Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review: The Writer's Report

I have this idea of how productive I should be, and it never matches how productive I am. I always have in mind this past ideal time, a largely mythical time, where I wrote novels in the morning, sent out manuscript submissions in the afternoon, scribbled poems in between, and met with artist friends for dinner.

While my life has been like that here and there, I've usually only had one element happening at a time. I'm sending out dozens of submissions a month, but not writing much. Or I'm blazing away on a novel, but not writing anything else. You get the idea.

I have this idea that I've accomplished absolutely nothing with my writing, but can that be true? Probably not. Let's check in.

Poems Published

By sorting through this blog, it appears that I've had 11 poems published in 2009. Hurrah!

Poems Written

I've been beating myself up for writing nothing this year, but I have filled up 3 legal pads. Let's go through the legal pads and see how much of this noodling resulted in actual poems.

51 poems

And I wrote about 15 poem-ettes for the August Poetry Postcard project and several haiku for the poem-a-day challenge in April. And I probably wrote a few here and there, at the office or other places, where I worked on an idea, even though I didn't have my poetry legal pad with me.

51 poems. Wow. I've never actually gone back to count how many poems I've written in a year, so I don't know how this year compares to past years, but 51 poems is far from nothing in any year.

Will they all be published? No. Some of them aren't particularly good, and I'm not likely to have any ideas to make them better.

I keep all my old notebooks, and I have this idea that I'll go back through them some day and pick up wisps of ideas and turn them into something. But so far, I never have.

I also like the idea of being the kind of writer who works on poems every day, but I'm not. I work in bursts. When I'm not working in a burst, I always worry that I'll never write again, but I should probably work on putting that worry aside. Even during horrible times of trauma (like after hurricanes or when a loved one is in trouble, medical or otherwise), I still store away images and return to writing when life calms down.

Other Writing I've Done

Let's not count the endless accreditation reports, although if I did, I've probably written 50-75 pages throughout the year. Probably more. Sigh.

Let's not count all the e-mails I've written, although I've labored over some of them longer than I've labored over poems. Double sigh.

I spent much of September writing an academic paper on To Kill a Mockingbird. It's always interesting to flex those muscles. And it's always good to remember that willing librarians and Interlibrary Loan just aren't as good as a real research library. Nowhere close in fact. There are many things I don't miss about grad school, but I'll never recover from having access to Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina. My reading and researching life will never be that good again.

I also wrote several book reviews.

And I blogged a lot. I've been worrying that blogging has taken the place of all other writing, but clearly it hasn't.

However, I haven't written in my old-fashioned, offline, paper journal as much. Blogging has taken the place of much of that writing. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Poems Submitted

I usually submit a lot of work in the Fall, but I spent much of September writing my academic paper. So I've been feeling guilty/slackerly about not getting that done. But let's see what I accomplished (and let's try not to compare it to what got published, and let's definitely not compute the postage cost).

150 poetry packets sent out into the world. So, I'm not as slackerly as I thought.

Manuscript Progress

I'm still sending out my first book-length manuscript (which is really more like my 3rd, but I abandoned my early ones). I also sent out some chapbook manuscripts. My submissions notebook shows I sent out manuscripts 17 times.

But in a more exciting development, I put together a new book-length collection. The poems in this book are strange and they focus on God and other religious issues. I expect that right-wing types will hate the idea of Jesus in the modern world, a theme of many of the poems, and atheists will refuse to touch it, and academic types won't know what to make of it. It might be doomed from the start. But I like it.

Other Creative Pursuits

I've finished one full size quilt, and I'm close to finishing another queen size quilt. I've made several baby quilts.

I've crocheted 10 scarves.

I've sung a lot, but not practiced any instrument.

I've been part of creating liturgies and worship services at church and on retreat.

I've done a bit of photography.

I've cooked and baked, but never as much as I would like. I haven't tried many new recipes this year. But I haven't had to resort to eating fast food, no matter how busy my life has gotten.

I always wish I had done more painting, fabric art, and collage art. This past year, I only created a piece or two.


For the most part, my Creativity Self is happy. There are days when she doesn't get to do as much as she would like, but happily, most weeks include at least some time each day (or every several days) for creative pursuits.

Some of you may wonder how I do as much as I do and still work my 40-50 hour a week job. I try to be very intentional about my time. I don't watch much television at all (I usually fall asleep when I try to watch T.V.), and I don't watch movies and DVDs like I once did. It's easy to give up on T.V. when you have no cable and the digital signal is always pixelating. I've given up on many of the ways in which our culture tries to distract and control us: I do minimal housework, I exercise enough to stay healthy but not so much as to cut into the time I have for important projects, I don't spend a lot of time on make-up, hair, and clothes. I'm brutally efficient in terms of what has to get done, so I can get to doing what I really want to do.

In short, I don't procrastinate the way that I might if I had loads of free time. I know this, because I once had a lot more free time, which I wasted with television and excess exercising and fluffy reading. But now that I have less time, I find that I get right to what's important to me. I try to be always ready for any scraps of time that fall into my day, so that I don't waste them. I try not to let society dictate my values. If the rest of the nation wants to keep up with American Idol or which cultural star is doing which goofy/criminal stuff, great. I have stuff I want to get done before I'm dead.

In the next day or two, I'll think about my writing and creativity goals for 2010.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Future of Christmas Letters and Facebook

First, a disclaimer. When I was a sneering adolescent, I didn't understand the impulse to send out a Christmas letter once a year. In some ways, my parents encouraged my disdain. One year, my father wrote a mock Christmas letter, a stunning satire, which we didn't mail, but we enjoyed helping him revise. My dad was in a dark place, workwise, which was a strain, and I remember that composing/revising process as one of sublime joy: we could still laugh together as a family. Maybe good times would come again.

One of our family Christmas rituals was looking forward to certain Christmas letters. One of my parents' friends wrote Christmas letters that contained incredible detail, down to which Bible passages her study group examined through the year. Some Christmas letters were so brief I wondered why people bothered. Some of these letter writers also wrote or called us throughout the year, so I wondered why they felt compelled to sum up their lives in a Christmas letter.

Now, I feel slightly ashamed of my sneering adolescent self. Now I am older, and I treasure these Christmas letters that my friends write. I treasure them because I never get around to writing them--yet I'm thrilled to find out what my friends have been up to.

I sense a similar sneeriness that some people have towards Facebook, Twitter, and other types of social media. I hear people say that we're all too self-absorbed. Who could be interested in our puny lives in all its stupid detail?

Well, I am. Many of us aren't living lives that can be transfigured into long, chatty e-mails. And if we live fascinating lives, many of us don't have time to write long e-mails or old-fashioned letters on paper--and if all of my friends did write long, lengthy e-mails, I might have trouble finding time to read them all. In some ways, I miss that depth, that insight into people's lives. Yet, I'm always happy to read a sentence here or there about what people are up to. Tell me about your school and the tests you're studying for. Tell me what your kids are up to. Tell me what you're reading, watching, or listening to--I need suggestions! Tell me about your garden, your chickens, your leisure-time activities and all the ways in which you try to make your real life match your values, and I'll be inspired.

