Saturday, July 30, 2011

Some Weeks We Weave a Tapestry, Other Weeks We Unweave

Last night we watched parts of the PBS special on the Freedom Riders, which I first wrote about here.  It's the kind of show that makes me say, "I have done nothing with my life."  Later, I tried to console myself:  "Well, at least I haven't been a Bull Connor."

My hyper-critical self, whom I call my inner 19 year old, is especially judgmental.  She does not think about all the students, thousands of them, whom I've helped through my teaching.  She does not care about faculty members who live better lives because I'm the head of a department.  She dismisses my charitable giving of money and time and possessions.

My inner 19 year old says, "What exactly have you done to bring racial justice to the world?"

And even if I could offer something, she'd say, "I'm still noticing a lot of world hunger.  What are you doing about that?"

I'm more susceptible to this kind of despair during a work week like the past one.  I've had to redo the Fall schedule, a schedule that I turned in months ago.  And I had 48 hours to do that.  I wanted to stomp my feet and say, "You mean you've had this schedule for months, and you're only just now thinking about these changes?"  I wanted to weep at the thought of the part-timers who would bear the burden of the schedule reductions required.

Unlike our leaders in Washington, I did not throw a hissy fit.  I did not stomp away and refuse to get the work done.  I have accepted that to be an administrator is to embrace the Penelope aspect of existence:  some days we weave a tapestry, and some days we unweave the work we've done.

I'm trying to remember the good work of the week.  I'm trying to remember the gifts.  For example, we've been weeding out the bookcases of old textbooks, which are not worth money and libraries don't want them.  What to do with them? 

I put them in boxes and put them in a lobby with a sign that told people to help themselves to free books.  And in three days, most of them were gone.  In fact, the only remains in the box were videotapes, which I can throw away without feeling bad.

I had many gifts of literacy this week.  My campus book club met yesterday, and some part of me feels sad as I hear book club members enthusiastically talking about what they're reading--in the past few weeks, I've barely managed to read at all.  But more, I feel happy about this book club, where we make time for each other and bring each other treats and enjoy a good chat about books.

I've tried to focus on the good aspects of my job, of the good that I can do in my position.  I've tried to convince myself that making faculty lives easier (and protecting full-time jobs) enough.  My inner 19 year old is not convinced. 

I think back to when I was really 19.  I remember being disgusted with my parents' suburban church.  I went into downtown DC on a regular basis to do all sorts of social justice work.  I longed to belong to a church like Luther Place, right in the heart of downtown D.C., a church which transformed itself into a shelter for homeless women each and every night.  They had a strip of row houses, which they could have sold.  Instead they transformed them into a medical clinic, a thrift store, and low-cost housing.

At a workshop for church people who worked with illegal immigrants, I marched up to the pastor of Luther Place and announced my intentions to join his church.  He said, "Where do you worship now?"

With shame, I told him the name of my parents' suburban church.

He said, "You know, we wouldn't be able to run any of the programs that we run without the financial help that they give us." And then, in that precise moment, my perspective shifted. I started to move away from being a self-righteous, know-it-all 19 year old towards being someone who sees life as more complex.

My inner 19 year old will never go away completely, and I don't want her to disappear.  She keeps me honest.  She tries to help me make sure that the life I'm living is in synch with my values.

During weeks like the past one, she's got a lot to reconcile.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cartwheel Friday

Two years ago I went to my first Spin class.  I joined the Wellness Center at a hospital near my job; it had a manageable gym, plus a lot of classes.  I wanted more yoga in my life.  I wanted Tai Chi.  It was a fairly cheap rate. 

When I signed up, I got two weeks of free spin class--a $7/class value!  I didn't really think I could do it; I had heard horror stories about people throwing up, that kind of thing.  But I wanted to try, mainly because I knew how much the classes would cost me out of pocket.

Little did I know I would fall in love with Spin class.  I loved that someone else chose the music, and I was lucky because it was music I liked (later I would  have Spin teachers that chose horrible techno dance music, so I know how lucky I was and still am).  I loved having someone else decide when we would push hard and when we would back off.  I loved the variety.  I liked all the people I was meeting.  I had wonderful, supportive, encouraging instructors.

I felt like a kid again, tearing through the neighborhood on my bike.  I felt like I was reconnecting with essential parts of myself.

Yesterday I talked to my first Spin instructor, who was in the gym doing some training for beach volleyball, one of her passions.  It was strange to see her in a different setting when I'm so used to seeing her on a spin bike in the front of the room.

My spin instructor was standing on one leg while moving the volleyball around her waist.  I congratulated her on her agility and balance.  My spin instructor told me about her friend who has resolved to do a cartwheel every week.

It sounds like such a simple thing:  do a cartwheel every week.

The woman has loved gymnastics since she was a child, and she doesn't want to lose that.  My spin instructor and I talked about how long it had been since we had done a cartwheel and how hard it would be to do one now.

To be honest, I have never been good at cartwheels.  I remember in the 8th grade, when in P.E. class we had to create a gymnastics routine.  I was that tall girl, the one uncomfortable in her slightly bulky, always changing body.  And I had to create a gymnastics routine?

When I started thinking about it, I practiced all the things I couldn't do.  Then I realized that a smarter thing to do would be to devise a routine around what I could do:  somersaults and round offs and such.

It reminds me of my approach to Ph.D. Comprehensive Exams.  I spent the summer of 1991 trying to get my head around T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," the gaping hole in my graduate education in twentieth century British Lit.  By the end of the summer, my strategy was to write my exams without ever mentioning the poem in much detail.

In both cases, my strategy of focusing on what I could do and avoiding what I couldn't master worked.

But back to cartwheels and the friend of my Spin instructor.  My Spin instructor and I both loved the idea of doing something on a weekly basis that takes us back to what we loved in childhood.  We also loved the idea of a simple activity that keeps us flexible and strong.

Will that friend of my Spin instructor still be able to do a cartwheel when she's 80?  One thing is for sure:  if she doesn't keep doing cartwheels now, she will certainly not be able to do cartwheels when she's 80.

Think back to childhood:  what brought you joy?  Are you doing that now?  If not, why not?  Can you reclaim that joy?

Cartwheel Friday--reclaim the joy!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

When You're Feeling Like a Detroit Auto Worker circa 1978

I'm a worker in the higher education industrial complex.  In 1992, I finished my Ph.D. and during my grad school years, I started teaching college level English.  Until a few years ago when I began moving into administration, I taught section after section after section of a variety of English, Literature, and Creative Writing classes.  I thought I had found a job that couldn't be offshored.  I bragged that the world would always need English teachers.

Now I'm feeling like a Detroit auto worker in the late 1970's.  I'm feeling like a newspaper writer in the early 2000s.  I'm watching my industry shift under my feet, and I'm not sure where it will all end up.  I no longer brag--I'm not that confident.

I have colleagues who believe that the U.S. system of higher education could never go the way of newspapers.  But until recently, we wouldn't have believed that newspapers would go the way of newspapers.

Let's play with this metaphor.  Obviously the Harvards and the Yales of the educational world are the newspapers that will survive, The New York Times and The Washington Post.  Is the for-profit educational sector the local paper?  How about liberal arts colleges?  State Universities?  These institutions fill a need, just like a wide variety of newspapers once filled a need.

But will they still fill a need as the demographics change?  We're nearing the end of the echo boom heading to college.  Who comes after them?  We're in an age of worsening economics and tightening credit, which means more and more students can't afford to go to college.  Which schools will survive?

Maybe we'll all reinvent ourselves and emerge from all these challenges in stronger shape.  Or maybe it's time to make alternate plans.

I have friends in their late 50's who are working with me in the higher education industrial complex.  They'll likely make it to retirement before major changes hit them.  I'm 46, and I'm not sure I'll be that lucky.

At the end of my summer trip, I dreamed that I was packing up my office because I was about to go on tour with my band.  I don't think that my subconscious was recommending that particular career switch--the music world isn't exactly unscathed these days either.

I do think that my subconscious was reminding me that although I may think that my options are ever narrowing, they really aren't.  I may need to imagine something new for myself and to reinvent myself, but as long as I can keep doing that, I'll be OK.

I hope my subconscious is correct.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

When You're Stymied and/or When You're Planning Your Composition Classes

I know from reading blogs that lots of folks are starting to think about heading back to their classes.  My school is on a very different quarter system, set up so that we always end Fall quarter before Christmas, so we're in week 3 of our Summer quarter.  Still, I remember the end of July, August around the corner, the realization that soon Fall Semester would come crashing on our heads.  I always taught through the summer, but summer sessions always had such a different feel.

I was always on the lookout for good ideas for Composition classes, so on that note, I'll offer some.  These will also be useful for writers of Creative Non-Fiction and/or Memoir.  If you're feeling stymied by summer's heat, maybe these prompts will help.

