Saturday, December 31, 2011

What the Airport Can Teach Us About Living

Here we are, one of the busier travel week-ends of the year.  Here we are at the time of year when we create resolutions and resolve to live differently.  It seems a poem is in order.

I don't have as many poems that focus on New Year's, not the way I do for Christmas or Easter.  "Zen Lessons at the Airport" seemed to fit tangentially.

And if you're looking for a writing prompt, you might start the way that I did, by imaginging that inanimate objects can have thoughts and desires, just like humans.

Zen Lessons at the Airport

The tarmac longs to lift itself skyward,
to fling itself free of the earth’s clinging
embrace, to shake off the cloak of asphalt
depression, to float in the fantastic
realms that stretch above.

The planes tell tales of improbable
kingdoms, castles of clouds and endless
vistas. The planes delight
in tormenting the tarmac with visions
of lands it can never visit.

The planes torture the tarmac, jealous
of its stability. They tire
of fleeing across continents, always rushing
to stay ahead of the harsh
taskmaster of the schedule. Breathless,
the planes race
from day to day, never having a chance
to enjoy the views, never knowing
for sure where they’ll be on any given day.

The tarmac stays anchored and mopes
about, frustrated by the familiar scenery.
The planes see the world, but yearn
for a friendly face and a rooted
future. The flowers bloom their riotous
profusion of flowers, even though the planes
overlook them and the tarmac wishes
for different colored blooms.

Friday, December 30, 2011

My review of "From the Fever-World" up at the Rattle website

A quick note to say that my review of Jehanne Dubrow’s From the Fever-World should be up at the Rattle website here today.  I've been increasingly impressed with Dubrow's talent with each book of poems that she publishes; it was fascinating to revisit her earlier work.

I just finished Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.  I both loved it and found it tedious.  It's beautiful and lush and filled with poetic description.  I also found myself sinking into a sort of tropical torpor as I picked up the book each time to continue slogging through it.  Book as dense jungle--if I had to write a pithy description, there it would be.

And then, suddenly, the end arrives, like a hurricane.  I won't soon stop thinking about it and puzzling over it.  I'm kind of annoyed with the ending, frankly, and I find myself saying that more and more often in the past year.  Some would say it's out of frustration that I'm not writing books myself, but I don't think that's it.  I'm noticing books that I'm reading that don't quite deserve the endings that they have:  they haven't earned them or they come to suddenly or they make no sense or the book just comes crashing to a halt.  More on that later, perhaps.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Year in Review: 2011 Non-Writing Goals

Yesterday, I wrote a post that talked about my 2011 Writer's Goals with an update in purple to report on the progress, or lack of progress, I made.  Today, I'll do the same for my other goals for 2011.


We've lived in this house for 12 years. Twelve years!!! How is this possible? Anyway, gone are the days when we moved every year, which exhausting though it may be, does force one to sort through one's stuff. So, this year, it's time to sort through stuff, particularly my bookcases. I'm holding on to many books that I know I will never read again, books that I don't particularly care about possessing. It's time to set some of my stuff free!

We got rid of lots of books, which meant we could reorganize shelves, which has our guest room feeling much more open and welcoming.  We used to have bookcases back to back at right angles to the walls, which made me feel claustrophobic.  Now we have bookcases against the walls.

I continue to work on getting clothes and other stuff I don't need or use anymore.  I got rid of some clothes, some kitchen stuff, but there's always more to do.

Creative Goals

--Collaging. I'd like to have one day a month where I experiment with old-fashioned collage (by which I mean cutting up magazines and pasting).

I only had a day or two of collaging.  But I tried to continue working in fiber and being open to creative opportunities.  I've done a lot more with photography.

--More bread baking.

My bread baking comes and goes in cycles, but I think I've done more.

--learn to make better sound recordings. Perhaps it is time to invest in some equipment?

I didn't make any investments, but I did learn to use Microsoft MovieMaker a bit more.  I still can't figure out the sound pieces--how to get rid of some sound and add others.  Sigh.

--learning to make better sound recordings would help me create better book promotion videos and videopoems.

I created two book promotion videos, but not as much with videopoems.

Personal Improvement

--Weight Loss: In early October, one of our spin instructors offered us an opportunity to try to lose 10 pounds before Christmas. She would take our measurements at the beginning, and we'd weigh in each week. I had some trepidations about this (particularly the weigh-ins, which I worried would be shaming and would drive me to eat more), but I signed up. I lost just under 10 pounds in 10 weeks! I'd like to see if I could lose 10 pounds every quarter of 2011. I'd like to continue to be more mindful of my eating--and my drinking, which may do more to derail me than my eating. I was successful in cutting in half the amount of sugar I use in my coffee during 2010 (I used to routinely drink 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar in a day's worth of coffee--now it's half that). And during the 10 pounds in 10 weeks process, I was successful in being mindful about my wine consumption. I don't want to eliminate--just be watchful.

It was in this area that I was most spectacularly successful in 2011.  In June, I signed up for a Weight Loss Challenge at my little gym that's part of a wellness center in the hospital near where I work.  We worked out with our group once a week, we met several times with a nutritionist, and we had a weekly weigh in.  By the end of August, I had lost 22 pounds. 

People ask how I did it, and frankly, it was by counting calories, which I haven't done since I was 16.  I kept my calories between 1200 and 1500 calories a day, which I tried to make mostly fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.  I was surprised by how successful the process was.  Keep your calories down, and you will lose weight.  Add in some exercise, and your weight loss will go down.