Will these weekly and daily updates some day supplant the yearly holiday newsletter? I doubt it. I still like seeing the year-end summary, and I suspect people still like writing them. If I didn't want to be flamed by all my sociologist friends, I might even hypothesize that we're hardwired as humans to be retrospective at certain times.

Or maybe I'm the only hard-wired one. I'll certainly be looking back and looking ahead, as this year (and decade!) draw to a close. I'll be dreaming: what do I want my life to look like in one year, five years, ten years? I'm always amazed to go back to read what I envisioned--and how often, my life calibrates towards that vision. It's a valuable exercise.

I'll do some posting here. I've found many valuable things about blogging, but this rather public accountability has been valuable for me.

And I'm fascinated by the lists that other people make too. I find them inspiring. I like any community, whether it be in the blogosphere or on Facebook or in person, that calls upon us to transform ourselves and our lives into our best selves, our most authentic lives.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Future of Narrative, the Future of Poetry Collections?

I first saw hyperlinked text in 1991, in a graduate school class. We had been reading fairly traditional narratives: novels that were rooted in depictions of the family. It was the best class I've ever taken; we all read the novels, we had rollicking discussions, the novels were very good and female-authored and varied in scope and technique.

But in terms of pointing the way into the future, it was in our final project presentations, not in the novels, that I saw the direction narrative might go.

I'm still not sure how those grad students did it. We trooped down to the computer lab and watched the demonstration. These were the days before Windows took over the world, before we had Internet access on every computer--we used dot matrix printers, for Cripe's sake.

And yet, in this demonstration, I glimpsed all sorts of possibilities. I didn't anticipate every development that has happened; the information gleaning power of the Internet would have blown my pre-Internet brain. But the hypertexting demonstration appealed to the kid in me who loved the books where you made some choices and participated in the narrative process (does the main character do this? go to page 57. Or does the main character do this? Go to page 32).

It has taken longer than I would have expected for this technology to make its way to fiction, but a recent article in The Washington Post says that the future is almost here. Monica Hesse observes, "If readers visit every hyperlink, watch every video and play every game, it is possible for the experience of consuming a single book to become limitless -- a literal neverending story. It's also possible for the user to never read more than a few chapters in sequence, before excitedly scampering over to the next activity. Hybrid books might be the perfect accessory for modern life. They allow immediate shortcuts to information. They feel like instant gratification and guided, packaged experiences."

But does it count as reading? And what impact will these books have on the capacity for imagination of younger generations? The rest of the article talks about these issues.

I've found myself thinking about the possibilities of multiple medias for the way we get poetry out into the world. Various people have already started playing with making videos for individual poems; what would happen if we thought about book-length collections of poems in terms of the multi-media possibilities?

One obvious possibility is that we could hyperlink all sorts of elements that would have once required footnotes. We could have some poems that were short videos and some that weren't--or maybe we give people the option as to whether or not they want traditional poetry presentation (an approximation of words on a page or a performance/reading) or something more experimental. We could hyperlink to other poems that aren't part of the collection. We could hyperlink to earlier drafts of the poem, making life easier for future generations of graduate students who might study our work.

Of course, we might have to wait for technology to catch up with us, which is what happened in 1991. The ideas were there, as my fellow grad students showed, but the technology was still fairly clunky and hard to use, unless you wanted to learn a whole new language of computer coding. Now many of us use platforms like Blogger and website applications.

I wonder what technology is being developed that will make future collections of poetry almost unrecognizable to us, we who are briefly mired back here in this technological time.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Chiron Review's Punk Issue

Over the week-end, I got my contributor's copy of the latest Chiron Review, the punk edition. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I thought I'd post the poem here. Those of you who have been following my poems will see a theme emerging--the answer to that old Sunday School question of how the world would react if Jesus returned again and what would Jesus do and how would we recognize him?

For a long time as I wrote these, I didn't even send them out; they felt subversive and strange to me. And then, when I sent them out, they often got returned immediately. Lately I've noticed that they're more likely to be accepted. And I'm gathering similarly themed poems into a manuscript, which I'll start sending out into the world in the new year (Steel Toe Books is reading in January!).

Here's the poem "New Kid," which is my latest publication:

New Kid

If Jesus came to your high school,
he'd be that boy with the untuned guitar,
which most days was missing a string.
Could he not afford a packet of guitar strings?
Did he not know how to tune the thing?
Hadn't he heard of an electronic tuner?
Jesus would smile that half smile and keep playing,
but offer no answers.

If Jesus came to your high school,
he'd hang out with the strange and demented.
He'd sneak smokes with the drug addled.
He'd join Chorus, where the otherworldly
quality of his voice wouldn’t quite blend.
He'd play flute in Band.
He'd spend his lunch hour in the library, reading and reshelving.

You would hear his songs echoing
in your head, down the hallways, across the years.
They'd shimmer at you and just when you thought you grasped
their meaning, your analytical processes would collapse.
Instead, you write strange poems
to delight your children who draw mystical
pictures to illustrate your poems inspired
by Jesus, who sang the songs of angels,
that year he came to your high school.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Movies and Christmas

It seems that any time I'm not with family for Christmas, I end up at a movie theatre. I first did this in 1987, when, after Christmas festivity with friends, we all went to see Baby Boom at the dollar movies--remember dollar movies? Do any towns still have them? Or has the quick release of movies to alternative forms--DVD, Hulu--wiped out the dollar movies? Once I said that if I wrote a book, I'd name it Everything Comes to the Dollar Movies If You Wait Long Enough. Now I'm not sure that title would make sense to anyone under age 35.

I digress.

I'm always amazed at how many people come out to the movie theatres on Christmas Day. I really wanted to see Up in the Air, and so on Christmas Day, my husband and I headed out, away from our noisy neighborhood. I love George Clooney, and he was in fine form. I don't want to say too much about the movie, so as not to ruin it--columnist George Will apparently does not share my caution, so I had an idea about the end of the movie when I went to see it--yet the ending still surprised me. It's a darkly funny movie, full of keen insight about our modern lives, and beautifully filmed.

Yesterday, my friend and I went to see It's Complicated. Again, a beautiful movie and funny. And I like the fact that it deals frankly with the complicated situations posed by our aging bodies. I commend Alec Baldwin for his willingness to expose his all-too-human flesh on film. I'm not that brave, and I was never heralded as a sex symbol, the way he was in his younger years.

Yet despite the fact that these movies were good movies, they left me feeling depressed. Maybe it's because I'd rather spend Christmas with small children. I rarely question my decision not to have children, but Christmas does fill me with longing for offspring (mine or anyone's, if they're young enough to be filled with wonder).

But both movies centered around people and our inability to truly connect, to learn from our past mistakes, to make better choices. I left each movie filled with sadness. I just wanted to throw myself down on the pavement and weep.

Of course, I didn't. I've learned to cope with my feelings of sadness, carrying on as if the world is well. I try to keep my brain focused on the meaning of Christmas, which is not the meaning of these movies. I go back to the much more ancient texts about the people who live in darkness who have seen a great light, and the darkness could not overcome the light. That's the message I need at Christmas, even if it's not gorgeously shot, well acted, or pre-scripted.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Weather Report, Christmas Morning

I have no children--why did I wake up so early? Of course, my wake up time of 6:45 a.m. might seem like a late morning to those of you with little kids in your household this morning. But I was up half the night at Christmas Eve services (for more on that, read my post on my theology blog).