One of my most successful innovations in the Composition classroom was to spend time talking about the ways that students thought life was different when their parents or grandparents were young.  I did this with a class of traditional 18 year olds, just a few weeks before Thanksgiving.  I had them write about how they thought life was different, and then I had them create a list of interview questions about life in the olden days. 

Their assignment when they were home for Thanksgiving was to interview a relative or someone at least 20 years older than they were.  They had to ask interview questions of their own and some that were on the list that others wanted to know.  You had a wide range of choices, from food to jobs to sexual practices.

They came back bubbling over with what they'd found.  In most cases, the conversations were very valuable.  Students had recorded all sorts of family memories.  And they discussed them with each other.  They were amazed at how different life was from what they thought it had been like, from what TV and movies told them it had been like.

They wrote the best comparison/contrast essays about what they'd learned that I had ever seen.  They wrote the best essays of the quarter.  They honed their interview skills.  They learned how to talk to family members.

Here are some other ideas (you can be you, the writer, or you, the student):

--Imagine a future researcher is writing an article about you. What will be the most remarkable incidents in your life? Write about one of them that’s already happened. Then write about it from a different angle.  For example, I have a friend whose father died and then less than a year later her mother died a rather gruesome death from cancer, and all by the time she was 27 or so. When she can bear to do it, that framework will make a remarkable story. Plus, she could approach it in so many ways for so many audiences: heartwarming story from a daughter’s view, dark humor, medical horror story, an article that tells what families should be doing now to get ready for these times.  For those of us teaching Composition or other types of writing classes, this exercise might be a good one in imagining different audiences and different approaches to the same story.

--Research a particular item or a color or a symbol. For example, choose an animal and find out everything you can about it, including how it’s functioned in mythology, and how humans have used it, and how we see it now. Can you turn your research into an essay of some sort? Maybe just a collage of what you’ve discovered.

--Interview someone. Some day, your older family members will be dead. What will you wish you had asked them? Can you conduct an interview in writing? Is there anyone else you can interview about them?

Another fun possibility: in this day and age, it can be fairly easy to find people (writers, artists, musicians, politicians, etc.) who have inspired you. Reach out to them. See if they’ll do an interview with you.

Don’t neglect the charm of interviewing the normal people whom you meet on a daily basis. Ask a key question every day. What’s a key question? Well, what interests you most? I’d ask people about their view of God, or what they most hope will have happened in 50 years or when they were seven years old, what they most wanted to be when they grew up. You, of course, have a different set of interests.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

All Our Red Ryder Air Rifles

Today is one of those strange juxtaposition of birthdays:  George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and Stanley Kubrick.  If I cared about my literary reputation (I shall now pause for a moment so that you can recover from your fit of laughter), I would write about one of those great presences.   Think about those men and how in certain lights, you could argue that they defined the 20th century.

Of course, the danger with that kind of post is that I might sound pretentious.

Or you might say, "It's summer.  Can't we just focus on something fun?  I'm tired of plays that analyze our social situations as humans, I'm tired of trying to integrate my inner archetypes so that I can be healthy, I'm tried of dystopian futures, I'm exhausted by innovative storytelling and filmmaking."

Very well.  Let's celebrate the work of Jean Shepherd, also born today.  You think you don't know his work, but you probably do.

You're probably most familiar with him because of the film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated.  It was based on some of his earlier work, both short stories and radio programs.  I'm probably one of the few Americans who had read him before I saw that movie, and while I don't remember much in terms of specifics from his writing, I do remember it being as delightful as the movie.

Sure, it's July, but we could watch the movie again.  Maybe we'd enjoy it more in the middle of summer, when it's not broadcast at every hour of the day and night, the way it is during the month of December.  We could appreciate how much it captures human yearning (but in a different way than Shaw would have depicted it).  We could appreciate the way it captures a time period in history that feels so long gone.  For those of us tired of dystopia, we have a beautiful picture of something different--and yet, the movie doesn't let us rest in nostalgia for too long.  It forces us to remember that even as childhood is a simpler time, it's still fraught with perils, like bullying and parental obsessions and yearning for what we're afraid we'll never have.

What are the Official Red Ryder 200-shot Range Model Air Rifles of your past?  What perfectly captures your childhood?  If you made a movie of a different time period, what would you include as period pieces?

My spouse loves the radios in A Christmas Story.  I'm fascinated by the kitchen.  I'm amazed that full dinners could come out of those appliances and that space.  Some of those pots and pans remind me of the ones that used to be in my grandma's kitchen.

Oh, those old kitchens!  They remind us of the joy of a well-seasoned skillet.

Now I am missing my grandmother's pork chops served with gravy over white rice made even more delicious with salt.  I'm missing the sliced sweet potatoes that she cooked into a soft, caramelized side dish.  I'm missing the corn and lima beans that she so often served.  I'm missing all the desserts that she made that I don't expect to taste again, but mainly her pies, with their crusts made flaky by lard or Crisco.  My nutritionist would not approve.

So, yes, let us celebrate those authors like Jean Shepherd, who capture elements of life that are just as universal as the writers who appeal to snootier sorts.  Let us strive to capture something universal in our work.  Let us have enough time to capture our memories before they're gone forever.

And may we all have the happiness of yearning rewarded, the yearned for object not disappointing, the happiness that comes to Ralphie at the end of A Christmas Story.

Monday, July 25, 2011

What to Do if You're Seriously Stymied Creatively: Part 1

Earlier this summer, I wrote to the daughter of a friend who was feeling stymied in her writing.  She wrote to me to ask for advice.  It seems that we might all benefit from a meditation of what to do when stymied.  After all, we're deep into summer, a traditional time to be stymied (dog days, anyone).

Today, general advice, which is likely applicable across creative work.  Later, advice specific to writers.

I think that most people who are feeling stymied are feeling stymied for only a few possible reasons and getting to the heart of those reasons is key.

Are you stymied because you’re creatively tired? I often feel stunted after I’ve been writing at a furious pace. Sometimes I need to take a break and refill my well. Ways that I do that refilling: I travel, I spend time with friends, I read deeply, I do other art forms I enjoy (paint, collage, fiber arts of all sorts, cooking).

I’m also often stymied because I’m physically tired. If that’s the case, sleep more or at the very least, relax.

Are you stymied because of some fear? Feel the fear and do it anyway—as many a self-help book would tell you. How to do that? Give yourself permission to do it badly. Turn that into a fun project: for example, write the most wretchedly horrible poem/story/essay that you can. Or tell yourself that you only have to work a certain amount of time each day or each week. Keep it tiny—20 minutes and then you can stop. You don’t have to stop. But you’ll have done what is required. Are you afraid because you’ve had some success in a certain genre and you feel the weight of expectation? Maybe you won an award for your poem? Write something different.

Are you stymied because you need inspiration or instruction or ideas? Read on!


--keep a journal. If you’re feeling like nothing ever happens, or you’re feeling like too much happens, note just one thing, just one sentence, just one striking thing you noticed each day.

--Observe the same place every day. Take a photograph of the view out your window. Or once a day, look out the window and write down the first thing you see. My friend does a variation of this exercise by walking to a park each day and sitting on the same park bench.

--Change your reading habits. Choose a genre you wouldn’t ordinarily: if you always read novels, choose a volume of poetry; if you always read fiction, wander over to the non-fiction side. Choose a topic that interests you and get a book-length treatment of it. See what inspires you.

--here’s a great site that gives a prompt every day, along with instructions for each kind of writing you might do (poetry, fiction, memoir, etc). Often a guest writer does the prompt, so you’ve got a wide variety. Make a vow that you’ll go to this site once a month or once a week or once a day and quickly write something. Set your timer and force yourself to start after 20 minutes. You can afford 20 minutes.

Later this week:  more ideas specifically for writers.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rails, Tracks, and Creative Work

I promise not to turn this blog into a diet and exercise blog—if I’m ever tempted to do that, I’ll start a new blog. And maybe a recipe blog separate from that! And maybe some day, I might integrate all my selves into one single blog, and let the chips fall where they may. Very Golden Notebook of me (a Doris Lessing reference to a book I could never slog all the way through).

However, in the spirit of honesty, I feel the need to write a follow up to yesterday’s post, which made it sound like my summer of reclaiming lean and fit and healthy Kristin was going smoothly with no bumps. And I promise to tie it all into creative practices.

For a month, everything was going swimmingly. I counted calories, exercised daily (often several times a day), and pounds came off my frame. Then, last week-end, I just went off the rails. I had my crafting group over on Saturday, and I used that as an excuse for all kinds of yummy eating: cheeses and high fat crackers and wine and samosas and pasta salad and lemon pound cake—oh my. Sunday was difficult too, because I wanted to eat all the leftovers.