I was also surprised by how competitive I became.  I really wanted to WIN.  I wanted to impress the team of trainers.  I wanted to please the person who weighed me each week.  I thought it might have the opposite effect on me, and it did for some participants:  "You can't tell me what to do; I'm going to eat what I want, and I'm going to prove to you that I can't exercise."  Happily, I had the opposite response.

It feels strange to write this, as I've moved away from some of my good behaviors during the month of December.  My severe cold meant that I missed almost 3 weeks of exercise, and I need to get back to healthier eating patterns.  But I'm convinced that I will do this.  I've kept the weight off, even through the holidays.  I'd like to lose a bit more.  It will be easier to get back on track in January.

--Add more fruits and veggies. Some weeks I'm good at consuming plenty of fruits and veggies. Other weeks, not so much. I'd like to continue to do things that work: a fruit smoothie for breakfast, a V8 juice during the day, baby carrots carried with me for snacks, veggie soups for meals in the office, desserts that help me with my more fruits/veggies goal (pumpkin bread, apple crisp, pumpkin pudding, berry crumbles).

Some weeks I do well, other weeks, less well.  But most days, I do get at least 4 servings of fruits and veggies.

--Exercise: I've gotten a bit off track in the last few weeks. I'd like to get back to doing a bit of strength training, and to exercise on Tuesdays and Thursdays (running, ideally, but walking will be fine too). I've been good at going to spin class on MWF (and Saturdays, when I'm in town). I plan to continue to do that.

It makes me feel good to read that this time last year, I had gotten a bit off track.  I got back on track and will again.

--I'd like to be more present in my relationships with people. I feel distracted and disrupted. I want to be more attentive.

With an increasingly electronic world, I suspect I'll continue to struggle with this. 
--I want to be like that TSA agent, who greeted everyone with such joy and enthusiasm in the Baltimore airport on the morning of Dec. 29. I especially want to exhibit this trait in the workplace. I want to be patient, but so much more, I want to see the value in each human who crosses my path--and I want each human to leave an encounter with me feeling any one of the following: enriched, helped, listened to, respected, engaged . . .

A worthy goal for any year--and I'll continue to work on this.

I have noticed that my goals don't change a lot from year to year.  I want to treat my body better; I want to treat my friends and family better.  I want to prioritize so that I'm spending my free time working on activities that are important to me.  I continue to want to move towards the Buddhist teahouse approach of meaningful work. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen. It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road. Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea. She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, "This is the Zen teahouse." All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it. No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).
Worthy goals, and an ever-moving target.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Year in Review: Writer's Goals

At the beginning of 2011, I wrote a very long post with an assortment of goals for 2011.  This post will look at the progress I made on the writer's goals for 2011 that I posted; as with yesterday's post, I'll put my updates in purple.  Tomorrow, I'll update the progress made on other goals.

Writing Goals
Let me just capture them here:

--Write in my paper journal once a week.
I did not do this.  I mainly use my paper journal when I'm away from the computer, or when I need to sort out something that shouldn't be done in as public a space as a blog is.

--Continue blogging and being open to new blogging opportunities.
I have done this.  I've been interested in transforming blog pieces into essays and articles for other sources.  I've done this to some extent.  I want to do more.  I've also written 16 blog posts for the Living Lutheran site and several blog postings for the Voice Alpha site.

--Write a poem a week: Let me define what I mean by poem, which is not what I meant yesterday, when I created my accomplishments list. I want a poem a week that is as finished as I can make it.
I wrote 48 poems, but not one each and every week.  Sometimes, I wrote two in one week.  For the most part, however, I did write one poem each week, with the exception of some travel weeks and wrestled into a finished shape.  I also wrote a lot of fragments.  I'd like to think they'll be poems one day, but I rarely go back to those fragments.

--Continue to send out submissions, both of manuscripts and individual poems.
I have done this.

--Write the short stories that my linked collection will need. Do the revising of the existing stories that the linked collection will need. Have the linked collection finished by this time next year.

Alas, I did not do this.

--Book Promotion: I'm seeing this year's AWP as a practice run for next year (this year's AWP isn't as scary, because I have family in the area and I know the city and feel confident about my ability to use public transit). I will force myself to go to Chicago in 2012, I will force myself to promote my chapbook.

Other ways of book promotion: making bookmarks. Making business cards. Creating order forms. Remembering to carry those with me. Creating a video promotion series for the book. Sending out additional postcards.

I should also start to think in terms of lining up readings. Will this be the year that my mom and I complete our goal/dream of doing a poetry and organ presentation? My mom is one of the best musicians I know.
I did a lot of promotion, sending out mailings and creating promos and lining up readings. My mom and dad moved to Williamsburg, so we didn't get to do as many projects as we might have in a calmer year.  But I feel like I did a lot to promote my new chapbook.

--Other projects: I'd like to work on some book-length projects that my mom and I have been discussing, theology books and/or worship books for small children. Could we do it? We have an audience with my sister's child. He won't be our target age group much longer.

In an earlier post, I wrote these goals:

So, I think that in the coming year, I'll try to write in my paper journal once a week. While I'm at it, let's make some other writing goals, and let me keep them small and attainable. Then, at the end of 2011, I'll see how I did:

1. Write in my paper journal once a week.

2. Write at least one poem a week.

3. Continue to blog on a near-daily basis, when I have computer access.

4. Arrange at least 3 readings to promote my new chapbook.

5. Continue to submit both individual poems and book-length manuscripts.

These goals aren't very different from the goals above; I include them because I arranged precisely 3 readings.  Interesting, eh?  I did blog on a near-daily basis, and this year, I also wrote blog posts in advance for times when I was away.

My poetry goals don't change radically from year to year, but I do miss fiction writing, and I do miss all the other kinds of writing I might be doing.  But let me remember that I did some writing that I don't usually do throughout the year, and that those opportunities took me away from fiction writing.