I keep trying to remember when my sister and I shifted to sleeping in on Christmas morning. I'm the oldest, so it was late in my adolescence. I remember waking up at 8:00 a.m. and thinking, well, I guess we're old now. I was probably all of 17 when I thought that.

We've had a warm Christmas week, a warm Christmas month, unlike the rest of the country. I have baked no Christmas cookies, baked no Christmas bread. Anyone who knows me knows what a dramatic departure this is.

In fact, I've lost weight this Christmas season. Again, strange for me. You know those statistics about people who gain 2-5 pounds in any given Christmas season? Those people are amateurs! When I'm in my high-energy baking mode, I can gain 10 pounds, easily during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's. And then the New Year's gnashing of teeth begins. So, maybe this holiday hecticness that I've experienced between Thanksgiving and this morning has been a blessing. I've been too busy to bake, too busy to eat much most days.

Strange to think that most of the world lives this way. Heck, most of the world experiences food scarcity that they can't control. But much of the U.S. spends time rushing from pillar to post, unable to find time to shop, to cook, to eat. At least I haven't done what a lot of folks do, which is to eat fast food. Blhh. I'd rather have a bowl of cereal.

Soon, I will return to my writing desk and think about my ambitions, hopes, and plans for 2010. But for today, I'll relax. Maybe I'll get a nap. If the neighborhood gets noisy, I'll go to the beach or a movie. I'm missing my extended family, but this isn't a bad way to spend the holiday. I have new books to read and Sting's new CD with winter-inspired music to listen to. Not a bad way to spend the holiday at all.

If you need a reading escape, The Washington Post is full of treasures today. The Style section is full of short essays that are nostalgic, wistful, funny--go here and scroll down to see what appeals.

The best piece in The Washington Post today is here, Michael Gerson's wonderful op-ed piece about Christmas as God's social justice holiday. I know that it's got a God theme, which may throw off the intellectuals, but he pulls it off. Here's how he concludes:

"'By normal human standards,' says theologian J.B. Phillips, 'this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire. It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history.'

Being astonishing, of course, does not make something true. The message of Christmas seems scandalously unlikely to us, just as it did to sophisticated Romans at the time. But if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself. If it is true, hope and memory do not end in a gash of Earth. God, let it be true."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shifting into Christmas

I've had an unusual Christmas season in many ways, but one of the main strangenesses was that I decided not to take the usual faculty holidays off. Like most Americans, I've been working right up until today, our first admin/staff holiday.

I sort of like being at school when fewer people are there: I've got SACS reports to write, faculty annual reviews to complete or get a head start on, meetings to plan, scheduling to consider (both for the term that starts in January and those throughout the year), so I welcome a time with fewer interruptions. This year, I also needed to change offices. My former office, which I occupied as Assistant Chair, was tiny, with barely room for one extra seat for visitors. So, I moved two doors down to the Chair's office, which was vacated when my former boss was promoted to Dean and moved across the street to the Main building.

Sure, I could have waited for big, burly men to move my office furniture, to rearrange the left-behind office furniture, to move my other possessions. But who knows how long I'd need to wait? So, I decided to do it myself. I've spent the last few days moving furniture, rearranging books, sorting through all sorts of stuff to distinguish between the trash and the treasure.

This morning I got to the grocery store early, but now I feel a bit at loose ends. Maybe I'll prepare some poetry packets to send out into the world. I'm still in that exhaustion that comes with the end of the term and that comes with moving one's possessions and that comes with the holiday season. Preparing poetry packets doesn't take the same kind of creative spark that other writing projects can. I just feel a bit sparkless this morning.

If you're like me, you like to be listening to interesting NPR stories as you work on your submissions. I heard two wonderful pieces on Morning Edition. Yesterday, Larry McMurtry talked about his career as a writer, and about seeing his work turned into film. I see him as one of the great writers of our generation, but he doesn't see himself that way. Go here to read or hear the piece.

On Tuesday, P. D. James talked about her own novels and the detective novel in general; go here to read or hear the piece. I remember reading her in graduate school and seeing a link between her work and the work of other great twentieth century British female writers. I listened to her and thought about how I planned to write on of the Comprehensive Exam questions, had I been called upon to do so. But as I listened, I couldn't remember what I had planned to write, only that it revolved around female detective novelists of the early twentieth century opening the door for later writers.

I've forgotten so much, and of course, I'll forget more before it's all over. The flip side, happily, is that I continue to learn.

If you're still casting about for the perfect Christmas present, go here to read Nicholas Kristof's piece about charities that do amazing things in the third world using very small amounts of money. Most of us already have far too much stuff and far too much debt. Why not help build schools for girls in Afghanistan or composting toilets in Haiti or pay for deworming pills? His piece has links to all these worthy organizations.

I wish for us all a beautiful Christmas time, a time for contemplation and candles, light shining in the darkness, peace descending upon the planet.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Jane Eyre and Werewolves? Wuthering Heights and Zombies?

Sandy has just read the Jane Austen mash up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. She was not amused, and she makes very good points here.

I've been pondering other possible entanglements. What monsters would I insert into other 19th century works? Heathcliff is already a bit of a zombie, in terms of feeling any human emotion beyond anger. What would I insert into Jane Eyre?

I wonder, would it be a fun endeavor? I would probably feel constrained by the original. I'd be much more inclined to be one of those writers to create a sequel, or an entirely different work out of the minor characters.

Or, I would be if I had time to tackle novel writing. These days, it's hard for me to carve out time to write a short story.

Or maybe it's that I realize that I can only do so much, and much as I would like to be a best selling novelist, my talents lie with poetry. If I try to write a novel (and then send it out to agents and then do a book tour, should I be lucky enough to have it accepted), while still trying to write poems (and send them out to journals) and create poetry manuscripts, would I dilute my efforts, and be successful nowhere?

I have decided to concentrate my efforts on my poetry. It's partly because poetry fits into the life I have now; it's partly because I feel like I'm a better poet than any other kind of writer. But I'll always wonder about the roads not taken.

Before I grew up, I used to write everything: journals, puppet shows, short stories, novels, poems, liturgical services of all sorts, imaginary news stories, newsletters (The Berkey Bulletin, which my so-nice relatives subscribed to). I miss that creative child/adolescent, who wrote things for the love of it (or to fill the boredom of the day), without worrying about the financial rewards and the success factor.

In some ways, my poet self is closest to my younger self. No one writes poems thinking that they'll be able to quit their day jobs, if their day job provides much money at all. I measure success in the ways that I gasp in delight at the quirky way my brain works; if other people enjoy my poems, that's just the icing on my poetry cake. I go through the day observing things I wouldn't notice if I wasn't a writer. How much more reward do I need?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nutcracker Dreams

I'm one of the last Americans without cable T.V. With digital T.V., we do get more channels, but most of them aren't ones I want to see (non-English language, non-familiar religions, and the like). Often the signal dissolves into unintelligible pixels. At least in the olden days, when the reception was snowy, the sound was often still good.