On Monday, my weight was up, and I tried not to panic. I got back on track. I commiserated with my spouse, who said, “I’ve been counting calories for one week, and I gained three pounds!” I went back to what works in terms of nutrition and exercise, and for a few days, I ignored what the scale said, as it fluctuated wildly. I did what I know works.

Of course, I had to ignore all sorts of inner voices. There was the one that said, “What fun it was to eat with abandon. Let’s do that again!” There was the one that said, “Oh, what is the point. Why not just regain all the weight and be done with it. That’s what always happens eventually.” There was the voice that said, “I can’t believe how stupid I am. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

I tried to pay attention to the kind voice in my head, the one that loves me. She says things like, “Have some carrots. You’ll feel better if you turn away from high fat cheeses.” “You’re going to sleep soon. Save that wine for tomorrow when you have a meal that the wine will accentuate.” “I know these extra exercises seem impossible, but just give them a try.” Instead of seeing how far I have to go, she’s the voice that congratulates me for what I’ve accomplished.

At the risk of sounding mentally unbalanced, I see a similar dynamic with my creative work. I have the voice of the inner critic, who tells me how stupid I am and how off track I’ve gotten. That voice focuses on all that I have not accomplished. That voice mocks my earlier dreams of a published novel, of a book of poems with a spine, of all the things I can’t quite pull together.

My kind voice focuses on what I have done, how amazing it all is. My kind voice tells me I haven’t done the other things yet. My kind voice reminds me that there is still plenty of time.

As with spiritual periods of doubt and dryness, the trick is to just keep going. Ignore the mean voices that tell you it’s all pointless and do the daily and weekly practices that have worked. Write your daily pages. Take pictures that might inspire later poems. Read the work that inspires you. Keep a gratitude journal. Send out your work to publishers and let someone else decide its worth, even if you’re convinced that everything you create is cruddy. You may not be the best judge of your work, especially during a dark period.

If your dark period persists, perhaps it’s time to try something else. If the novel seems to have died on the vine, put it away for a month or two (but do not destroy it!), and write some poems. Let your creative self try something completely new: take a break from writing and do some quilting or cooking or metalworking or painting or carpentry.

Honoring what brings us joy and making time for it—that’s key. If blogging delights you, but your inner critic says it doesn’t count, ignore that voice. If writing poems makes you happy, keep doing that, even if your chance of being poet laureate seems slim right now. If you’d like to spend a month researching London for a novel you might never write—why not? If your short story mushrooms into a novel, lose yourself in that new world you’re creating.

As long as you’re honoring your creative self, I think you’ll be OK. And you might discover new joy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Returning to Once Abandoned Ancient Practices

I haven't counted calories since I was about 16 years old, back when I knew the calorie count of every food.  I was convinced that life would be better if I was thinner, but I was also interested in food for other reasons too, healthier reasons.  I was a long distance runner, so I knew how the body used calories, how it needed calories.  I aspired to be a vegetarian, so I had done a lot of research, since my mom said I could be a vegetarian as long as I made sure to get enough protein.

Let me pause here to sing the praises of my parents, who did their best to encourage me to be healthy.  I'm in awe of my mom, who encouraged my vegetarianism way back in the early 80's, when vegetarians were kooks and weirdos.  I'm in awe of my parents who encouraged me to cook and ate what I cooked, even when it wasn't as delicious as it could have been.  I'm thinking of one hideous dish out of Recipes for a Small Planet, which featured black beans and yogurt.  But most of my cooking led to tasty meals.  I baked bread and ran 6 miles several days a week and why I thought I was fat I can't imagine.

I'm a North American woman, so of course I thought I was fat.  I remember a high school friend boasting at lunch that she toasted the bread before she made her sandwich because that got rid of 2 calories.  At least we all had the good sense to laugh about that.  But we didn't have the good sense to reject the messages that our society beamed at us constantly, messages that told us we weren't good enough.

So, I counted calories.  And then along the way, I stopped counting calories, and started paying attention to fat grams.  Then it was fiber.  And along the way, periodically, I've been disgusted with all of it and stopped being so rigorous with myself.

And I gain weight.

So, this summer I decided that it was time to lose some weight and get a bit more fit and healthy again.  When my teaching job shifted to an administrator job, I've burned off less and less calories.  I've spent more and more time sitting.  I've eaten more, and as I could afford better wine, I've been drinking liquids that are more calorie dense.  Time for a change!

When my Wellness Center/gym introduced a Weight Loss Challenge package with a special enticement for those of us who are members, I decided that it was too good to refuse.  So, I signed up.  I met with a nutritionist who heard my goals and created a plan.  I met with her 5 weeks later for fine tuning.  I've been working out with trainers.  I've had a weekly weigh in.  I've counted calories to make sure I stay on track.

I've been amazed at how many calories I'd been consuming.  For example, I used to drink several huge mugs of coffee each day.  Each mug had half a cup of skim milk, 3 Tablespoons of sugar, and 1 Tablespoon of cocoa.  Before I even started eating each day, I drank 300 or more calories.  Yikes.

As I've kept track of calories and met goals, I've marvelled at how well this ancient-feeling practice works.  Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you'll lose weight!  Amazing.  I knew that fact, but somewhere along the way, I forgot.

It makes me wonder about other time-honored practices that work, but might have fallen out of favor (for a spiritual spin on this question, see this post on my theology blog).  I've wondered what the implications might be for our creative lives.  What practices have we abandoned?  Did they have some value after all?  Should we experiment with them again?

Perhaps long ago, you read The Artist's Way, and you tried daily pages and writer's dates.  Maybe you kept a paper calendar with goals.  Perhaps you were part of a writer's group which kept you accountable.  Maybe you wrote rough drafts on paper.  Perhaps you spent a lot of money on office supplies.

Maybe if we look to our younger years, we'll remember a time when writing brought us more happiness.  I miss those days when I didn't worry about publication, but I was writing for the sheer joy of it.  I loved to read, so of course I wanted to see if I could make books too.

I think back to my adolescent self, that girl who knew she was different from her classmates, but who carved her own way.  I logged long distances as a runner and cooked the foods I wanted to eat.  Back in the days when you couldn't get artisanal breads in the hinterlands, I made my own.  I planted a garden.

This summer, I've been recovering some of that, resurrecting that girl who sometimes goes underground for awhile.  It makes me wonder what creative practices have gone underground.

I used to write novels in my spare time, and I've rarely had gobs of free time, so my current work life is no excuse.  I used to experiment with cooking a wider variety of cuisines.  I used to write plays, and in my childhood, we performed them.  I used to do more with fiber and fabric.  Once upon a time, I used up paint at quite a pace.

I've kept much of my writing practices that have served me, although they may have morphed into new forms (journaling becomes blogging).  But other creative practices have fed me--maybe it's time to return to them too.

Maybe I'll bake some bread this week-end.  Maybe I'll pull out my paint box and coax pigment back to life.  Maybe I'll be satisfied with my goal of writing one poem a week, and lately, that poem writing has been happening on Saturdays.

I'm not sure what I'll do, but I know I'll do something!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shuttle Sunrise

I got to the beach a bit early today for my run.  I thought there was a chance that I might see the shuttle go whooshing by on its way to land further up the coast.

Don't laugh.  There was a decent chance.  From a perch on Hollywood Beach, I've seen the shuttle launch.  Granted, it was a distant, vertical slash of ascending light--nothing like seeing it launch from a closer perch.  But it was thrilling nonetheless.

When I got to the beach, the radio was saying that the shuttle was at southern South America.  I kept my eyes to the heavens.  I kept my ears open.  I knew that it would be around 5:45 when the shuttle was in my neighborhood.

At 5:43, I saw light flickering in the clouds to the south.  The shuttle or lightning from a storm at sea?  At 5:46, I heard a rumbling like I've never heard before.  I tried to tell myself that it was probably a truck rumbling by.  But it felt like it came from higher up than the road.  It felt like the clouds were parting as something big vibrated by.  It felt cosmic.

Of course, I'm impressionable.  I'm the kind of woman who will take the downshifting of a truck crossing the Intracoastal and endow it with all sorts of symbolism and larger meaning. 

Even if it wasn't the shuttle, I still got to see the sun rise over the Atlantic, a sight that always seems miraculous to me.  I love the hour before sunrise, as the sky transitions from night to morning which makes the sea shift colors, sliding from dark black to purples and pinks.  Great show, God!

I spent my morning slog of a jog thinking of shuttles and sunrises and the Alaskan salmon that I had for lunch yesterday.  What a miraculous thing, to be able to eat salmon that comes from a continent away.  My carbon footprint was huge yesterday.  I should have gone ahead and drunk the Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, just to complete the picture.  Some day, our descendants will shake their heads.

