Sunday, July 24, 2016

Poetry Sunday: "Morning in America: 1984"

Yesterday I wrote a post on my theology blog about Tim Kaine's social justice formation in Honduras took me back to my own social justice formation days in college.  After one argument about the USSSR, my father said, "Have you ever read The Communist Manifesto?  You should read it and find out what the Soviets really have in mind."

And so I did.  I bought my very own copy which felt very transgressive and radical.  The content of that book, however, did not seem so very radical.  And it didn't have a blueprint for the Soviet takeover of the world.

In those days, my father and I could not have foreseen the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union.  We also would not have forecast that a later political candidate, Donald Trump, would have so many connections to the current leader of Russia.

Decades later, I wrote a poem about those days.  It first appeared in The Julia Mango and in my chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Morning in America: 1984

I read The Communist Manifesto on the DC Metro,
surrounded by commuters going to their downtown jobs
and tourists in town to see their government in action.

I wear sensible shoes and my hair in a braid.
I work in a tough part of town, that summer
that DC has the nation’s highest murder rate.

That season is also the one when the social
service agency runs out of resources. My summer job:
to answer the phone, to tell the downtrodden there is no money.

Between calls, I return to Marx. I picture
him, prowling the streets of Europe, winding up in the British
Museum, where he could write and stay warm.

I write my own poems. I imagine they will change
the world, that all I must do to rid the planet of injustice
is to point out the inequities, nothing to lose but our chains.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Fear and Loathing at the Republican National Convention

I am no Hunter S. Thompson, nor was meant to be.

I have found myself being increasingly cautious writing about politics, on this blog and on other social media.  In part, it's because I don't want to attract the vitriol that any political post might pull to me.  But in part, it's because I'm not as passionate about politics in general as I used to be.  There are aspects of politics that I am happy to discuss for hours--but I'm not willing to fight with people.

The older I get, the more I see the wisdom of my grandparents' generations who taught us not to talk about politics, religion, or money at the dinner table--or worse, with people you don't really know.

But I also want to record some of the events of history and my reactions to them.  So if you scroll back through this blog, you'll see me react here and there.  Thus, I want to record my reactions to the RNC this past week.

I didn't watch it at all, but I heard clips every morning on NPR.  And driving home on Wednesday night, I listened to some of the speeches--and I felt a growing chill, particularly with the crowd chanting "Lock her up."  I felt a fear for my personal safety, not our collective safety--that mob mentality frightens me.

When I got home, my spouse and I discussed fear and past administrations.  My spouse said that he felt most afraid with Reagan as president.  I felt a fear for the future of civilization with Ronald Reagan--he was much too cavalier about nuclear weapons.

I felt a different kind of fear with the George W. Bush administration.  As I checked out library books or made purchases, I thought about the legislation (primarily the USA Patriot act) that would allow government agencies to know what I was reading and buying.  It seems quaint, now, doesn't it, to worry about privacy in this way?  I am not as worried now, although I imagine that many agencies can get much more information about me.  I assume that anyone who goes searching will be overwhelmed by information.

Or maybe I'm less afraid now because I realize how boring I am.  I check armloads of cookbooks out of the library--and not the Anarchist Cookbook variety.  I am writing about activists much like myself:  once inspired to change the world, now in our 50's, worn out because of these attempts to make lasting social change.

During the Clinton years, when I first began to see glimmers of the new face of terrorism, I didn't feel fear, not the way I feel these days for my personal safety, should Trump be elected or should I ever be foolish enough to go to a Trump rally.  But I did sense the passing of an American age; I remember going to see Apollo 13 and thinking about how we were no longer space pioneers and feeling sad.

But I don't want my political leaders to believe that the U.S. should pull back from its leadership role across the globe.  I don't want my political leaders to believe that we can ignore an attack on a NATO country.  I am deeply uncomfortable with the Trump leadership's Russia connections.

How life cycles around in ironic ways.  My dad and I used to argue about the USSR during the Reagan era.  My dad, who had deeper wisdom, some of it classified, than I did argued that we couldn't trust the USSR.  I admired that Communist ideal of providing for all citizens.  I said, "They may not have freedom of religion but at least they are free from hunger."  There were plenty of hungry citizens in the USSR, but I didn't know that then.

My politics are much more nuanced now.  I am so glad that I don't have a snotty college kid to annoy me the way I must have annoyed the adults in my life when I was at my most idealistic.

I will be interested to see how the Democratic National Convention will proceed next week.  I like that both Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine have done social justice work.  I hope the tone of next week's politics will call us to our better selves.  This week's politics made me want to renew my passport and flee.

Friday, July 22, 2016

All Our Modern Demons

Today is the feast day of Mary Magdalene.  You might be saying, “Mary Magdalene? Wasn’t she possessed by demons? Wasn’t she a prostitute? Why would Christ appear to her anyway? Why does she get a feast day?”