I channel surfed for a brief instant last night, just to ascertain nothing was on. But then I got to PBS, one of the best uses of my tax dollars I've ever seen; if I had to choose between public libraries and PBS, I'd choose public libraries, but most other tax-supported adventures would lose to PBS.

I digress.

Last night, my PBS station showed a version of The Nutcracker ballet performed by the San Francisco Ballet. It was riveting, which is saying something, since the music and the story are so familiar.

I first saw this ballet as a child in Montgomery, Alabama, and I'm sure it was done by some community group. Most years, my family trouped off to see the show. Even as an adult, I've occasionally found myself in the audience. But I never really felt close enough to see it, even with binoculars.

To be fair, I didn't realize I felt this way until I watched the television last night. I was transported by the detail in the costumes. The dancers mesmerized me, as they seemed to actually embody a snowflakiness or rattiness or . . . well, you can probably fill in these blanks. I wanted to leap around my own living room. For a brief instant, I thought, I'll take a class!

Well, it's probably a little late for me to return to this particular art form. I took ballet for a few years in elementary school, and then again in early adolescence. In those years of early adolescence, I wanted to be an actress on Broadway, and I thought that if I could dance, I might have increased chances.

Alas, I don't really have dancing talent. I'd probably have been better off augmenting my acting skills with voice lessons, but at the time, I was convinced I couldn't sing.

Those dancers made it all look so easy. That's their job, after all. If we're close enough to see the sweat, the effort, the tattiness of the costumes, some of the charm evaporates. Or at least, that's the case for this particular ballet.

Now it's back to my regular, non-ballet-fantasy life. Today I'll be moving offices, meeting a friend for lunch, going out for dinner with friends.

It may not revolve around ballet or Broadway, but my younger self might have fantasized about this life, had she not had stars in her eyes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Indie Music Artists and the Publishing World

On Saturday night, we went to see the award-winning duo Alathea. At one point, they reminded us that they had CDs for sale, including one that had yet to be recorded. The young singer-songwriter said, "Once, there used to be this thing called the recording industry, but it pretty much doesn't exist anymore."

In some ways, she reminded us, the demise of that industry is fortunate for recording artists: they control more of their own creative output, and they're not forever in debt to their label. However, along with this freedom comes enormous work: they've got to raise the money to pay for recording, and they've got to do the recording and the mixing (or hire someone), and they've got to do the promoting, and they've got to mail out the CDs.

Just before the concert, in fact, they were printing CD labels and getting the sales table ready. It sort of reminded me of a poetry reading.

So far, poets still have the fragments of a publishing industry, but I suspect that poets have a lot in common with independent recording artists: if you can generate a lot of money (if you're U2, say, in the music world, or Billy Collins, in the poetry world), there's still an industry that's interested in you. If you're not a huge moneymaker, you're on your own.

As we returned home, my husband asked, "How long do you think they'll be able to keep doing this?" It's a hard life they've chosen, after all. They're always on the road, playing and promoting their work. They make most of the arrangements, I suspect. It's a lifestyle for the young and childless. How long before they find themselves yearning for the comforts of a mortgage and PTA meetings?

Of course, once they've got all the logistics figured out, maybe the hard part is over. No, there's still all that travel, all those unfamiliar cities, all that distance.

How long can any of us keep this up? In some ways, it's an exciting time to be an artist. The Internet offers us many ways to promote our work, to collaborate, to create work we wouldn't have been able to create before. Of course, it also means that other people can do this too. There's a lot of competition for people's attention out there.

In my early years, I'd have hoped to write my way out of my job. These days, I'm just happy to have the creative life away from my job that writing gives me. I've seen too many people devote themselves to their jobs, only to have their jobs betray them. It's good to have activities to remind us that there's more to us than the work which provides our paycheck.

It will be interesting to see where we are in ten years. Will more of us be able to make a living from our creative work? Or will more of us see our creative work as something we do to get away from the work we do for pay? Or some interesting mixture I can't even conceive of yet?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

To Create a Creche-Like Calm as the Solstice Enfolds Us

I've always been vaguely aware that the creche scene offered wide possibilities as an art form, but it wasn't until I saw an exhibit at Mepkin Abbey that I really understood that the creche could be post-modern, surreal, or something more than the generally insipid creche scenes that I'd seen before. The Abbey has a slide show up at their website, and I highly recommend it, even if you're not a Christian, not into creche scenes, not a Christmas person . . .

This time of year consumes us all, to some extent, no matter how much we resist. It's the rare person who doesn't find their pace of life shifting into hectic mode in December. Many of us are also working longer hours, if we're lucky enough to have held onto our jobs, because work forces have been slashed, and those of us left behind often have to do several jobs.

I love something we can do at our computers to encourage us to take time out, to breathe, to reflect on what's important. Many of us have Internet access at work, and you can visit a website, and it will look like you're working (unlike, say, if you did some yoga positions or went into full meditation mode or baked Christmas cookies in the company kitchen).

I also love this slide show because it shows us that wide range of construction materials that creche makers can employ. There are creches made of clay, wood, and other traditional materials. There are also creches made of castaway cloth, tightly rolled up, and made into figures. There's a creche made of old-fashioned clothespins. Several are made with paper.

I've always felt fortunate to be a poet, because I've never been at a point where I couldn't afford pen and paper. These creche scenes show us that beautiful art can be made with all sorts of materials.

In December, I find my brain circling back to the Christmases of my childhood, which took place as much in church as at home. I think of Christmas pageants, which were living creche scenes, among other things. I think of how we decorated, with the simple creche that my parents bought years earlier in Scandinavia, and with other, more complicated creche scenes we picked up along the way.

I find myself wanting to create something whimsical, something more than words on paper. I often venture into fabric art as my alternate creative endeavor, but lately, I've been stitching baby blankets, something practical, something that I can do without thinking.

Maybe this week, as Christmas approaches, I'll haul out my art supplies, my beads and cloth, my box of buttons. Maybe I'll create a creche of my own.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Some People Get Snow Days--I Get a Flood Day

On Thursday night, I drove home through torrential rain--just another sign that the climate has gone off the rails. We usually don't get this kind of rain in winter; it's the kind of rain we usually associate with tropical systems.

Thursday was also graduation, and those of us who have been around long enough know that it usually rains on graduation day. But I've never seen anything like what I saw on Thursday, outside of tropical storms.

I drove through a lake of standing water in the parking garage. Amazed that my car didn't stall, I made my way home. When I got to my neighborhood, I was driving from memory: the rain was coming down in sheets, so I couldn't see houses, I couldn't see the lines on the road, I couldn't see much at all. If we didn't have a butterfly tree planted by our driveway, I don't know how I'd have known I was at my house.

After a few hours, it stopped raining, and overnight, the flood waters receded. I was able to get my friend down to Miami International Airport, so she could begin her multi-continent journey. But as we drove down, the skies opened up once again.

I drove home on Interstate 95. We drove about 30 miles per hour, and here and there, people slid into my lane. I was able to avoid them. Once again, my neighborhood roads flooded.

My dean has always said that if weather conditions make travel dangerous that we should use our discretion; he says this comment every year as we discuss our hurricane preparedness preparations, but I thought it fit yesterday too. Why drive very slowly to work to park in a flooded parking garage, to face the same kind of commute on the way home? I had the kind of day at work where I didn't have much scheduled, just finishing up some odds and ends. I called in flooded (it will count against my sick leave balance, but I don't care).