Or maybe they'll laugh at older generations who had to wait days for a coho salmon, when they can just pick one off the shuttle as it makes its transcontinental stops several times a day.

On the way home, I heard an NPR piece where commentators read from the newly published letters of Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.  And as I heard Georgia O'Keefe trying to balance her desert southwest euphoria with her concern for Stieglitz, I thought about how our human situations don't change.  I heard O'Keefe wrestling with the same issues that bedevil so many of us:  how to be the best artist, while also being present for loved ones.  By the time she was writing, she was fairly famous, so she didn't have the money worries that can complicate life, relationships, and creative work so much.

I take a strange comfort from knowing that one of the best painters of the 20th century had the same struggles with living a balanced life, a life in alignment with her values, as I do.  I feel a strange comfort in knowing that the same humans who wrestle with love and commitment can hurl a shuttle into space.

If someone asked me why I have such faith in humanity, would I point to the space program or would I talk about the amazing accomplishment of artists?  If someone asked me about how I can believe in God, which wonders of creation would I discuss first?  How unlikely it all is, that we living clumps of carbon and ash can do such things.  How remarkable it is, that our creation (and Creator, if your beliefs take you that way) gives us such gifts so freely, day after day, if we just look up from our lives to see.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Living in Our Bodies and Other Summer Joys

I have been thinking about summer, both in general and in specifics, for a week or two.  I've been listening to tapes (cassette tapes in the last tape deck in a car I will likely ever have--insert nostalgic sigh here) that remind me of past summer concerts.  I've been swimming in a friend's pool.  I've been making variations of ice creams--well, sorbets, actually, out of mushed fruit that didn't quite juice properly.  I've been more physically active, which is more likely to happen in the summer than in the winter for me.

I read this great poem by Hannah Stephenson about Vacation Bible School, which brought back all sorts of summer memories.  I hadn't really thought about VBS very much until a few years ago when I helped out.

How VBS has changed!  Many churches now do it at night, whereas in the 1970's, when I actually attended VBS as a child, it was a morning event.

I was amazed at how much the children really enjoyed the VBS experience.  To my adult mind, it was too much like school.  Children went to class, which was punctuated by snack time, an arts and crafts class, and music rehearsal.  Surprisingly, even children who hated regular school seemed to love VBS.

It's made me think about my own adult life.  How common is it for us to like something which in a different context we would have hated?  How many of us go to a gym, maybe even take a class or two, when as young people, we hated P.E.?

I ask this because lately I've been going back and forth to the gym a lot.  I say it's a gym, but it's different than you're probably thinking when you hear that word.  The hospital near where I work has a Wellness Center that began as a small gym to help cardiac rehab patients.  Now, it's a larger gym, with classes of all kinds, along with all sorts of weight machines and devices.  But it has a different feel than a lot of commercial gyms since it still helps a lot of cardiac patients and all the hospital workers who have decided to turn their lives around.  So I don't feel so out of place with the physical body that I have.  Let us just say that I do not have a perfectly sculpted body, like so many people that you see in commercial gyms.

Last week, I was listening to A Chorus Line and thinking about my life in a physical body.  I love the first track, where everyone is rehearsing a dance sequence.  I love that the dancers can pick up the sequence with just a few terse commands.  I wish I could live in my body that way, hurling myself across a dance floor.

I tend to think of myself in medieval terms, thinking of my physical self one way, a way that's different from what I would tell you is my real self.   My real self sees the physical body as a thing that is in a state of wear and tear and breakdown.  My real self sees herself as constantly betrayed by her physical self.
Of course, my physical self would protest.  She would point out all the stresses and abuses that my real self subjects her to.  My physical self would point out all the times that she's fought back from weight gain and riotous living.

I've been going to the gym more frequently because I've been trying to get more fit and lean this summer.  I've been amused with myself because I once scoffed at gym rats--and yet, I'm liking the community.  I once would have told you that I didn't need a gym as long as I had my running shoes.  I would have pointed out that Chariots of Fire plays regularly in my CD player.

Now, I'm seeing that I can have both my running shoes and a gym.  I'm making more of an effort to go to yoga class, along with a vigorous circuit training class that both intimidates me and inspires me--and of course, I'm still going to spin class.  I probably won't ever be able to fully integrate my various selves, so that my physical self, my intellectual self, my real self (whoever she is!), my spiritual self, my artist self--so that they all speak with the same voice.  But maybe I can work on the three areas that sports medicine tells us that we need to focus upon:  strength, cardio, and flexibility. 

And in the process, maybe I can recapture some of that feeling that I associate with being an elementary school child in the summer time:  more unstructured time, as the day lingers and the adults relax, more sun-tinged skin (don't tell my dermatologist!), more treats (some of which are good for me:  watermelon!), once-a-year vacations, summer camp and VBS and summer concerts and all sorts of good things.

Now, if I could only have some evening fireflies, my summer of recapturing summer joys of past times would be closer to complete!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Elegy for Borders Bookstore (and an early peek at "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl")

When I first heard about the first wave of Borders Bookstores closings, I told myself that all would be well.  The company was just consolidating.  It had taken a successful model and tried to get too big.  I wrote about my hopes for the store and memories of it here.

Well, it appears Borders will be closing the remaining bookstores that were left open and closing for good.  No one wanted to buy the business.  So, the remaining books and other goods will be liquidated.

I feel sad, as I always do when any institution closes.  But I feel like I would be hypocritical to declare that the closing of Borders means the end of civilization.  How long has it been since I even went into a Borders or a Barnes and Noble?  A long time. 

I'm like the rest of the nation:  I buy books from Amazon or straight from the publisher.  I buy most things online, except for the things that would go bad in the relentless sun if they were delivered when no one was home--like wine or medicines or ice cream.  I don't have a lot of free time, and I don't want to waste the time that I have going to a mall.

I wasn't always like this.  I was a typical teenager, in that I met my friends at the mall.  We were untypical in that we spent a lot of time in the mall's bookstores (remember B. Dalton?  remember Waldenbooks?).  I would save up all my allowance and money I earned babysitting or doing chores, and my greatest delight was to take a chunk of money and buy as many books as I wanted.

That delight is still one of my favorites.  I hit that same spot by going to the library and leaving with armloads of books.  And that treat is free!  Well, I pay for it with my taxes, and I don't mind one bit.

I like ordering online too because I get mail.  Old-fashioned mail, delivered to my mailbox.

Yesterday, I got Sandra Beasley's Don't Kill the Birthday Girl in my Amazon box.  Now I love Beasley as a poet, in addition to her prose, but I first knew of her because she wrote for The Washington Post.  In fact, I'm almost sure that one (or more?) of the essays that she wrote for The Washington Post magazine went on to spark this book.  I remember reading about her tales of living life with various and extreme allergies and thinking, wow, at least I don't have to think so carefully about what I eat.  Sure what I eat might make me fat, but it's not likely to kill me.

I planned to read it all along--I've been to several readings where she mentioned it and read from it, and it sounded fabulous.  When Sandra posted to her blog that Amazon pre-orders counted towards the first week book sales, those statistics that can be so important in the life of a writer, I placed my order.  I've been in awe of Sandra's decision to forsake her regular job to pursue the writing life, and I'm happy to help.  Hopefully there will be enough of us so that Sandra's publisher will support her next book.

If she continues down the memoir route, I'd love to read more about her life as a writer without that safety net of a regular job with health insurance.  What else might she write?  When I think about the blogs I read (see the sidebar, if you want specifics), I find myself wishing that those bloggers would write books to inspire creative writers; I look at those bloggers and see the next Julia Cameron, the ones who could write The Artist's Way for the next generation.

I plan to read Don't Kill the Birthday Girl and to write a more detailed review in the coming weeks.  But at first glance, it looks like just the kind of book I hoped it would be:  interesting details of a life well-lived along with some science details to make my brain feel like maybe it isn't shrivelling up, and a glimpse of a life that's very different from mine, yet not so different that I can't relate.  It looks like a good mix of memoir and analysis of our culture (including popular culture), and it looks fast-paced enough to keep my attention.

Perhaps Sandra will be our next Natalie Angier or Laurie Garrett, someone who can make science accessible for those of us who haven't had a science class in decades.  She's done that for the world of allergies in this book.

Yes, I can hardly wait to dive into this book.  It's such a pleasing book, both in terms of content and in terms of it as a physical artifact.  What a cool cover.  It's the perfect size to carry with me.  And can I just say that the print on the paper is easy on my middle-aged eyes.  I've started noticing how many books aren't easy to read:  the print is too small or the paper throws off a strange glare or the book is hard to hold.  These details are probably what will throw me into the arms of an electronic reader.

Perhaps we can look to those details when we look for reasons why readers everywhere seem to have given up on going to bookstores that exist as a geographical location.