I did some other types of writing that I didn't anticipate when the year began.  I wrote the August prayers for a book of daily devotions, Bread for the Day.  I wrote some meditations on Sunday Gospels for the post-Easter season for Sundays and Seasons.  I served as a judge for a poetry contest.  I wrote several essays for The Lutheran.  I wrote an essay for Women and Poetry:  Tips on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing by Successful Women Poets

All in all, it's been a great writing year.  I'm hoping that 2012 will be even better!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 Year in Review: 2011 Reading List

For the past several years, I've created a list of books I plan to read in the coming year--and then at the end of the year, I've written a post to report on how I did. 

Will I do that for the coming year?  I'm not sure.  For the past year, I've felt this exercise wasn't as useful as I thought it would be.   And my list seems to be made up only of the books that have been published in the past year.  Maybe it's time to rethink or modify this process.  Stay tuned.

So, I'll post the list from my original post below, and I'll comment in purple to report how I did.

So, here's the list. Obviously, I'll be reading more than these books, but I'd like to have read (or attempted and abandoned) these by Dec. 31, 2011.


In a way, my first book feels like cheating, since my book club has already decided to discuss it in 2 weeks. Guess I'd better get cracking!

1. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

I read this one--clever concept, but wore thin after about half the book.
2. Generosity by Richard Powers

This book got a glowing review in The Washington Post. It sounds like a novel that's both readable and ambitious (a book that deals with big themes--who are we if we can medicate away our persistent personality traits? a book that does different things with narrative). In fact, it sounds like Mason's book and this one are experimental. Hmm. I haven't always liked experimental writing, even though I wrote my M.A. thesis on James Joyce. But let me maintain an open mind.

I read this one and enjoyed it immensely until the ending, which I vaguely remember as disappointing.

3. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

This book wound up on many a person's list. It sounds like an important contribution to Literature of the Vietnam War.

I still plan to read this one, but I haven't yet.
4. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Another addition that feels like a cheat, since I'm already partly done with it (although I didn't start it until Dec. 31). I thoroughly enjoyed The Corrections when I read it, so I looked forward to this one. And even with all the controversies that swirl around Franzen, I'm still open to his work. As I've been reading, there have been times when I had to set the book aside because the characters were so unlikable, and I could sense Franzen's disdain for them. How could he spend the amount of time with these characters that was necessary to write this book when he didn't even like the characters? Sheesh.

I found this book compelling, despite the repellent nature of the characters.

5. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

This book got raves from an NPR commentator, and it's linked short stories, a form which fascinates me.

I loved this book.

6. Room by Emma Donaghue

When I first heard the premise of this book, I shuddered. But after hearing Donaghue on the Diane Rehm show, and after hearing the praises that so many people heaped on the book, I decided to add it to the list.

Again, an interesting premise, with an interesting experiment in having a 5 year old child narrate.  But that experiment wore thin after 20 pages, and the last half of the book was very disappointing.


7. Just Kids by Patti Smith

I determined to read this book a year ago, when a Washington Post reviewer called it the best book about being an artist ever. Ever??!!! Well, sign me up!

What a wonderful, fabulous book.  It made me want to be part of the 1970's art scene in New York, even when I knew that Smith was describing a particularly gritty phase of the city's history.

This book may be my favorite book of 2011--maybe of the decade.  Maybe of all time.

8. Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith

I love the novels of Zadie Smith, so I'm interested to read her essays.

I didn't read this one--I'd still like to.

9. Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers

A technology book needs to be on the list, and this will be the one.

I ended up reading a different technology book, Nicholas Carr's  The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  I still may circle back to Hamlet's Blackberry, since I find myself often thinking about The Shallows.  I'd be interested to see how Powers handles this topic.

10. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

I love this title--and from what I've read of the reviews, the rest of the books should be a winner.

I didn't get to any of these history titles (#10, #11, #12); I hope to do so eventually.
11. History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism by Judith Bennett

A book I didn't get to last year--it sounded important, and challenging, and I need more of that in my life.

12. A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Lauren Winner

I've liked Winner's other works, which read more like memoir than anything else. I'm interested to see how she handles academic writing. History, theology, and insight about the daily life of colonists--let me give it a whirl.

Winner has a new memoir coming out in January--I can hardly wait to read it.  It sounds like a lot has happened (a divorce, a time of spiritual aridity) since she last wrote.  I am fascinated to see how the Girl Meets God writer deals with these issues.

13. One Life by Scot McNight

I haven't read Scot McNight yet, so let me start with his latest. It's getting harder and harder for me to find new theologians whom I like to read. Let's see about this one.

McNight is still on my list of books to read, but I haven't yet.

14. Curating Worship by Mark Pierson

I've been seeing the idea of curating things (a website, a career, an online presence) used as metaphor. Let's see how it's done with worship. My pastor is also reading this book, and he raves about it. Can we actually accomplish some of the ideas in the book, ideas that aren't exactly familiar to Lutherans? We shall see.

I read this one, and was both impressed (wow!  how on earth does he do this???), despairing (I could never do such things, like spreading a truckload of sand across the whole worship space), appreciative (especially about the worship stations done in public spaces as an art installation of sorts) and dismissive (great for non-liturgical churches held in warehouses but difficult for those of us in traditional spaces).

15. The Heroine's Bookshelf: Life Lessons From Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Erin Blakemore

I just heard about this book yesterday, and I like the premise, which is evident in the title.

Another book I didn't get to--it has yet to get to my local library, and I'm not interested enough in it to pay for it.