It was a lovely day. I don't have to worry about my house flooding, because it's on a high foundation, and we live in one of the high spots in South Florida (such as high spots go). Unlike during extreme weather events, like hurricanes, the electricity wasn't disrupted and we didn't have to worry about property damage.

I played Christmas CDs all day, something I haven't done, except in the car. I read all my old issues of Poets and Writers that I hadn't gotten around to reading yet. I have such a pile of back issues of magazines awaiting my attention! I took a nap to the sound of quiet Christmas music and noisy rain. I wrote a poem from a line that occurred to me as I was driving slowly home: Miami wears a burka of rain.

My day ran out before I could bake cookies or read a book or do countless other things that have been neglected. Still, it was lovely to have a spot of downtime in a very crowded season.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday Lights--Economic Indicators or Global Warming Indicators?

This morning, as I went out for my pre-dawn run, I noticed how many houses kept their holiday lights lit through the night. In the past, I've seen a house or two stay lit through the night, but this year, it seems as if every household that has outdoor lights is keeping them lit. Not so with those inflatable things, however--pre-dawn yards are littered with the deflated corpses of these monstrosities/delights.

I thought of all the economists who use unusual indicators to predict the near-future economy. For example, when people start buying underwear again, economic perkiness is right around the corner. But what about holiday lights?

I'm not seeing as many extravagant light displays as I once did, but instead, simple strings of lights that ring the house and bushes--why not leave them on all night? They can't use up much more wattage than the porch lights, can they?

So, our holiday lights may not be a sign of impending economic health. I have an alternate theory: it's South Florida's response to global warming.

We've had yet another month of record-breaking heat. As I drive home at night, I think, who is putting up all these holiday lights in August? And then I remember that it's December, even though our daytime highs are close to 90 degrees.

Maybe we've put up more lights than usual this year to remind ourselves that the holidays are upon us--we have no environmental indicators to help us with that task. Maybe we can afford a cheery string of lights. Maybe I have lots of new neighbors who are more dedicated to festive decorating than the ones who have vanished.

I'm playing with a poem idea that juxtaposes heat rash and Advent, but so far, it's just gross, instead of interesting.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

Today is Jane Austen's birthday. I'm conflicted about Jane Austen. I want to like her books, but I often do not. I may be the only English major ever to not like Pride and Prejudice--and no, you may not take my Ph.D. away; I earned it, and I'm going to keep it.

The only Jane Austen novel that I love wholeheartedly is Northanger Abbey. If that book didn't exist, I'd think that all Austen scholars were a bit touched. But Northanger Abbey proves to me that Austen is a woman of wit and intellect, and with humor thrown into the mix.

Here's a Jane Austen quote for the day: "Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance."

When I first read that quote, I read choice instead of chance: Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of choice.

Those two quotes (one by Austen, one by Berkey-Abbott) show to me the vast difference in being a 19th century woman anywhere and being a 21st century woman in a first world nation.

If I had the kind of life I wish I had (one of lots of time and leisure and friends with lots of free time), I'd throw a Jane Austen tea today. We'd have a pot of strong tea softened with cream and sugar, scones, clotted cream, lemon curd, and some cucumber sandwiches. And because I'd be a woman of leisure, I'd have made a beautiful coconut cake (that's why I'd have leftover lemon curd, because I'd be using the recipe out of Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts), and because it's close to Christmas, we'd have ambrosia, and I wouldn't care about repeating the flavors of lemon and coconut.

Come to my virtual tea! We'll eat and chat and read our favorite passages from Austen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A New Year's Resolution for Only the First 32 Days

In her most recent post, Leslie refers us to this wonderful piece from The Washington Post. Ann Patchett talks about two conversations she had at the end of last year that shaped this year. She talks about a conversation she had with the bassist Edgar Meyer, who had begun to track how much time he actually spent on working (as opposed to all the things we do to avoid working, like answering e-mails or dusting the house or going to the grocery store). He realized that he actually accomplished more when he focused on work--and by work, he's talking about creative work.

The second conversation she had was with a yoga teacher: "The second important conversation I had that winter was with my friend Bethany, who teaches yoga. She told me that her teacher, a great and wise yogi, believed that whatever a person did with thoughtful consistency for the first 32 days of the year set the course for the entire year."

I'm intrigued by the idea of 32 days (why not 30 or 31?). It seems more manageable than a resolution for an entire year. Patchett says, "As a Catholic, this struck me as a warm-up for Lent, and I am a great fan of Lent. I am a genius at giving things up. Since the conversation with Edgar was still kicking around in my head, I decided that I would work on my then un-started novel, or at least make a concerted effort to work on it, for at least one hour every day for the first 32 days of 2009."

And she's made a lot of progress this past year. She credits that progress to the attention that she devoted to the first 32 days.

I'm glad to have discovered this idea while there is still time to plot for success, should I plan to do this too. These past 2 weeks have been astonishingly hectic due to many reasons: my promotion, the end-of-the-year reports that must be written, the fact that I was travelling a lot during November. And of course, the end of the term and the Christmas season, which always surprises me with its commitments.

The first 32 days of 2010--a new decade too! How do we want to shape the year and the decade? Let's devote the first 32 days to that vision!

Monday, December 14, 2009

If You're in South Florida on Saturday, Why Not Come to a Concert?

Sure, it's a bad time of year for a concert--everyone is overextended with holiday parties and end of year financial duties and upcoming visits, and we're all busy, busy, busy. All the more reason why we need to come to a concert and have some time to decompress.

The award-winning, folk music duo Alathea will be in Pembroke Pines on Saturday, December 19--we're lucky to be a stop on their Christmas concert tour. They'll appear at Trinity Lutheran Church, 7150 Pines Blvd., just across the street from the South campus of Broward College. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. Bought in advance, tickets cost $12 for adults and $5 for children ($15 and $7.50 at the door); call the church to buy the tickets in advance (954-989-1903). You can stay afterwards to enjoy dessert and the chance to meet the duo and buy CDs--great for your last minute shopping.

Don't let the fact that they're appearing in a church throw you; this show won't be an insipid, thinly disguised preaching/evangelizing event. These women play a multitude of instruments: guitar (of course), banjo, mandolin, dobro, dulcimer, violin, and about 10 or so others. And sure, it's a Christmas tour, so there will be some Christmas music, but even if you're from a different religious tradition (or no tradition at all), there will be some music for you. If you like folk music, if you like bluegrass, if you like holiday music, you'll like this band. You don't need to be Lutheran--everyone is invited.

So why not carve some time out of your busy schedule and come to a concert? You'll support two, young independent musicians, but more important, you'll have a chance to remind yourself why we first loved this season, before it became consumed by commercialism.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Saving the Classical Arts

Last night we went to see the Broward Symphony Orchestra. It's a curious construction: retired members of other orchestras (probably famous in a different life) and students and the occasional midlife musician.