RIP Borders--thanks for all you've done for my writing and reading life. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

"The Imperfectionists" Seems Close to Perfect to Me

I spent the last week reading Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, one of the books on my list of books to read in 2011.  What a treat!

I chose it because it's a book of linked short stories, which is a form which fascinates me.  Each short story could stand on its own, but taken together, it gives us an amazing portrait of a workplace and a chunk of history.

Each story is told from the perspective of someone who's working on an English language newspaper that's based in Italy.  In between each story, we get an even shorter bit that shows us the birth of the paper and its lifespan from the point of view of the patriarch who founded it and his family.  The whole book works as an interlocking creation that begs me to reread it.

Each story gives us a pitch-perfect presentation of a character, and most of the stories have an interesting twist near the end.  As we move through the book, we've met the characters tangentially in other stories, so each story takes on additional nuance.

It works as a novel, too, for those of you who refuse to read short stories.  And for those of us with less time, I suspect it would work if you just read a story or two--but it's much more powerful when read as a whole.

And for those of us who wonder how we can tackle the linked short story form, here's a way in.  Choose a workplace and give each person who works there a short story of his or her own.

Of course, the trick will be to make each character distinctive.  And Rachman pulls that off in ways that make me both envious (why can't I do that???!!!) and appreciative.

So, if Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad made you want to read more linked short stories that work together as a novel, pick up The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.  It's not your traditional fluffy summer read, but by now, you may be yearning for something with more structure and oomph.  If so, Tom Rachman should be on your list.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Are We Paddling in the Shallows or Can We Still Dive Deep?

I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains—what a great book!

I read it for the reasons you might suspect. I’ve noticed that a lot of my reading has gone online, and I’ve also noticed that I don’t seem to have the patience for long books that I once did. Is that lack of patience because I have no paper to write, no threat of an F on my permanent record? Or have I really lost some focus?

I’m still not sure. But I know a lot more about how our brains work, how we store information, the ways we’ve used new technologies—lots of science in this book.

Carr believes that the Internet takes humans on a very different path than we’ve traveled before. Carr notes, “The Net differs from most of the mass media it replaces in an obvious and very important way: it’s bidirectional” (p. 85). So, unlike a television, where we observe passively, most of us interact with the Net, in some way. Even if we think we only read the newspaper online, most stories these days are full of hyperlinks, which encourage us to interact.

I realized as I was reading Carr’s book that I tend to read an Internet article all the way through, and then I go back and clink on the interesting-sounding hyperlinks. But I suspect I’m reading in an increasingly unusual way.

As an artist, I was intrigued by the way the Internet has shaped us. Carr talks about the way many of us are experiencing performances differently, now that we can take our Internet connected devices to the theatre with us. We can record, we can tweet a review, we can communicate to each other.

As a writer, I’m always interested in the future of books. Carr talks about the writing process, about how once upon a time, a book was finished: it was printed, bound, and rarely revised. He says, “In the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinitely” (p. 107).

What does this mean? Carr speculates: “It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed” (107).

And then, again, we return to the bidirectional nature of writing in an Internet context. It’s easy for you to download my creative piece and to interact with it, no matter how protected it is. In some contexts, this ability could lead to wonderful artistic works. In other contexts, the ability scares me. Carr doesn’t delve into this subject as much as I would like.

The Shallows returns again and again to warning us that we’re not as capable of multitasking as we think. Every time we have multiple windows open, every time we click on a hyperlink, we’re reducing our capability for attention.

Carr doesn’t do much in terms of making recommendations, but it’s not hard for me to make some. We all know that it’s important to unplug—in all senses of that word. Our ancestors knew the importance of a time out—they may have called it Sabbath or the week-end or vacation. We need to reclaim time without electronics.

Turn off your GPS and drive. Leave your cell phone behind. Declare that for certain hours of the day, you will not be online. Don’t click on the hyperlinks until you’ve finished reading a story. When you’re in real time with real people, turn off the electronics and really be present for each other.

And in terms of writing, write what you want to write, with the assumption that you'll have some kind of audience.  In this week-end of Harry Potter mania, I think of the time when Rowling was writing that first book.  Naysayers would have told her that children didn't read anymore, that adults had ceased reading, that the publishing industry was about to collapse.  What if she had listened?

I say this because I have an idea for a novel or maybe a series of novels.  When I was young, my favorite plot was not the apocalyptic plot you might have expected me to like--no, it was later that I liked to see the world smashed up.  No, when I was a kid, I loved the plot that had a young girl, a pre-teen, discovering an interesting old book of spells and potions and charms.  This week, I've had a vision of that plot drafted onto a grown up plot.  What if we had a woman in her 40s, mid-career, mid-life, who discovers an old, black book in the attic?  She could experiment, and satirical chaos could ensue!

And what if I wrote a series?  The book could travel--next stop, nursing home, where aging baby boomers create chaos!

So, can we still dive deep or are we resigned to the shallows?  I'm betting that we can swim wherever we'd like!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Big Issues of an Age

Today is the birthday of Tony Kushner.  I remember long ago, in 1994, my friend who dreamed of writing plays told me about Angels in America, which she had just read.  It happened to be available from the Quality Paperback Book Club, so I ordered it.

I consumed it in one sitting.  It has haunted me ever since.

I watched both Angels in America and Perestroika when they came to the Kennedy Center during the mid-90's.  Wow.  Sometimes I forget the power of live theatre.  The HBO version came out in the early years of this century, and it, too was powerful, but when I'm watching something on a screen, I assume that part of the power comes from high-tech sorcery.  With live theatre, I give all the credit to the humans on the stage.

I have spent the years since wondering about the idea of writing that tackles the big issues of an age.  I've thought of August Wilson writing a play that represents the life of African-Americans during the twentieth century, one play for each decade.  And he pulled it off!

Some days, I think I dream too small.

Yesterday was one of those strange days when I had apocalypse-tinged conversations with several groups of people.  I didn't start them--the conversations just went that way.  Many of my colleagues at work have the debt ceiling on the brain.  Many of them are no longer convinced that it will all be worked out.  We work in higher education, and student loans keep us all (for-profit, private and state-sponsored colleges and universities alike).  Where is the nation's economy taking us all?

Yesterday, the common consensus was that we're hanging on the edge of a scary cliff, and we might go tumbling over.

It's oddly comforting to think about Angels in America, a play written about another dark time in American history.  I remember the early days of the AIDS crisis, when we weren't quite sure of the cause and how to prevent it and even as we discovered more about it, the thought that haunted us was that maybe there were additional transmission routes that we hadn't found yet.  The disease seemed more ravaging in those days, as people went from healthy to corpse in six months or less.  And then, as now, the government seemed helpless--or worse--in the face of the devastation.

And yet, here we are, into a generation or two saved by protease inhibitors.  There's recent talk of a pill that prevents transmission.  Darkness can be split apart by light.

I have hopes that ten or twenty years from now, we'll look back and say, "We were at a turning point, but we didn't see it then.  The world was about to emerge into a better place, but boy did it look bleak then."

And what writers/works will we see as the documenters of that dark time?  As a writer, is it better to document the dark time or to dream of the brighter future?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Homesick for Gardens and Different Agricultural Zones

I've had gardening on the brain this week.  I wish I could say it was because I was enjoying the bounties of my garden, but sadly, that is not so.  South Florida has a completely different growing cycle, so if I had a garden, I'd be writing the garden bounty posts in February and March.

I think I have gardening on the brain because of the part of the lectionary we're in, which means the Gospel readings lately have been using agricultural metaphors:  lots of seeds and different types of soils and weeds and harvests and lack of harvest.  I've spent this past week wondering how effective these metaphors can be if most of us don't actually garden anymore.  Not too long ago, most of us were not far removed from our agrarian roots.  When I was a child and a teenager, I could still visit the family farms on both sides of the family.  I went to grad school in Columbia, South Carolina, and I went to the State Farmer's Market to buy cheap produce, the same State Farmer's Market where my grandfather had brought the family's produce to sell when he was a teenager.  But now, I suspect most of us have never seen food coming out of the earth, and I wrote this post exploring if metaphors can still work once we lose our close connection with part of the comparison.

I read this post on Marly's blog which made me instantly homesick for places that don't exist anymore.  She says, "When you live far from the region where you were raised, you miss certain things. Sometimes it's food: okra, lady peas, black eyes, crowders, the kind of fragrant peaches and other fruits that don't transport well. Sometimes it's the sounds of accents, sweeter voices or even strange mountain voices that have a lot of hush puppie in them. Sometimes it's a certain kind of courtesy, a flower leftover from another age, faded but still able to make life more beautiful. Sometimes it's plain old (but not plain) flowers: stands of man-high cardinal flowers, crepe myrtles, orchids and ladies hatpins in ditches, redbud, and dogwood."