My other reading goals? To keep buying and reading complete volumes of poetry (and to remember to add those to my record keeping). I'd like to do more to mention what I'm reading in this blog. Some weeks I'm good at that, but other weeks I'm not.

I haven't been as good at record keeping, but I have continued to read complete volumes of poetry, more this year than any other year.

So, here's the summary:  I read about 40 books of non-poetry, as well as about 5 that I started, read more than 50 pages, and didn't finish for some reason.  I didn't read as many books this year as I did in 2010 that made me gasp with happiness, that made me want to slow down so that I could have the experience of reading the book for the first time for a bit longer, that I wanted to read again right away when I finished.  But I have had books that stayed with me, books that haunted my thoughts, most notably Patty Smith's Just Kids.  If I had had no other book to read this year, that one would have been enough.  But I'm glad that I have a wealth of books, not a paucity.  I'm also glad to have discovered Glen Duncan (I, Lucifer and The Last Werewolf) and Eleanor Henderson (Ten Thousand Saints) is an author to keep our eyes on.

I still feel like I'm not reading as much as I should, as much as I want to; and I know that I'm not reading as much as I once did, at least not traditional paper books.

I read a lot of blogs, which in some ways are memoirs/novels/autobiographies in process.  I learn as much from many blogs as I ever did from books.  But how to quantify that reading?

Reading is far from dead, but our delivery systems are quite different.  Will this be the year that I get an eReader?  Will I start reading on a smart phone?  Of course, I would have to buy a smart phone.  What will I read in the coming year?  I will try to remember to keep blog readers up to date.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Twas the Day After Christmas: Owls, Santalands, and Work

Most years, we're travelling, so to be home on the day after Christmas feels strange.  We don't have clean up to do, left overs to eat, broken toys to mend.

Most years, Christmas doesn't come on a Sunday, so that, too, has discombobulated me a bit.  We spent much of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning at church.  My spouse is in the choir, so he had to arrive early to practice, and we were part of the money counting team, so we stayed after each service to count money and take it to the bank. 

Soon I hope to get back to more every day practices, like exercise and eating vegetables and poetry.  But for today, let me post a few thoughts and follow ups from the past week of posts.

At the end of Christmas Day services, the endangered baby owl was back near the butterfly garden creche scene.  I was able to snap a few pictures.

Here's a close up of the owl.  Notice that he's sitting in the Y of the tree trunk.  It will help you locate the owl in the picture below.  Look at the top of Joseph's head and let your eyes move up to find the owl.

I'm not sure why I'm so intrigued by the owl who comes back to the manger.  But there it is.  If I wrote children's books, could I do something with this idea?

For those of you who still haven't gotten enough of Christmas, you might go here to listen to the now very famous David Sedaris reading from The Santaland Diaries.  It's the event that shot him to fame.  It's still wonderful:  snarky and transgressive and a strange yet oddly heartwarming look at the holidays.

Today is the birthday of David Sedaris.  Before he became so very famous, we saw him read at the Ft. Lauderdale Borders near the beach--for free. As you might imagine, the place was packed; it was 6 years after his first reading on NPR.  He was very gracious and seemed just a bit shocked to find himself so sought after.

I remember him talking about these strange little things that he wrote that didn't really fit into any standard model of anything published, but he had friends who were doing a radio show who were desperate for content.  I think that radio show went on to be This American Life.

I remember thinking that it's OK if what you're creating isn't like anything that anyone else is creating.  If there's not a market for it when you're creating, you might be in the process of creating the market without even realizing it.

And it seems wise to remind ourselves that we don't always have to know what we're going to do with the work, but we have to show up to do the work.

For those of you who have to return to work sooner than you want to, here's my favorite part of The Santaland Diaries:

"Today, I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums. The back hallway was jammed with people. There was a line for Santa and a line for the women's bathroom. And one woman, after asking me a thousand questions already, asks: Which is the line for the women's bathroom? And I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. And she said: I'm going to have you fired.

I had two people say that to me today: I'm going to have you fired. Go ahead, be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn't get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? I'm going to have you fired, and I want to lean over and say: I'm going to have you killed."

I've been thinking a lot about work, the work we're called to do, the work we get paid to do, the work that we worry about doing.  In all my reading about Vaclav Havel, I was heartened and a bit astounded to read that he worried about being the leader of Czechoslovakia and not in ways we would expect.  He worried about the ways that power can corrupt.  He worried about losing his moral moorings.  He didn't say, "Whoopee, I'm head of my country!  I can do whatever I want."  He always considered what he was doing and why.

My job is nowhere near as important as Havel's, and I suspect yours isn't either.  But these questions are worth considering:  does our job require us to do things that deaden our souls?  Are we losing our moral footing with the activities our jobs require?  Can we change the job before it changes us?

I still love the idea of people, Havel among them, living in a repressive regime as if freedom had already come.  Our jobs are probably not as brutal as a Communist regime, so we have even less reason for living in fear of acting as if we have the jobs we always wanted and making the changes necessary so that the jobs we have are closer to the jobs we want.

I keep thinking of all the people I've met this holiday season, people who have to work extra hours, sometimes in grueling conditions, but they managed to maintain grace, dignity, and even often, cheerfulness.  We can too.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 2011: A Photo Meditation

For those of you who want a collection of creche pictures and some candle pictures, head on over to this post on my theology blog.  Over here, I'll post some pictures that say quintessential Christmas to me, along with some ponderings.

I can't resist posting this picture again (I first wrote about it here), with an update about an unusual visitor to the manger.