I don't see much live orchestral music these days. As we sat and waited for the music to start, I thought of my grad school days when I worked for the newly opened Koger Center in Columbia, South Carolina. I remember getting paid minimum wage--which, much to my shock, hadn't changed, since I got my first job at Wendy's--and getting to watch the show. We had to deal with the occasional rude patron who arrived late and got worked up into a state because he/she couldn't be seated once the show started. But the benefits outweighed the disadvantages, and the main advantage was that I got to see all sorts of shows that would have been outside the budget of a grad student.

Last night's program had travel as a theme: "Composers on Vacation." As with many orchestral programs, I wasn't familiar with most of the music beforehand. However, the show opened with Gershwin's An American in Paris. What a thrill to actually know the music!

My first thought was how different it sounded to hear it live. But in a way, it's like the difference between hearing a CD and an old fashioned vinyl record. The live orchestra, like the vinyl, sounded softer, richer, rounder, more buttery. The CDs of the piece sound so brittle and one-dimensional by comparison.

I loved hearing all the instruments and watching the musicians. In some ways, it took me back to the music appreciation experiences I remember from childhood, where the record would play a sound and the picture book would show the instrument.

The experience also took me back to an experience from some years ago when we heard an orchestra in Charleston, South Carolina. The Chamber of Commerce (I think it was the Chamber--it may have been some other promotional institution) had a program where you could be a tourist in your own town for January. It was a slow tourist month, so those of us who lived there got special deals on entrance fees to plantations and gardens. One year, we got to hear one of the area's orchestras. We went to a Sunday matinee, which was designed for families. Before each piece, the conductor turned around and explained a bit about the piece we were about to hear and told us what to listen for. It was one of the best orchestra experiences I've ever had.

Sure, I should have picked up a lot of that in college. But I didn't. And if I, daughter of a classically trained musician and possessor of a liberal arts education, if I didn't get that education, why do we assume that other adults did?

If you want to save the classical arts, start by explaining them to people who need guideposts to appreciate them.

I count poetry as one of those classical arts. We start off loving poetry--if you don't believe me, check out the children's section of your bookstore. We poets need to help adults remember that they loved poetry once, and they can love poetry again. We poets need to be like that conductor in Charleston: "Here's what you're about to experience. Listen for this and enjoy that."

Friday, December 11, 2009

With Roofers not Reindeer on Your Roof, You Need a Reading Escape

Yesterday at sunrise, I heard the tromping of boots on my roof. "Santa!" I thought. Alas, no, it was the roofers. I shouldn't say alas. I'm lucky to have roofers who actually show up--we've all heard horror stories.

Still, it's the time of year when we all need an escape. May I recommend books? Maybe you want a book that's smart, witty, and hard to put down (don't we all want that?). Nick Hornby's latest book, Juliet, Naked is just that book. We just discussed it in my book club, and it's one of those rare books that we all liked.

It's the story of an obsessed fan and what the Internet has done to art and for art. It's the story of a reclusive, retired (mostly) rock star and the women (and children) in his life. It's the story of what happens when the rock star and the girlfriend of the obsessed fan meet. It's simply wonderful.

I've liked all of Hornby's books, and this one is one of his finest. My book club all agreed on the strength of Hornby's skill when it comes to character development. I found the plot compelling too--I could see any number of ways the story was going, and I couldn't decide what would actually happen. The ending was satisfying.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"One things about great art: it made you love people more, forgive them their petty transgressions. It worked in the way that religion was supposed to, if you thought about it." p. 46

"She'd probably had three or four epiphanies in her entire life, and she'd been either drunk or busy every time. What good was an epiphany then? You really needed one on a mountaintop a couple of hours beofre you were going to make a life-changing decision, but she couldn't recall ever having had these experiences singly, let alone in tandem." p. 223

"Most humans don't get to do work than's going to last. They sell shower curtain rings . . . . So it's not about what you do. It can't be, can it? It has to be about how you are, how you love, how you treat yourself and those around you, and that's where I get eaten up." p. 234

How do we live lives in sync with our values? How do we create great art that's going to last? How do we balance our obligation to our art with our obligations to the ones we love?

Yes, Hornby covers the great themes and gives us a readable, compelling story too. What a treat for your holiday season.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Nourishment Business

Last night I participated in Flapjacks and Finals. During Finals Week, my school holds this event to serve pancakes, fruit, juice, coffee, and other assorted nourishment to students who are studying. As often as I can, I like to be part of the event.

Sometimes, when I have a spare moment to reflect, I think about how much I like to serve food to students (and to homeless people and to my loved ones . . .). What does this fact say about me and my profession?

Teaching is a kind of service, but I don't teach as much as I used to. If I was still a full-time teacher, I'd be blogging about the kind of nourishment teachers give and get. But now that I'm more of a full-time administrator . . .

I'm still in the nourishment business, but more on the support side (so to continue this metaphor, I'm not cooking the food, but I'm driving the truck that delivers the raw ingredients). I schedule the classes and do everything I can to make sure that faculty have what they need to do a good job. I meet with students who are having trouble or who need some information. I can register students, but I tend not to because I'm too busy keeping an eye on numbers so that our classes don't get too overpacked.

I also think of my own undergraduate experience. I went to Newberry College, a small, liberal arts school. We had a dining hall that opened 3 times a day, unlike the modern approach, which gives students a meal card and a smorgasbord of options that are available 24 hours a day. But during Finals Week, the dining hall opened at 10:00 p.m. I can't remember what they served us. Probably some hearty carbs.

As I served the hearty carbs last night, I smiled and asked how many pancakes each student wanted. I tried to be festive and happy-spirited, even though I know that most of the students are feeling stressed, tired, and many of them are suffering even deeper problems than final exams. I silently blessed them as they held out their styrofoam plates for pancakes.

I thought back to the food service people at my college, especially the one woman who always served breakfast. She was younger and always greeted us in a friendly way, calling us "Sweetie" or "Hon." And she made it sound genuine. Who knows, maybe she really felt some fondness for us. I went to school in the brutal economic climate of the 80's, and just before I started college, the second-to-last factory in Newberry, South Carolina closed, and most of the county was out of work. In fact, the school was one of the primary places hiring while I was there.

I want to think that we, as students, were polite and friendly to the staff at my school, but some of us probably weren't. Last night, some of the students came back to the table to thank me for the pancakes, but many of them mumbled what they wanted and didn't look me in the eye. Some of them were downright sullen or angry: "You mean I can only have two? Just two?" I told them that they could come back after they finished the first two, but some of them refused to be mollified. I continued to smile, and I silently offered them an extra benediction as they shuffled away.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Milton

Today is John Milton's birthday. As a good feminist, I should hate him. He wasn't kind to his wife and daughters.

Of course, he wasn't kind to anyone, was he? Am I required to hate all literature produced by jerks? That would exclude a lot of literature.

Still, it's interesting to me how through the ages, male writers get to be self-centered jerks, and female writers still have to get the laundry done. Of course, I'm biased--but I announced that fact in the second sentence.

I can't imagine treating the people I love the way some famous writers have. How do those people sleep at night? I know, I know, they're jerks, and jerks don't care. Sigh.

But back to Milton. It's interesting that in his day, his political writings were more famous, but today, of course, we remember him primarily for Paradise Lost. Even people who don't know that they know Milton do know Milton. Ask people what kind of fruit Eve ate--they'll say it was an apple. Now go back and read Genesis. It was an unnamed fruit. Milton was the one who named it.