There have been many moves throughout church history to strip Mary Magdalene of her importance. Many church teachings portray her as a prostitute, as mentally ill, or both. But I don't usually trust the ancient writers when it comes to their descriptions of emotional or sexual states, especially not when it comes to females. I can see that the ancient church had a vested interest in diminishing Mary Magdalene of her story and her power.

Modern folks in industrialized nations have a tendency to dismiss any story that's older than 15 minutes, but I find my brain returning to Mary Magdalene's story again and again.  What happens once her time with Jesus is over?  I suspect that the earliest followers weren't quite as committed to including women and other outcasts as Jesus was.

My younger self would have seen Mary Magdalene as healed--that story, over and done.  My older self knows that it's never that easy. I wonder if she missed the demons, once Jesus cleaned them out of her. As anyone who has wrestled with modern demons knows, our demons are comfortable, which is why it’s often hard to let them go. I imagine Mary Magdalene, in the quiet of the night, having trouble sleeping, missing the hiss of the demon who told her she wasn’t good enough.

It’s strange company, the demons that we keep inside us, but it’s often better than the loneliness of no company.

I think of Mary Magdalene, as I imagine her: always ready to let go of the annoying demon of feminine expectations, but who wishes she could summon back the demon of compulsiveness. I imagine her finding it hard to get anything done without that devil driving her ever onward.

Or maybe that demon never really went far away.  She's the first one to see the risen Jesus because something drives her to that garden--she has obligations to the dead body, and she must get to them.  I understand the ancient customs surrounding the care of dead bodies, and I understand the laws regarding dead bodies and the Sabbath. But in one Gospel, it’s only Mary who is so deeply concerned about the body of Jesus. What drives her to the tomb?

In Mary’s reaction to the man she assumes is the gardener, I recognize my own demon of anxiety. I watch her ask a perfect stranger about the body of Jesus. I watch her throw all caution and decorum away, so desperate is she to complete this task, as if completing the task will restore the world to right order.

Many of us suffer in the grip of these demons of anxiety, these beliefs that somehow, through our manic quest for control, we can keep the world from spinning into chaos. We might argue for the benefits of medication, and indeed, if it’s a matter of brain chemicals that are out of balance, we would be right.

But all too often, something else is at the root of our modern possession. Maybe we haven’t stopped to grieve our losses, as Mary needs to do in the garden. Maybe it’s the fear of loss that is coming to all our lives. Maybe it’s that insistent hiss from both inside and out that says that we will never be enough: good enough, clean enough, accomplished enough, nice enough, attractive enough, loved enough.
I know that some will be repelled by the religious nature of this story, of this post.  And yet, if we strip the story of its religious elements, it continues to be relevant.

Who among us has not had moments (or days or weeks or months) of feeling driven by forces we don't understand?  Who has a fully quiet mind?

I will always wonder how much the demons of anxiety and fear drive us to get more done than we would have without them.  Or if we could drive them out, if we could have a fully quiet mind, would we do more?

And if the answer to that last question is yes, we would do more, what is the best way to quiet those demons?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Affirming Life in the Face of Chaos

Last night, as I drove home into the setting sun, I listened to a bit of coverage of the Republican National Convention on the radio.  I felt bleak after hearing those chants of "Lock her up." 

Or did I feel bleak for another reason?  I spent parts of the day looking for good quotes for the frontispiece of my chapbook--yes, the production schedule is at least 8 weeks behind.  So I did some reading in recent climate science books, and I found some good quotes, but man, that reading is bleak.

So this morning, I resolved to do some life-affirming activities.

I've been trying to cook a pot of black beans for several days now--they are the world's most recalcitrant black beans, so resistant to heat and softening.  I am resisting the urge to make a metaphor out of these black beans.

I've been wrestling with two poems this morning--it's been a more successful experience than the one on Tuesday.  I'm still not back to my best poet self, where the words flow and the images surprise and delight me.  But I didn't feel as creaky this morning.

I wish I had more time this morning.  I want to bake bread.  I want to write a bit more.  But my leisurely morning is coming to an end, and I must get these chapbook galleys in the mail.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Solar Project Installation Done!

Yesterday, our solar panel installation project came to a close.  FPL, our electric company, came to install the reverse meter, we flipped the switch, and voila:  our house now captures solar power to generate electricity.

We are not off the grid.  Florida law prohibits that, and we don't have enough room to store the equipment and batteries we would need to be off the grid.  Should there be a huge storm that blows away our solar panels, we'll want to be on the grid--although if it's that big a storm, it might be awhile before we have electric service again--those solar panels are securely attached to the roof.

We've wanted to do more with solar power for years now.  At the end of 2015, we finally made the plunge.  We had some money saved up to invest in the house, and the time seemed right, with a renewable energy tax credit that might disappear, depending on the outcome of a 2016 elections.