On our church property, we have several burrows of owls that are an endangered species.  Yesterday morning, one of them tried to upstage Jesus and move in towards the manger.  By the time we arrived for the evening services, the baby owl had moved on.  But I found myself enchanted once again, by this baby Jesus lying amidst the mushrooms and the lily in the background that you can't see, this baby Jesus who is compelling not only to shepherds and magi, but to endangered owls.

My sister and I spent our childhood making Christmas ornaments; my parents saved one for each of us.  Above you see the earliest ornament I made while in pre-school.  I assume someone else put on the glitter long ago.  It's survived while all the sparkly bits that I added did not.

Below you'll see my nephew, at the time he was about the age I was when I made the above ornament.  To me, the picture below says Christmas morning, or at least, one kind of Christmas morning!

Happily, he is a child who can appreciate old-fashioned toys too.  Below, the puppet theatre he got last year.

Some decorations that may make you happy.

Above, my mother's collection of Scandinavian figures.  Below, some nutcrackers.

The picture below, with the snowmen in a canoe, reminds me of a time when we visited, all of us together, three generations. My mom got a carrot out of the fridge, and I can't remember what she was doing with it in her cooking prep. My pre-school age nephew pointed and said, "That's a snowman nose!"

I watched my nephew's face, with its mixture of horror and dawning realization of some level of symbolism that he hadn't grasped before.  I felt like I saw a smidge of childhood innocence disappearing. 

But then again, I tend to read too much into simple things.

What would a Christmas morning photo essay be without some decorated trees?  Above, my sister's tree last year.  Can you find the sock monkey ornament?  (hint:  look for a red hat).

Do you have Christmon trees like the one above in your church?  Below you might be able to see some Christmons made in counted cross stitch that my step-mom-in-law made for us.  They're nestled in with plastic canvas ornaments my grandmother made.  I treasure them all.

Here's the larger shot of my tree this year.  It's artificial, and while I'd love a real tree, they're very expensive down here.  The tree above that cost my sister $40 would cost me hundreds of dollars down here.

And to sum up, here's a picture that represents what I wish for each of us:

My gingerbread people cooked into each other, and my spouse who was taking them off the baking sheets couldn't bear to rip these two apart.  May we all have sweetness in our lives.  May we not be ripped apart from the lives merged into ours.  May our sharp edges melt.  May our plates be both festive and nourishing food.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Grocery Shopping on Christmas Eve Morning

Our Christmas Eve morning dawns strangely moist, with storm clouds to the north and west.  I slipped out early to get to the grocery store before everybody else.

I was not the only one with that idea.  I don't usually go to the grocery store on Saturdays, so I'm not sure what's normal and what's not.  Many of this morning's shoppers had physical and mental disabilities.  My theological mind immediately thought about how we're all broken people and how that relates to the Christmas message I'll be hearing later tonight . . . "be not afraid, for behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy" . . . somewhere along the way I have memorized the angel's words.

I pulled out my grocery list, and a woman who looked to have mental disabilities said, "Checking your list?"  I said, "Twice."  She said, "Merry Christmas!"  I did too.

I tried to remember what foods we traditionally have on Christmas Eve.  I tried not to cry when I realized that I don't really have much in the way of Christmas Eve traditions.  My parents serve Scandinavian food, but I couldn't find herring in cream sauce at my South Florida grocery store.

My spouse has been craving Salisbury steak, so I bought some cube steak, and later today, we'll get out my grandmother's cast iron skillet and see if we can create a dish that's like the one my grandmother used to make, like the one my spouse's mom used to make.  It's not a Christmas Eve tradition, but it will help us with our feelings of loss (his mom) and impending loss (my grandma, who still lies dying 700 miles away).

I will make some gingerbread people and decorate the sugar cookies that I made yesterday.  I will try to feel festive.  I will likely be successful.

People always ask me if I regret not having children, and I usually do not.  But on Christmas Eve, I'm aware of how special it would be to have children around, children who would be enchanted and excited and thrilled.

Of course, I have enough friends from dysfunctional families that I know how badly it can all end up.  On this Christmas Eve day, I'm grateful for my family, who may not have always understood my choices or my personality or my beliefs, but who loved me anyway.  I'm grateful that I don't have family drama to complicate this holiday.  I'm grateful that I can focus on some baking but can avoid a lot of the frantic aspects of the holiday.

May your Christmas Eve have sparkle and sweetness.  May you hear good news and not be afraid.  May you find the peace that you need. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

I Review Books at "Galatea Resurrects"

The latest issue of Galatea Resurrects is up, and I have two reviews in it.  So, if you're looking for something that read, migrate on over.

I wrote this review of Faulkner's Rosary by Sarah Vap, a book I enjoyed very much.  For those of you tired of the treacly views of the Virgin Mary we get in this time of year, these poems serve as the perfect antidote:  "Vap also taps into a larger cultural motif by weaving Mary, the mother of Christ, throughout these poems. Poets who explore pregnancy have a variety of archetypes and ready-made cultural artifacts to use. Vap acknowledges her variety of choices in the poem 'To be breathed-in by a god,' where she lists an assortment of Marys, from the Virgin Mary to Mary Kay to Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. This brief poem wrestle with the question about who is lost when we use these cultural archetypes and answers 'and we have lost the girl.'"

You may be saying, wait, "Ugh, I am so tired of the winter holidays."  Vap's collection has plenty of poems that have nothing to do with the Virgin Mary.  Most of the poems do deal with pregnancy and motherhood, however.  But even readers without children will find much to enjoy here; after all, we're all living in bodies that give us challenges and joys.