I'm an English major, so I love Paradise Lost. I love the idea of Satan as the epic hero. I love that Milton made Adam such a puny character. There are lines in Paradise Lost that take my breath away (but my old Norton anthology is at work, so I can't cite them now).

The only Milton I've memorized is this line from "Lycidas": "The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed." I found that line as the epigraph of a book, The Sheep Look Up, recommended to me by my favorite history professor. It's stayed with me, even though I can't remember much about the book except it was an apocalyptic dystopian kind of thing, perfect for my mood in 1986--little did I know how much the world was about to change. I assumed that the wall would forever separate East from West, that Nelson Mandela would die in jail, that we'd all die in a nuclear blast.

So, happy birthday Milton. Maybe today, in the midst of work hecticness, I'll take a Milton break. I'll ponder the idea that it's better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. I'll think about the attractive leaders that we follow to the brink of destruction. I'll think about Milton's commitment to free speech and to divorce and where that passion has led. Maybe I'll write a poem that encompasses these themes. Or maybe, just for today, I'll say, "Well, Milton already did that, so let me read a chunk of Paradise Lost and raise my forbidden apple in tribute."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Poem for Your Decorating Pleasure

We are close to having our house decorated for Christmas. For about a week, we had a tree with lights, but no time to hang ornaments on it. Finally, one afternoon, we did a fast job of ornament hanging. I've put some Christmasy things on the mantel, but we won't hang stockings--they're for show, anyway, since Santa doesn't visit our house with stocking size presents.

What will Santa bring me? A new roof!

The old roof probably had some years of use left, but with South Florida insurance regulations being what they are, and tightening by the day, we decided it was best to replace the roof while we have the money and legitimate roofers are available.

Still, I'm not in a real Christmasy mood--we're having a hot spell--or should I say, we've yet to have our first real cold front.

Maybe it's good that I'm not in a Christmasy mood--I tend to eat dozens of cookies at a time when I'm feeling Christmasy.

The poem I'm posting below is for everyone who is similarly irreverent about the season. In our own nativity scene hangs a purple plastic monkey from one of those games where you try to create a chain of monkeys--Pick-Up-Monkeys or some such thing.

And for those of you who are up for it, there's some interesting theology embedded in the poem. Think about all the castaways that followed Jesus and then read the poem again.

Of course, if you're not in a theological or Christmasy mood, you can see if I captured a sense of whimsy.

Happy Decorating!

Nativity Scene

Through the years, the stable attracted
the odds and ends of our childhood toys:
a plastic soldier, his rifle chewed and mangled,
migrated from the war zone;
a horse, which once helped herd
plastic animals, now riderless and alone;
a Magic 8 ball with murky
water, the answers to our questions, obscured;
a nutcracker dressed in festive finery, but missing
its lower jaw, its mission in life undone;
lonely Barbie, hair shorn from too many experiments,
now loveless and forlorn;
a matchbox car, once prized, now missing
a wheel and limping along;
a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle doll with other refugees
from popular shows of past years;
a gingerbread boy gamepiece, knowing he belongs elsewhere,
neglecting his duties in Candyland, so compelling
is the baby in the manger.

from my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard

Monday, December 7, 2009

Days of Infamy

Today I become Interim Chair of my department. The school is required to post job openings (as opposed to just appointing people), so once the permanent position for Chair is advertised, I'll apply.

In an odd fit of circumstance and coincidence, today is also the anniversary of my very first day of working for corporate America. Yes, back on this day in 1982, I started my job as salad bar girl at Wendy's. It was the first time I had done work other than babysitting and yard mowing.

I was desperate to get a job in high school. I was convinced that if I didn't have a job in high school, I'd never be hired anywhere--yes, go ahead and laugh, but I really thought I'd get real world job skills with a high school job.

Then, as now, we were in a bone-crunching recession. I was lucky to get that Wendy's job. I had applied at almost every other fast food place, including where my friends worked, and even a personal connection didn't even help.

I could walk to work, which was convenient. I remember wondering about the symbolism of starting that job on Pearl Harbor Day, but I was enthusiastic.

Through the next 9 months, I would become less enthusiastic about that job. I came home reeking of grease, and my legs ached, because we weren't allowed to sit down if we were on the clock.

My supervisors would be surprised to hear of my job success, if they even remembered who I was. I tried to climb up the ladder from salad bar girl and dining room attendant--back in those days, you didn't have to bring your tray to the trash can. I didn't really like that position, but I was miserably incompetent in any other. I wasn't a fast sandwich maker, and I couldn't remember the proper order that Corporate had declared we put the condiments on the bun and the burger. I couldn't be promoted to cash register operator without being a sandwich maker--there were strict corporate rules.

Hopefully, today's promotion will not be seen as a day of infamy by my supervisors. Happily, as Assistant Chair, I have experience in all of skills that the job requires. I'm not asked to do activities which make no sense to me (and I still don't understand the sandwich order--why do we care whether the mustard goes on first or the ketchup?).

I did learn a lot in that first job. I learned that I don't want to work in fast food--indeed, it was years before I could even eat fast food again. I learned that I'm lucky in that I've had opportunities to help me avoid a life of fast food servitude. I'll never forget the people that I met at Wendy's, people who dreamed of the day they'd be made supervisor so that maybe they could get the dental care they needed. I learned that the minimum wage really won't take you far. And I know that fast food work isn't as grim an existence as ones offered by other jobs.

I like being in academia, because I still have faith in the American story: get your education and you'll have a shot at a better life. As my friend Sue says, the degree is your ticket on the bus. There's no telling how far the bus will go, but you'll go further with a bus ticket than you will without one. And I like the job I have now, because I can still do what's important to me: make every attempt to make life better for students and for faculty.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Happy Birthday, Christina Rossetti

Today is the birthday of Christina Rossetti, born in 1830. I remember first discovering her in graduate school, when we read "Goblin Market," and I felt all my assumptions about Victorian literature and nineteenth-century poetry explode. I thought, why didn't we read this in my undergraduate classes? I had a similar experience when I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.

When I look at the books we used in my undergraduate Victorian Lit classes, long ago in the mid 80's, the presence of women was sparse. In terms of female poets, we got the love sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a few of the tamer poems of Christina Rossetti.

I find it amazing the "Goblin Market" was first seen as a tale for children--all that that licking and sucking! Of course, if I look at literature we've traditionally read to children--the pre-Disneyfied versions--they are fairly shocking in their violence and sex. Earlier generations didn't have the same view of protecting children from the evils of life as we do.

I had actually known about Rossetti for years, although I didn't know I did. The Christmas song "In the Bleak Mid-winter" has her poem as its lyrics.

Christina Rossetti was a satellite member of one of the literary groups I love, one of the ones I'd be willing to risk time travel to meet: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Well, maybe I wouldn't actually want to meet them, as women didn't fare particularly well in that group. Or perhaps, as I'm remembering the literary biographies, the trick would be not to get emotionally/sexually involved with any of them.