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

It's not just the vegetables I miss.  The flower I most miss is the hydrangea.  I've tried to grow them in my South Florida yard, but it's just the wrong climate. 

I saw this post and had to leave a comment:  were those white hydrangeas?  The only hydrangeas I'd ever seen were in rich shades of purple and pink.  How would you get bleached out hydrangeas like those in the gorgeous picture?

Apparently, had I grown up in New England instead of the Deep South, I'd think of hydrangeas as white.  Who knew?

Even though we've lived down here for--gasp--13 years, I still don't think of myself as a transplant.  I feel my roots slide in the sandy soil.  But I also know that I'm often yearning not so much for a place or a climate, but for a time that's gone.  I could move back to South Carolina, and I could see my grandmother more frequently, but the grandmother I remember is long gone.  I could move to a place where I'd have a better chance at having a garden, but I'd still likely not have enough time (or desire, if I'm being honest)to work in the dirt.

Of course, realizing that fact still doesn't solve my occasional bouts of what I'll call homesickness.  As with most emotional states, I just try to sit with the difficult emotion, to let it wash through me without subsuming me.  I try to remember to be grateful that I've had the good experiences that I have had, experiences which leave me with yearnings I can't fulfill.

And then I turn to my writing notebook.

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

Setting Free the Fireflies

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

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Fondness for First Ladies

Today is Gerald Ford's birthday.  It's also the day that Betty Ford will be buried.

I've always had a fondness for first ladies.  As a child, I loved the exhibit at the Museum of American History of all the first ladies' dresses and other objects.  It wasn't until much later that I started to question why this exhibit was the only one to feature women prominently in the whole Smithsonian system, or so it seemed to me.

Ah, the 1970s!  I want to believe that we'd see more balanced representations of women and their accomplishments if we spent our summer vacation going from museum to museum--it would be more balanced than when I was a child, to be sure, but I suspect we'd conclude it's still a far ways from an equal representation.

When I was young, those were still the days when the surest way for a woman to be influential was to be married to an influential man.  And to my childhood brain, who could be more influential than the President of the Free World?

I was a kid--what did I know?  A generation of feminists was fighting to give women the opportunity to be influential while unattached to a man, and I shall be forever grateful.  I could make the argument that Betty Ford helped in that fight, with her outspoken support for feminism, the ERA, and women in general.

The world has changed in many significant ways since the 1970's, when Betty Ford was so influential.  It's hard to remember a time when no one spoke openly about cancer.  Betty Ford blazed an important trail when she talked so freely about her breast cancer.  By doing so, she has likely saved tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?  thousands upon thousands upon thousands?) of lives by stressing early detection and intervention.  What an amazing thing she did.

Now I don't know many lives untouched by cancer--was that always the case, but people just didn't talk about it, so we didn't know? 

When I think about the changes that Betty Ford helped bring about, I sometimes wish that people talked a bit less about their afflictions, their demons, their addictions.  But I do understand the importance of being able to talk about these issues and being able to seek help.  By her honesty about her addictions, Betty Ford blazed that important trail too.  Again, how many lives have been redeemed by her example?

So, rest in peace, Betty Ford.  Thank you for all you did to make the world better for women--and for everyone.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Recollecting in Tranquility

The Writer's Almanac tells us that on this day in 1798, Wordsworth began to compose one of his most famous poems, "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798."  Of course, you probably know it as "Tintern Abbey," if you know it at all.

In many ways, "Tintern Abbey" serves as an overture to all of Wordsworth's work.  The major themes are there:  love of nature and its consolations, consideration of childhood, a bit about the writing process (I'd sum up Wordsworth's process as recollecting great emotion at a safe distance), his relationship with Dorothy.

So, today might be a good day to reread "Tintern Abbey."  How many years has it been for me?  Oh, how I wish I could say, "Five years have passed," and echo that poem, but I fear it has been longer.

You say you are not into Wordsworth?  I understand.  Maybe you want to revisit the movies of Cameron Crowe, who celebrates a birthday today.  I'm probably the only female in America who didn't like Jerry Maguire, but I did love Crowe's earlier movies.  When I'm old and senile, I'll probably remember my high school boyfriend standing outside my window with a boom box--but of course, that didn't happen to me.  That's part of the plot of Say Anything.  I loved Fast Times at Ridgemont High, although my high school was much more boring.  Or maybe it was just me who had a fairly low-drama high school life.

Crowe was a writer before he was a movie maker; he wrote for Rolling Stone, and he got a shot at interviewing a lot of newer bands, bands he liked, because the older writers turned up their noses at those bands.  There's a lesson here, but I don't feel like pontificating this morning.  Still, it's interesting to think about opportunities that may come our way if we follow our passions.

Bllhhh.  I hate it when I sound like Oprah too early in the morning!  Not that there's anything wrong with Oprah.

So, in honor of Wordsworth, think about your biggest passions, your truest loves.  Have you written about them yet?  If not, what are you waiting for?  As Jennifer Egan reminded us last year in A Visit from the Goon Squad, we don't have world enough and time (I know, I'm quoting Marvell, not Wordsworth); time's a goon coming to break our kneecaps and steal our most precious memories.

If you knew you only had a year to live, what would you write?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hydraulic Belt Tensioners, Money, and the Writing Life

I have money on the brain this morning.  It's partly because of this great post of Kelli's, where she talks about reading Your Money or Your Life (actually, listening to the audiobook).  I read that book long ago when I had what seemed like insurmountable debt.  I found it both discouraging and inspiring.  It did teach me to think about my hourly wage as I considered whether or not to buy things; I found it a powerful exercise to look at an object and to say, "This would represent two hours worth of work for me; is it worth it?"

My spouse likes the term "opportunity cost."  Everything you buy means there's something else you can't buy, some place you can't visit, more work you have to do to pay for the object and its upkeep.  Some things are worth the opportunity cost; you need to have a place to live and food to eat.  But do you need to have the most expensive house you can afford or is it worth it to live more simply and to have more cash to spend on other things?

I think of this in terms of writing, too.  I could take on more teaching work and earn more money.  But that would come at the expense of my writing.  Do I want to sacrifice the writing time to earn more money?  Happily, my job pays me enough that I have the luxury of answering, "No, I do not want to earn more money if it means I lose writing time."

I also have money on the brain because we bought a hydraulic belt tensioner for the car yesterday.  Who even knew we had one?  But you know it when it goes bad.  The car makes a dreadful noise.  Maybe it's been making progressively worse noises, and I just didn't notice.  Car upkeep and maintenance is not one of my strong suits.  Once a mechanic asked me when I last rotated the tires.  I said, "Don't they go around by themselves?"  I was genuinely clueless.

When my spouse, who was dealing with the car situation yesterday while I went to work, told me we needed a hydraulic belt tensioner and how much it would cost, I said, "Do we at least get a new belt too, for that amount of money?"  We do.  We also got a new battery, because the old one went bad during the warranty period.  I should be happy about that, but I'd prefer that objects last the way they're supposed to.  When things fail, I start to mistrust everything and quiver in fear that nothing can be counted on to last.

A belt tensioner.  Why can't we call it a belt harmonizer?  Would I feel better about spending that money then?

No, probably not.  For the amount of money we spent, we could have had a really fun small kitchen appliance, like  a gadget that puts fizz in water or a juicer or a Kitchen Aid mixer that would do everything.

Still, I only have a gaspingly big car repair once in a blue moon, so I'm grateful for that.  It's still less than it would cost to buy a new car and to have monthly payments.  And for the most part, the car is reliable.  It's old, but durable.  Down here, it's not a target for thieves; my little car is surrounded by much better cars which have much better loot.

It seems a good metaphor for the writer's life I've created for myself.  It's a steady, non-flashy life.  It supports me in ways that I can't quickly articulate (mostly non-monetary ways), but that are important to me.

Don't get me wrong.  If President Obama chose me to be Poet Laureate of the U.S., I'd trade my Toyota Corolla writer's life for something bigger.  What's the metaphor here?  Is the Poet Laureate a Prius?  A Lexus?  Obviously a Nobel Laureate would be something even bigger and splashier, and I'd be willing to experience that too--but only after Margaret Atwood has her turn. 

But even if I never get to be a Laureate of any kind, I'm happy with the writing life I have.  And I wouldn't williingly give up that satisfaction for any amount of money.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Writer Whom Both Atheists and Believers Can Love

Today is the birthday of Frederick Buechner, who is one of those rare spiritual writers who can write works of deep and piercing insight without alienating members of groups who are usually at loggerheads.  He's a Presbyterian minister and theologian, and yet, atheists love his works, as do conservative Christians as do left-wing Christians.  Do Muslims, Hindus, and others love his work?  I don't know.  But I admire his accomplishment in appealing to so many different kinds of readers without alienating other readers.  How many writers have done that?  In theology, only writers like Henri Nouwen come to mind.