I also wrote a review of Looking Up Harryette Mullen: Interviews on Sleeping with the Dictionary and Other Works by Barbara Henning.  What a great book.  It gives so much insight about the writing process, like this nugget:  "For example, she describes writing her long poem Trimmings this way: 'Writing the poem also involved a process of making lists. First, I made a list of words referring to anything worn by women. Each word on that list became the topic of a prose poem (I started with clothing, then decided to include accessories. There were a few things I decided not to write about, such as wigs, dentures, and so forth.) Then I made more lists by free associating from words on the first list.'”

There's a comprehensive introduction written by Juliana Spahr, in which she "gives helpful background to the avant-garde groups and techniques used by Mullen. For example, she says, 'A number of the poems in the book are composed by the N = 7, a process attributed to Jean Lescure . . . ' (iii). She goes on to describe the Oulipo writing community that Lescure founded, and then says, 'In the N + 7, the poet replaces each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in a dictionary. The result is a joyous sort of a mad lib type of a poem' (iii)."

This book is useful in so many ways, from its insights into experimental and avant-garde writing, to its conversations between two poets, from the way the women discuss the challenges of being a writer in our modern life, to the insight we get into the writing process.  Along the way, the book maintains an accessibility that might have been lost when it comes to poems that are so experimental.

As always, when I write these reviews, I'm struck by how broad the world of poetry is now--and I'm profoundly grateful.  It's frustrating to know how much great reading is out there, and to feel like I never have enough time to get to it.  But it's also a wonderful problem to have!

And if you'd like to review for the next issue, go here for the list of books available.  You've got until April 15 to write the review, and you've got plenty of work from which to choose.

May our last days of 2011 be full of good reading!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Contemplating the Winter Solstice in the Southernmost State

So, the Winter Solstice dawns.  In other parts of the world, darkness has taken over.  Beth Adams, who lives in a much more northern part of our continent has written an eloquent blog post, where she concludes, "I know from experience that times of obscurity are often followed by insight, darkness by light, and that the two are necessary for each other, but that wisdom comes from being observant to this very moment: the weak light, the clarity of ice. Today that paper-thin edge of duality — that single but two-sided coin — turns its face, but neither one is better than the other. I believe in long journeys, the persistence of love, and the value of endurance: my face in the stinging cold, my feet that want to slip on the ice but find their balance, the sun’s eventual return."

And yet, I live in a place where the sun never really retreats too far:

The sunrise this morning will be similar to the sunrise in September, when I took the picture above.  The days are a bit shorter, and I can stay out a smidge longer without risking a blistering sunburn, but a South Florida December is different from what people in the upper 48 experience.

Still, I understand the desire for light, for candles for anything to stave off the darkness.  Just because the sun never leaves us doesn't mean we're immune from feeling despair about the state of the world.

Last night I went downtown to First Lutheran to help serve dinner to the homeless.  We had more people, over 130, than we've ever had in the three years that I've been helping.  And it was a warm night, not the kind of cold night that usually increases the numbers.  The words of Isaiah rumble through my head: 

"They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations." (Isaiah 61: 4)

We have a lot of building up to do down here in this part of the world, with its abandoned condo projects and deserted strip malls and foreclosed buildings of every shape and size.

More candles!

In these days when it's easy to succumb to despair, I will remember the lessons of Vaclav Havel, to live as if liberation has already come.  I will sing back against the darkness.

We are like these finger puppets below, and we can fill ourselves with any number of ideas.  It's easy to fill up with despair as we see the broken bodies shuffling down the street, as we hear of governments who can't solve problems.  But we must resist the seductiveness of despair.

Havel said, "We may approach democracy as we would a horizon, and do so in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained.”  You could slot any number of words in for that word "democracy."  Maybe it's your creative masterpiece.  Maybe it's the relationship with your spouse, best friends, or family members.  Maybe it's a goal at work or the home renovations that never seem to end.  So few processes are linear, after all.

We are like medieval Cathedral builders or Eastern European dissidents; we work towards a vision, knowing we may not see it in our lifetimes.  That knowledge does not allow us to quit the work.

Our lives are a patchwork, and sometimes, those pieces go together more neatly than others.  But hopefully, love stitches us together in strengthening ways.

Winter Solstice offers the consolation of a slow climb back to the light. 

Christianity tells us that the manger is empty now, but won't be for long.

South Florida gives us all sorts of twists on this tradition.  Our church has an extensive butterfly garden, and we change some of the statuary with the seasons.  Below you'll see mushrooms growing around the baby Jesus, an untraditional touch.  One year, we had a tomato seedling.  If I had a wider range on this picture, you'd also see Easter lilies in the back.  I'm still waiting for my poet brain to do something with these images.

May your solstice be filled with the promise of light!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

St. Thomas and Snow Globes

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas.  For those of you who want a more theological post on this day, head to this post on my theology blog, where you'll also find a poem.  It's a much more formal poem than I usually write.

I've had snow globes on the brain since I read this post on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa blog.  His poem has an ecological focus; I've been thinking of the other ways a snow globe could be used symbolically.  I've also been thinking of several snow globes that we have from my husband's childhood--but when we got them, all the water had left.  Was there a leak?  Did the water simply evaporate through the years?

Now those snow globes were the tiny, cheap, plastic kind, not the fancy glass kind that so many people collect.  Still, it made me think about how change comes even the world that we assume to be unchanging, unaffected, closed-loop systems.

I haven't come up with a good title yet.  You might suggest "Drained," but I've already published a poem with that title.  I'd welcome any suggestions you have for a title, or for making the poem stronger.

Inside the snow globe,
children play for hours
without getting soggy and cold.

Inside the snow globe,
the hot chocolate never cools,
and dinner is always almost ready.

Inside the snow globe,
fathers don't leave, and dogs
don't die, and bedtime comes late.

