the temperature was 105 or higher.  And that's the actual temperature, not the heat index.  So summers here feel surprisingly temperate.

Yes, I do miss autumn.  But even if I lived in other places, mid-August is still hot.  Children would troop off to school in heat that didn't match the action.

Let me make a list of the summer things that I should be sure to do before the season slips away entirely:

--eat more watermelon.

--eat other kinds of melons.

--take some evening walks around the neighborhood so that I can notice the light changing as we move towards the autumnal equinox.

--I haven't had any corn on the cob!  How can this be?

--Should I make homemade ice cream?

--Perhaps an outdoor concert?

I wish we had fireflies here.  I wouldn't catch them and put them in a jar, the way I would have as a child.  But it would be neat to watch them flicker.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Universe Provides Perspective

Yesterday's post may have moped too long in the land of "What if it's too late?"  Throughout the time since I wrote it, I've come across items that give me hope.  It's almost as if the universe is trying to tell me something!

Last night, I flipped through a book to find this quote from Thomas Merton:  "There can be an intense egoism in following everybody else.  People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular--and too lazy to think of anything better.  Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.  They want quick success and they are in such a haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves.  And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity."  (from New Seeds of Contemplation

I find it somewhat ironic that I found this quote in Todd Henry's The Accidental Creative:  How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice.  It's the kind of book  that gives us tips and techniques for organizing our time and ideas, the kind of book where I find I'm already doing a lot of these techniques--and I do have the idea that Merton might say we're not really listening to his quote.

There's a fascinating post at the Monkey See blog that reflects on book writing, book promoting, and the role of social media.  Martha Woodruff has posted a whole series, in fact.  I love all of her posts on the process of writing the first book.  And what I love more is what I learned from listening to this story:  Martha Woodruff is 64!  Maybe it's not too late for me.

And if you find this kind of writing about writing inspiring, don't miss this site:  http://theamericanscholar.org/daily-scholar/writing-lessons/.  Every Monday there's a new post, and they're fairly short, but full of wisdom.

And then, yesterday, there was this piece on NPR about a fascinating art project that plants a ceramic poppy for every British and colonial life lost during World War I: 888,246 ceramic poppies.

Let me pause a minute for that # to sink in--and that's only British and colonial lives--not French, not German, not U.S.  And it doesn't count the injured.

So, let me take a minute of gratitude here:  even if my poems are never collected in a book, I still have the freedom to write, the time, the support of those who love me.  Those blessings are not small.  I am not in a war zone.  I have fresh water just by turning the tap.  I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge.

Publication that comes later or not at all suddenly seems like an insignificant thing to fret about.