Since this is my creativity blog, not my theology blog, I'll try to keep from straying too far into the realms of theology.  If you say, "Drat!  I was hoping for a good theological discussion this morning," you can go to this post on my theology blog.  Later today, you can go to the Living Lutheran website to see if I'm anywhere close to my goal of writing in a Buechneresque way--I wrote the blog post that will be one of the featured pieces for today.

I am intrigued by Buechner's success in writing fiction that's infused with a Christian sensibility but can be enjoyed by everyone.  How many people can pull that off?  How many writers are brave enough to try?  Most of the fiction writers who come to mind are significantly older, like Reynolds Price.  Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home also qualify.

In terms of being a writer whom both atheists and believers can love, I'd argue that the most important writers are in the realm of poetry.  Maybe it's because I'm a poet and more in tune with that world, but I'd argue it's the poets who are taking the risks that come from exploring theological topics.

When I first started thinking of myself as a serious writer, back in the early 90's, all the wisdom out there advised writers to avoid talking about God at all.  If you had to write about spiritual matters, far better to adopt some sort of universal language, to avoid using the term "God."  Read Julia Cameron's books from the early and mid 90's.  She talks about "the universe" rewarding creativity and risk.  I always wondered if she really thought in those terms or if she thought in more traditional God language but had to universalize that language to avoid offense.

Was it Kathleen Norris who changed the writerly landscape with her book The Cloister Walk?  Maybe.  I'll leave that question to up and coming literary scholars, although if I was a Ph.D. student these days, I'd consider that topic.

I first started diligent work trying to get my poems published in 1998, and I avoided sending out any poems that had any hint of religious themes, images, or tinges.  But as I reflect back, it's those very poems that have achieved the most lasting impact.  I wrote more about that subject back in May in this post.

Today is also the birthday of E. B. White, another writer of astonishing accomplishment.  Most of us know him either for Charlotte's Web or The Elements of Style.

I want to be that kind of writer, the writer who can write works beloved by small children and grammar taskmasters and taskmistresses alike.  I want my spirituality infused work to be so alluring and appealing that even hardened atheists cannot resist.

Those goals aren't easy, but they seem worthy of a life's work to me.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Girls in Trouble, Girls in Danger

I feel like I've spent the last month reading about young women in danger and the trouble they get into.  I read Lisa Scottoline's Save Me, which presented female after female in terrible danger, most of it completely unbelievable.  I scanned the last 100 pages because I couldn't figure out where it was headed, and I wanted to know, but I didn't want to spend much time finding out.

Then I went to Stuart O'Nan's Songs for the Missing.  It tells the story of the family left behind when their 18 year old daughter disappears.  I found the first part of the book more compelling than the last, when the family tries to cope with the reality that they may never know what happened to their missing loved one.

I read Patti Smith's Just Kids, which at first glance doesn't seem like a tale of a girl in danger, but I think it doesn't because she manages to dodge the troubles that could have derailed her life.  In some ways, she's in terrible danger throughout the whole book as she depicts herself as a very young woman navigating the gritty New York scene of the 1970's.  She manages to avoid drug addiction, violence, unwed motherhood, disease, and starving to death (which seems a very real threat at times).  As I reflected on her book and on the interviews I've heard with her, I'm struck by how many people she has lost to those very dangers.

I'm in the middle of reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, much more of a plot of girls in various kinds of trouble and danger than I anticipated.  It takes place in the South Florida swamps, and as with many a work of magic realism, it doesn't feel so much a fantasy as something plausible.  We've got one girl dating a ghost and one girl trying to save the family amusement park, a dead mother, a father off to the mainland to take care of some business. 

I put Swamplandia! down to make sure I made it through the book for our next book club meeting, Sarah Waters' Fingersmith.  It's an interesting take on Dickensian England, complete with insane asylums and threatening country estates dedicated to pornography.

With all of these novels, I find myself devouring the first chunk and then losing patience (well, except for Just Kids, which I never wanted to end).  I'm partly zooming through the last part of the other books because I'm anxious to make sure that these girls in trouble will be OK in the end.  With some of the books, like Fingersmith and Swamplandia!, I get annoyed at the plot twists that make me feel a bit jerked around by the narrator and the writer.  Not another double cross!  Not another threat!!  Not another unbelievable plot twist!!!

I didn't feel the same frustration with Mary Biddinger's new chapbook of poems, Saint Monica, even though the themes are the same.  In some ways, I feel like I'm reading both a cautionary tale and a picture of what my life could have been had I met the wrong men or let myself listen to the messages beamed to me by society and popular culture.  In "Saint Monica and the Hate," we see a smart young girl and the ways her society tries to compel her to hide her intelligence, to sublimate it into having the best flowers or the best cobbler.   The collection ends on a somewhat despairing, and familiar, note, with the poem "Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star," where we see Monica wishing she could go in reverse, a wish she has always had.  As a grown up, the wish takes on a bit of bitterness, since going backwards would enable her to avoid the mistakes she's made.

Is it the fact that the narrative arc is told in poem form that made me more patient?  Is it the fact that a chapbook is shorter than a novel, and thus doesn't strain my credulity or patience?  Is it that the character of Monica is more believable?  Is it that I've been reading Mary Biddinger's blog for years and got to see the Saint Monica poems in process?  As long ago as 2008, she was working on these poems and blogging about them (for example, this post, where she contemplates how to organize them into a book).

Hard to say.  But I think I'm ready for a different plot with the next batch of fiction books I pick out.  I realize that it's hard to avoid the character in trouble plot--as my favorite undergraduate English professor pointed out, without conflict, we have no plot, and having a character in trouble guarantees conflict.  But I'd like to avoid the adolescent girl in trouble plotline for the next several books I read.

In the meantime, I'll read through Saint Monica again.  I found myself devouring the first read for plot.  Now I'd like to see what else Biddinger is doing with these poems.  My first read told me that the collection is compelling enough to make it worth braving the girl-in-trouble plotline again.  I wouldn't do that for most writers.  But Biddinger's talent deserves that kind of attention.  And the joy of a chapbook is that I can read it several times, unlike a novel, which I'm lucky to make it through once.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Farewell to the Space Shuttle

Early yesterday morning, I was tempted to drive up the coast to see the last shuttle launch.  I heard news stories about people driving down from the Midwest, and I thought, I'm so much closer--why aren't I driving up there?

Thursday was a day of monsoon rains, with forecasts for more, so I assumed the launch wouldn't happen.  And I had meetings, and gas is expensive, and how could I be sure I'd get a space--I had any number of reasons why I didn't go.

On many levels, this last shuttle launch makes me feel sad.  I'd understand grounding the shuttle program if we had a different project we wanted to fund.  But as far as I can see, there's nothing in the works.

I've been a space fan for as long as I can remember.  I have a fuzzy memory of being woken up for the moon walk in 1969, of my parents saying, "This is historic, and one day you can tell your kids that you saw a man walk on the moon."

My mother has no memory of this, so maybe it's a manufactured memory.  But thoughts of space permeated my childhood and adolescence.  We watched launches and landings.  We drank Tang, and when we visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, we stocked up on Astronaut Ice Cream (a freeze-dried, Neapolitan flavored, crisp in a foil package).  I did reports on the planets.  I waited for Skylab to fall on my head.

I remembering hearing the first space shuttle launch.  My mom, my sister, and I were driving across the mountains that separate Tennessee and Virginia.  My parents hadn't sold their house in Charlottesville when my dad got his job in Knoxville, and so we drove back and forth several times to keep tabs on it.  It always felt like an adventure to me; my parents kept any distress they were feeling about two mortgages to themselves.

On the day of the launch, my mom and I listened intently on the radio.  We talked about the future of space travel.  We would have expected colonies on Mars by now--it seemed the space program grew by leaps and bounds each year.

I was reminded of those early years of the program (before I was born) lately when we watched The Right Stuff.  That movie made me want to watch Apollo 13, so we did.  It was space program movie festival afternoon--and thoroughly enjoyable.

But it also made me sad.  What happened to the country that produced those early astronauts, physicists, and engineers?  Why don't we seem to aspire to great feats anymore?

I suspect there aren't easy answers.  But I do know that our schools produced more scientists when we had a thriving space program.  The space program fired imaginations so much that students were willing to learn difficult subjects for a shot at riding into space.

You might argue that we need to spend those resources here on earth, but I'd point out all the wonderful developments that came out of the space program that enrich us here on earth--perhaps most notably the personal computer.