But all snow globes leak
eventually, and we find them drained
of life when we clean out the house.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wenceslas Square or Tiananmen Square?

It's been an interesting few days, in terms of deaths and thinking about words and ideas and truth.  I've been intrigued by all the people in North Korea mourning the death of their "dear leader."  I know that in a totalitarian regime much of that emotion is fake, but still, the newscaster breaking down into tears?  Was that emotion fake?  Did the newscaster just not know about the atrocities committed by the dear leader?  Did the newscaster know that a gun was offstage ready to shoot, if the proper emotions weren't shown?

What a difference in leadership style Vaclav Havel offered with his insistence on the truth and how to live life, even if one must tolerate totalitarianism.  I've been wondering if the difference  was because Havel was a playwright.  If we elected a poet into high office, would we get a different governing style?

It reminds me of an exercise I used to do with my students.  I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with them.

Then I give them a copy of an interview (in the fabulous book We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews) with Jello Biafra which has this challenge: "It's time to start thinking, 'What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?'" (page 46 of the first edition). Many of my students find this idea to be a wonderful writing prompt, even as they're doubtful that they would ever be allowed to be in charge of a national government.

As I watch the latest wranglings by the House, I can't imagine that our government could get much worse.  But then I think about totalitarian regimes, and I remember, oh yes, there's something much worse that ineffectiveness. 

Anne Applebaum wrote a great essay about Havel for today's The Washington Post.  She writes:

"In this essay (‘The Power of the Powerless’), Havel didn’t talk about marches or demonstrations. Instead, he asked the inhabitants of totalitarian countries to 'live in truth': that is, to go about their daily lives as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible in societies where the state ran all businesses and all schools, owned most of the property and banned free speech and free press. By the late 1980s, 'living in truth' was widely practiced across central Europe. The first time I went to Poland in 1987, I stayed with friends. According to the law, I was supposed to register my presence in a private home with the police. 'We don’t do that,' my friends told me. 'We don’t believe the police have the right to know who stays with us.' I didn’t register — and because thousands of other people didn’t either, that law became unenforceable.

But Havel proposed more than mere civil disobedience. He also argued in favor of what we would now call civil society, urging the inhabitants of totalitarian states to found small institutions — musical groups, sporting groups, literary groups — that would develop the 'independent life of society' and prevent their members from being totally controlled from above. This, too, was widely practiced, in Prague’s famous underground philosophy seminars, in the illegal printing presses all across the communist world, in Poland’s independent 'Flying University,' and, most successfully, in Poland’s independent trade unions."

What a great vision--to inspire the people to live as if the life they wanted had already arrived.  It's what I believe we find in the best religious traditions, which tell us that we don't have to wait for Heaven to begin to create the Kingdom of God--it's already underway, and we can take part.  It's an exciting new--yet ancient--development in contemporary theology.  Books like N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope or Brian D. McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus or Rob Bell's Love Wins argue that Jesus didn't come to get us to Heaven, but to show us that we could begin living like we're in Heaven right now, before we die.

Even if we're uncomfortable with these ideas in the political arena or the theological arena, they might make sense in other areas of our lives.  What if we lived our work lives as if we've already got the great job?  What if we lived our writing lives as if we already were the kind of writers we wanted to be?  We might waste less time in feeling jealous or inadequate or any of those other emotions that so often wreck us.

I'm also keenly aware that for every revolution that goes well, like the one orchestrated by Havel, there are others that are squashed, like the Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square.  Still, it's fear of the machine guns (real and figurative) that keeps us from our full potential.

Wenceslas Square or Tiananmen Square?  The Kim Jong Ils of the world hope that the memory of Tiananmen Square will leave us quaking in fear.  The Vaclav Havels and Archbishop Romeros and Dorothy Days and Nelson Mandelas and Emma Goldmans and Archbishop Tutus of the world inspire us to keep our eyes on the possibilities of other squares and happier endings.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Charitable Giving and Dead Dictators

When the former dictator of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, died,  Donna Vorreyer wrote this post, where she mentions that Brent Mesick created this line as a Facebook status post: "All the dictators of my youth are dying."

I thought of that line again this morning, upon the news of the death of Kim Jong Il, of "apparent heart failure" (NPR update).  Heart failure?  The man who left so many of his people (over 2 million dying) to starve, literally, in the cold?  Did the man really have a heart?

Well, there I go, mixing the metaphor with the literal.  This morning, I'm thinking of the loss of Vaclav Havel and contrasting his life with that of Kim Jong Il, and thinking of all the dictators of my youth who are gone.  My cynical brain says, "And so many, still left to die."  I can think of some African dictators who deserve a long, cruel death.  But that's not very charitable of me.

If you're one of the people planning to do some year-end charitable giving, Dale Favier has some great tips in this post.  Here's my favorite:  "If you're moved to put a smiley face on the envelope you send back? Or a note saying “keep up the good work!” or “thank you!” – it will be read and it will set a little glow in the heart of the person who opens it. Probably they won't have time to make any special answer, but believe me, it makes a huge difference. It doesn't get tossed unread. It registers."

Why have I never thought of doing that?  Probably because I've set up most of my charitable giving to happen on a monthly basis, without my having to do a thing. 

I'd add a tip from Peter Singer, who reminds us that our first world currency buys more in the third world (or developing nations, if you want to use a more optimistic term) than it does in the first world.  He encourages us to give 1% of our charitable giving to the third world.  Go here for more information.

In this post, Jim Wallis reminds us:  "Last year, Americans spent $450 billion on Christmas. Clean water for the whole world, including every poor person on the planet, would cost about $20 billion. Let’s just call that what it is: A material blasphemy of the Christmas season."