We didn't think it would take the 7 months that it has taken to get the project finished.  My spouse thought we'd be done by February.  I knew that the permitting and inspecting process with the city could add more time to the project, so I thought we'd be done by April.  That process took even longer than I thought it would.

I didn't realize how much paperwork we'd need to file with FPL, and I worried about the ways it could go wrong.  For example, the paperwork had two different addresses telling me where to mail it back.  I expected it to get lost and to have to do it again.  I worried that they might reject us outright.  Happily, those fears were not realized.

This process has been more stressful for my spouse than for me--he's been the one at home during the noisy process of attaching the panels to the roof.  He's been the one waiting for various inspectors.

And now we will see what happens.  We tried to install exactly as many solar panels as we need to generate the amount of electricity that we will use.  If they generate more power than we use, at the end of the year, FPL will send us a check. They will buy the "extra" electricity we generate at about half of what they would sell per Kilowat hour to us.  So, in many ways, it doesn't pay to have more panels, since we have to pay for each panel and its installation, and the return on investment is a much more long term one.  And there's only so much room on our roof.

We've been fans of solar power for decades--really, for our whole lives.  It's cool to live in this time when homeowners can do their small part to help generate renewable energy--oil is cheap now, but it won't always be.  And I feel fortunate to have sold our old house 3 years ago when we moved to this one, so we had the money to make the investment.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Poetry Processes and the Utile

I tried to write poems this morning, but I feel sluggish.  I heard a news story about the Baton Rouge shooter driving from Dallas to Baton Rouge, and I thought about old slave routes from the upper South to the Mississippi delta, but that poem hasn't gelled.

I also tried to write the poem I conceived last week when I was swimming:  God as SCUBA diver, our world as the undersea landscape where divers want to stay, but they cannot.

But by then I was frustrated, and I put my notebook away.  I'll try again later this week.  In the meantime, let me read some poetry to try to fill my brain with something other than convention coverage.

Let me also remember moments of beauty this week, especially the full moon last night.  I watched it as I swam in the pool and had a conversation with my spouse about utiles, a way that Jeremy Bentham and other Utilitarians tried to measure happiness--a unit of happiness is a utile.  Before that swim, I had a delightful late afternoon catching up with neighborhood friends over nibbles and wine.  I am a lucky woman who received many utiles yesterday.

Let me remember that my back and hip pain is receding each day, but it's worse in the morning--that makes it tougher to write in the morning.  I will stay hopeful that I can sit at my computer for longer periods of time as we get closer to the week-end.  Let me go swim to try to loosen those muscles.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ukulele Lessons

Yesterday, our weeks of ukulele lessons culminated in a recital of sorts.  We played "This Little Light of Mine" as the first song of our VBS Sunday worship service:

I love this picture of me and the ukulele:

And now, to decide where to go from here.  Our ukuleles were on loan.  We can keep them, if we want to make a donation to the organization that runs a ukulele program for kids in the hospital.  We could buy a better uke.  We could decide to be done.

Our group will keep meeting the last Sunday of every month.  We'll eat together, then have a brief lesson, and then a sing along, where people can play other instruments (our teacher's first instrument was the upright bass, my spouse plays violin, and we have a guitar player), ukuleles, or simply sing--or listen for that matter.

My spouse gave back his ukulele.  I decided to keep mine.  I've made so much progress, and I don't want to lose that.  My ukulele will be the instrument that I play when I play chords, while I will play notes on the mandolin.

The real sadness for me is the lack of time I feel for all these activities which bring me joy, especially activities which help me build a creative life.  But these past 5 weeks of ukulele lessons have taught/reminded me of a larger life lesson:  most of us started out with no experience, and we can now pluck our way through a song.  We'll keep meeting on the last Sunday of every month, so it's been a success, since we want to keep going.  And the fact that we're going to continue meeting will help encourage me to pick up the ukulele.

I want to have wide swaths of time, but right now, I don't.  At some point I will, but that's not my life right now.

BUT--I can accomplish a lot, even with very little patches of time.  While it would be great to be able to play an hour or two every day, I can make progress playing an hour a week.  I can make progress by remembering the chords, even if I don't have a ukulele in my hand.

What I love about the ukulele is that it's small enough to carry it with me--maybe I can find other patches of time, while waiting for meetings to start, while waiting for worship service to start/wrap up, while waiting for my spouse to be done with activities.

These lessons also carry over to other aspects of my creative life.  Even if I don't have time to write the short story, I can mull it over so that I'm ready to write when I get the opportunity.  Even if I don't have time to sew or create pieces of fiber art, I can admire textures and fabrics as I see them.

I can hold fast to my identity as a creative artist, even when much of my life isn't actively affirming that.  That is the real task of every artist--and everyone who yearns to live an authentic life.