I think of the young narrator in Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower.  Lauren is a fervent believer in the space program of 2024.  She says, "Well, we're barely a nation at all anymore, but I'm glad we're still in space.  We have to be going some place other than down the toilet. . . . Mars is a rock--cold, empty, almost airless, dead.  Yet it's heaven in a way.  We can see it in the night sky, a whole other world, but too nearby, too close within the reach of the people who've made such a hell of life here on earth."

So, farewell space shuttle program.  I look forward to seeing what comes next.  I'm fervently hoping that something important does come next.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Of Horrible Giraffes and the Creative Process

I have always been careful—or so I thought—about what I said around my nephew, who is five years old now. I didn’t want him to pick up choice curse words from me. I didn’t want him to get the idea that I thought he needed improvement. When I was young, I remember grown ups saying, “You would be so much prettier if you would just _________” (lose weight, change your hair, change your clothes, be anything but the person who you are). I don’t want to be that person.

I didn’t think about the fact that he might pick up damaging ideas about art and creativity from me. Of course not! I was going to be the cool aunt, the one who collaborated with him on puppet shows and all sorts of creative fun. So far, we’ve had a great time creating together.

But a week ago, my heart stopped when I saw him look up from his drawing to say, “This giraffe looks horrible.”

Where had he picked that up from? Me, of course.

The night before, he had asked us each to draw a picture in his book. He’s very much into creating books. He cuts and folds paper, and then he draws and/or writes in his books.  This past visit, he would often create a book for each of us, and we'd all create books together--yes, my dream vacation!

So, when your nephew asks you to contribute to his book, what to offer?  I had drawn such an endearing giraffe that I decided to recreate it for the new book.

Giraffe #2 was not the endearing creature of the day before. Giraffe # 2 looked like he had swallowed a small house that had made his stomach distended. His spots were all wrong. His face looked misshapen. I said, “This giraffe looks horrible.” I stressed the word “horrible,” with great melodrama.

The next day, my nephew said it right back to me, with the exact same emphasis and intonation.

We all rushed to assure him that his giraffe looked perfectly lovely. I’m not sure he knows the full impact of the word “horrible,” especially not as it applies to our creative works.

He’ll be starting school soon. I’m sure he’ll get that message time and time again. I’m sad that he heard it from me first.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Conversation with the Nutritionist

The nutritionist says, "I see you ate two hamburgers on Friday."

The former vegetarian nods.

The nutritionist asks, "Both 1/4 pound of ground chuck?"

The former vegetarian nods.

The nutritionist says, "Both had buns?"

The former vegetarian nods.

The nutritionist asks, "And what did you have with them?"

She expects the former vegetarian to say something sensible, like baked beans or a salad.  But the former vegetarian says, "Half a bottle of red wine.  Which is really just a few glasses."

The nutritionist chews on her pen.  She says, "I think I see a few places where we could make adjustments."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lessons from the Fountain Project

One of the fun things I did on my summer vacation was to work on creating a fountain.

A year ago, my spouse gave me a fountain for my birthday.  Actually, he gave me a project with a promise that we’d do it together.  Unlike some projects, I was happy to get this one.  I had a vision of our backyard transformed into a sanctuary:  trickling water noises to dull the neighborhood noises that make our backyard unpleasant at times, a beautiful object to look at, a reason to be outside appreciating our small patch of earth.  At the same time, we’d transform some of the accumulated stuff in the backyard into something beautiful and practical.

My husband and I suffer from the same disease, him more so than me.  We find a variety of objects, and we succumb to the idea that we can transform them—maybe back into usefulness, maybe into art.  A few years ago, my spouse came home with a concrete sink, and it sat in the back yard, waiting for someone’s energy to transform it.

This sink became the base of the fountain.  We filled it with rock.  We set some huge terra cotta pots inside over an old aquarium pump and hosing.  We supplied it with electricity.  Water sprayed everywhere instead of trickling down.

It’s a year later, and we’re only just beginning to finish our fountain.  We’ve had three issues.  One is getting the right attachment to the hosing to force water down instead of out.  We’ve tried all sorts of sprinkler heads, and finally found one that worked.  Our main issue has been time:  finding time to trouble shoot, to shop, to try things.

Our other issue has been a creative one.  We’ve had a vision of a fountain with mosaic work on all its surfaces.  We’ve been plagued with a familiar problem.

Many creative people will talk about being blocked when they have no ideas.  I rarely have this problem.  On the contrary, I have too many ideas, and it’s hard to commit to one.

That problem surfaced with our fountain.  We had so many cool ideas—how could we commit?

The fountain creation holds several important lessons for creative types:

--Sometimes you have to just commit to one idea and follow through.  Yes, you will be haunted by all the design decisions, all the creative works, all the options that you have to give up by choosing one and following through.  I wish I could tell you that there will be enough time in your life to bring every good idea to fruition.  There will not.  But if you let yourself linger too long over all the possibilities, you risk paralysis. 

--Even if the final product doesn’t match the vision you had in your head, you will likely end up with something interesting.  And bringing a project to creative fruition is better than all the not-done creations in your head.

--Sometimes creative problems can be solved with a shift in perspective.  For our fountain, it was turning a terra cotta bowl which helped solve the water flow/spray problem.  In your writing, it might be telling a story from the perspective of a different character or taking a free verse poem and revising it into a poem with form.

--It’s an interesting experiment/experience to switch mediums.  I tend to work primarily in words.  What fun to play with sparkly bits and paste them onto terra cotta.  What fun to transform an outdoor space.

We’re not done yet, but we’ve had fun along the way.  This might be the week-end we finish the fountain.  Or maybe we’ll stretch it out longer.  We've still got lots of mosaic work and tiling to do.  But more importantly, we're having fun.  Why rush a fun process?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

If I had more time, I might write in more detail about my summer vacation activities and how I see them as metaphors and/or lessons about larger life.  But soon I must lace up my running shoes and greet the sunrise.  After that, it's time to head back to work, a day of many meetings, where vacation will be but a happy memory.

I'm grateful to have happy memories.

Here's the short version of that classic writing prompt, to talk about one's summer vacation.

--I thought about cleaning the house, but decided I'd rather spend quality time with the people I love and spend quality time in creating.

--My spouse and I worked on our fountain project, which meant we spent fun times planning how to mosaic ceramic, buying supplies, and working on the project.  Fun!

--We travelled to the Northern Virginia area to spend time with my family.  We had a great time on Wednesday of last week relaxing and eating a wonderful dinner at my parents' house.

--We spent half a week sailing the Chesapeake.  My sister and brother-in-law have a sailboat, and they're kind enough to invite us along.  We've gone sailing with them for years, and the last several years have been great in many ways:  better weather, adventures anchoring out, and my nephew.

--I got to read great books.  More on that later--but if you haven't read Patti Smith's Just Kids, go out and get yourself a copy.  It's fabulous.   It made me want to stay up all night, creating art in a variety of mediums.

--Since I was with my nephew, I got my wish, in a way.  We created all sorts of things:  drawings, paintings, costumes, super powers (my nephew kept saying, "Make me a super power, Kris"--there's a poem here somewhere), photos, festive meals, imaginative play, stories . . . what a treat.

--I also got to spend time with friends, which is always important.

--I learned to drink my coffee black.  Actually, I'm still learning.  But for those of you who knew me in the olden days, when my coffee was really liquid dessert, you would be amazed.

--I remembered how much I like swimming.  I spent my vacation swimming in the ocean, swimming in the Chesapeake Bay, and swimming in clear swimming pools.  I must do more swimming.

--I proofed the galleys of my forthcoming chapbook.  I'm still pleased with the book.

--I needed a quote or a dedication for a blank page in the beginning of my book.  A bit of panic ensued.  What to include?  I quickly ruled out dedications:  too much risk of sounding snarky, too much fear of leaving someone out.  So, on to think about a quote.  I looked through books of poems that have been important to me, through work by Tillie Olsen, and finally, I found the perfect quote in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.  It was fun to revisit that classic text, which I first read the summer after my sophomore year of college.  That summer, I commuted to downtown DC and had lots of time to read on the Metro system.  Thank goodness for my 19 year old self, who read that book and underlined and made notes on the first pages, notes that my 45 year old self would find when desperately searching for a quote.

--In fact, I feel like I spent much of my summer vacation discovering aspects of myself that had gone underground.  I immersed myself in books, the way I so rarely do these days.  I started running at the beach again--what a treat to see the sun rise over the Atlantic as I make my way along the Broadwalk.  Why did I let go of that habit?  I spent time scampering along a sailboat and swimming in the Chesapeake--it reminded me of long ago days, when I was one of the backpacking counselors at Girl Scout camp.  I felt physically strong and capable during my summer vacation in a way that I haven't lately.

So now for the real question:  can I carry over some/all of these good practices into my "regular" life?  That's my plan and fervent hope.