Christina Rossetti fascinates me because she worked with prostitutes and other fallen women, and because she became more spiritually focused as she grew older. I see her struggling with the questions which haunt me: How do I best serve, with the gifts and talents I've been given? How much time should I devote to my art, my quest for social justice, my spiritual development? How do I attain balance?

So today, in the midst of your holiday preparation, listen to "In the Bleak Mid-Winter." Or read "Goblin Market," which with its themes of sin, sisterly love, and redemption, can fit nicely into holiday themes. Lift a Christmas cookie or a champagne flute in a toast to Christina Rossetti, a surprisingly modern Victorian poet who paved the way for many of us, even if we might not know it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Worst Decade Ever?

Jeannine wrote a post about the possibility of this decade being the worst ever (she was prompted by this post, which was prompted by this Time article). I hadn't thought of the past chunk of years as a decade until a few weeks ago, which is odd, because as I read Mary Biddinger's recent post , I remembered that I used to spend lots of time analyzing decades as they came to an end.

Worst decade ever? For me personally? As always, it was a mix for me. There were the great national tragedies, some of which affected me more deeply than others. Hurricane Katrina wrecked my area before moving on to New Orleans. If there had been no Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Wilma in the same year would have been the big news story.

Those national weather stories came in the same year as my mother-in-law's long, lingering, horrifying death-by-hospital.

Yes, if I never have a year like 2005 again, I'll be happy.

But even in the midst of that hardship year, there were happy times, like returning to France with my parents, and taking a driving tour of our early years together. I was born on an Air Force Base in France, and it was a treasure beyond price to drive through that landscape with my parents, all of us significantly older. To hear them tell those stories of their (and my) early days was such a treat.

This decade has been one of great turmoil, with the various mass slaughters, the wars, the economic implosions. Yet for me, personally, I've been lucky to avoid having anyone I love killed in any kind of conflict. While we've had economic ups and downs, my family finances have been enough to cover the bills and save a smidge.

I spent part of this decade as an adjunct, which made me convinced that I'd like to never do that again as my full-time job. But if I had never adjuncted, I'd have missed out on being a professor in the English department at Florida Atlantic University, where I taught 19th century British literature to English majors. They were perhaps even more excited about the literature than I was. I'm used to being the only one in the room who cares about literature and wants to talk about it. But in those FAU classrooms, we had rollicking conversations, and often stayed a bit after class to continue the discussions. It was a rewarding experience, and I miss it deeply.

I took a job at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale when I was desperately tired of adjuncting and in need of financial stability. It, too, has turned out to have benefits I wouldn't have imagined when I took that job. I got to create and teach a variety of creative writing courses, which I enjoyed almost as much as the experience at FAU. And I've had the opportunity to move into administration.

I've had publishing success, like the publication of my chapbook by Pudding House Publications. I've had publishing disappointments, too, but they pale in comparison with the satisfaction of my chapbook.

My surviving family has had health scares (my dad, in particular, has endured some cancer battles that made me shudder) and trials, but most of us are still here, and my sister's son has been more of a delight than I could have anticipated.

I know that I'm very lucky. I'm keenly aware of all the people who have suffered deeply, and their experiences remind me to be grateful for my own good fortune--and to try to alleviate the suffering of others too. I'm lucky to be able to give time and money in my continuing quest for social justice. In this Advent time, I look to the time when all will have enough, and there will be no reason for news stories that analyze the past decade as the worst ever.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Of Naptime and Narrative

A week ago, I was the designated storyteller at naptime. I decided to tell stories that I thought would be so dull that they'd lull the toddlers to sleep.

I'd been thinking about this because my nephew told a story when he was here back in September: "There once was an old woman who lived in a firehouse. She had a ladder truck, and a long hose, and a pumper truck [continue to insert as many firehouse objects as possible]. And she had an ax. The end."

That was it. No conflict. I've always taught that if you have no conflict, you have no plot--no plot, no story. When my beloved Lit professor in undergraduate school made that claim, I, in my late adolescence wisdom, declared, "Yes you can too have a plot with no conflict." My wise teacher challenged me to find one story, just one story, with no conflict. I haven't been successful, but I've been on the lookout.

When it was my turn to be the designated storyteller last week, I started with my nephew's story. When it was finished, he said, "Tell me another." I gave him another plotless, conflictless story. It did not bore him to sleep. On the contrary, he demanded more. In fact, he'd have continued to demand more, if his mom (my sister) hadn't said, "One more story, and that's it. You've had four stories, and it's naptime."

Now I know that he wasn't really interested in my stories. He just wanted to postpone naptime. Yet, he was fascinated enough to demand more details. Hmmm.

I've spent a lot of my adult life thinking about narrative and what makes a successful narrative. What keeps people reading/listening? What absorbs people? Every so often, about the time I think I have it all figured out, something happens that makes me ponder. In the 90's, it was the rise of the memoir, most of which didn't describe lives that were that out of the ordinary, but people gulped them up anyway. Now, with my experience telling stories to children, I wonder if plot/conflict/cliff-hanging events are really all that important.

For my nephew right now, it's setting. Anything set in a firehouse will thrill him--or a construction site with heavy earth-moving vehicles. In a way, he's not so different from other readers I know. Give me a post-apocalyptic landscape, and I'm in, at least for 50 pages. My friend will read anything set in Tuscany. The South of France, sailboats, the Gothic South--maybe I haven't given setting enough of its due as I've taught fiction (how to read it, how to write it).

I'll be interested to watch my nephew develop and to see how his taste for narrative changes. I'll be interested to ponder the implications for all our story telling.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Alternate Life Kristin

I spent part of Thanksgiving week in Arden, North Carolina, which is near Asheville. On Friday, as the lines snaked around Best Buy and other big box stores (yes, even in Arden), I noticed a line had also formed outside the Frugal Backpacker, a store where you can pick up all sorts of older models of equipment and clothes and boots. I thought, we're not in South Florida anymore.

I thought of Alternate Life Kristin, who was probably in that line, looking for a good deal on a kayak.

I had alternate lives on the brain, because the night before I was dreaming that I had a reunion with a high school friend. We talked about the life I had had in my college years and my 20's. Of course, it wasn't the life I had really had (grad school), but the life teenage me had planned, a life in the theatre. In my dream, I had such clear memories of experiences, experiences that had never happened in real life. I woke up confused about what was my real life and what was my dream life.

And now it's back to my real life, where there are so many aspects of my former lives that I've shucked away. I was a backpacker once. We thought nothing of throwing some supplies in our packs and heading to the mountains for the week-end. I was a theatre person once. I designed sets and lighting and did acting and ran the sound board. Again, we didn't think in terms of obstacles. We simply did the things we wanted to do to live the lives we wanted to live.

Now that my month of November travel is over, it's time to turn my attention back to my writing, one of the aspects of my life that I've never shucked, but often felt guilty for not paying as much attention as I feel I should. It's time to write some new poems, to send out some poems to journals, and to submit a manuscript or two. And to decorate the house and bake some cookies!

It's not useful to think about the roads not taken, all the alternate lives I'm not living. Or at least, it's not useful to sink into a swamp of moroseness. I might use meditations on Alternate Life Kristin to make sure I'm on the trajectory I meant to take. Right now, my favorite alternate life involves opening a box that contains my first book with a spine--and that's an alternate life that could actually exist eventually.