Clean water for Christmas!  Let's start working now for next year; plant the seeds for next year's charitable giving this year, as you unwrap presents.

If you're in the mood for a wonderful poem that talks about gingerbread houses and real houses and Nativity scenes, go here for Mary Jo Salter's poem, "Advent."  Go here for my poem about nativity scenes and the strange creatures that find their way into them.

I'd rather be baking than heading off to work, but it should be a quiet work week, with students and faculty on vacation, and lots of staff people on vacation too.  But if you're lucky enough to have festive baking on your to-do list, enjoy some dough for me.  In the spirit of holiday baking, here's an unpublished poem, which I'd give a different title if I revisit it ever:

Advent Calendar

Orion, that winter visitor, reminds us of our frosty
obligations. Now is the time to prepare.
We dig in the cupboards for the cookie cutters,
creatures enough to create a healthy genetic
mix for the holiday planet we will create.

We remember anew the joy of the well-seasoned
skillet, so versatile as we fry the meat
and cook a well-crusted cornbread.
We strive for abundance, to be prepared
for the unexpected visitor, the waylaid
traveler who might arrive without gifts.

We rediscover the joy of bread baked
fresh in the morning. We afford
the extra splurges that festivity demands:
exotic nuts, dense pastes, sweet icings,
breads heavy with butter and spices.

We could not maintain this pace
all year, but for a month, we pretend
we can handle the additional load.
We try to ignore the yearnings from the stomach’s
pit, the one that wonders why every day
can’t be filled with goodies cooling on the hearth,
a household bathed in the fragrance of baking bread,
the comfort of cake.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Light the Candles and Write Daily and Be Grateful You're Not a Pioneer in 1845

Last night, we watched the film Meek's Cutoff.  Various reviews have said it moves at a meditative pace, which may be an understatement.  In other words, it's slow, slow, slow, and I'm still not sure what to make of the ending.

Why do I mention it here?  Long term readers of this blog may remember my fascination with frontier life and pioneers, a fascination born of my love for Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books she wrote.  This movie does the best job I've ever seen at depicting what life was like for this band of pioneers heading west.

The covered wagons were so tiny and so fragile.  I cannot imagine walking west in the clothes that the women wore; I can't imagine doing much more than sitting on the porch!  I can't imagine how the sparse diets that the pioneers ate prepared them for their hike.  But most important, this film shows how scarce the water resources were and how the presence or absence of water could make or break the group. 

The movie made me think about what would compel these people to put a small collection of belongings in a fragile wagon and head off across the continent.  I wondered what a similar analogy would be in modern life.

This movie also made me profoundly grateful to be born when I was, to be living in the first world in this century.

Here we are a week from Christmas, so let me mention that it's the birthday of Charles Wesley, who wrote "Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing," which might be one of your favorite Christmas carols.  Today's entry on The Writer's Almanac website reminds us that Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns.  I wrote about Charles Wesley a year ago in this post on my theology blog.

How did he do write this many hymns, in addition to his evangelizing work?  By writing, of course, "averaging 10 lines a day for 50 years."  So, if you've ever wondered what you would accomplish if you simply wrote 10 lines a day, you'd end up with a rich trove at the end of 50 years.  Ten lines a day--surely we have time to do that!

For those of us wondering if writers can accomplish anything more long lasting than a collection of writing, let us take a minute to remember the life of Vaclav Havel, the playwright who helped bring freedom to Eastern Europe, specifically Czechoslovakia, who has died at age 75.  This wonderful article reminds us of the importance of his political work and the eloquence of his writing:  "Havel's plays were banned as hard-liners installed by Moscow snuffed out every whiff of rebellion. But he continued to write, producing a series of underground essays that stand with the work of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as the most incisive and eloquent analyses of what communism did to society and the individual."

I remember in the early 80's, during the Christmas season, when President Reagan encouraged us to light candles in support of the Polish Solidarity Movement.  It seemed like such a small, insignificant thing, to light a candle against a repressive regime--and yet, how the world would change in one brief century!

So, let us light our candles against all oppression.  Let us remember that many people in our "modern" world are still living a primitive Meek's Cutoff kind of existence.  Let us remember that although the Soviet Union has collapsed, we have no shortage of repressive regimes.  Let us write at least 10 lines every day that will inspire the world to move towards the darkness and away from the light.  Let us always have the resources we need and the freedom to do just that!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mortality and Advent

For those of you who still yearn for more about Christopher Hitchens, don't miss the great essay by Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post.  She talks about meeting Christopher Hitchens as they prepared to appear on a news show, as they got their make-up done, "the objectifying ritual of having one’s countenance applied in the presence of another’s conveys a sort of detached intimacy.  'At last we meet,' he said, as though this were the one thing missing from his otherwise rich life."


She refers us to this essay by Christopher Buckley, which is a wonderful good-bye of one friend to another.  This chunk was my favorite: 

"Lunch—dinner, drinks, any occasion—with Christopher always was [bracing]. One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, 'Should we order more food?' I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit."

Now there's a remembrance!  When I die, I hope my friends remember me similarly:  she ate and drank with great abandon, she was fun, she was smart, I never wanted to leave her presence.

It's been a strange, strange Advent here, as Decembers so often are of late in my life.  I've been sick, my spouse has been sick, my grandmother has been VERY sick . . . in short, mortality has been on my brain, even before the death of Christopher Hitchens.

Some people would decry my thoughts on death during the season of Christmas.  But I would argue that Christmas always has that undertone of mortality.  Those of us who get blue at Christmas are often sad because we're missing people who aren't part of our lives anymore, we're missing our childhoods, we're missing a time when Christmas meant more, we're missing the people who are part of our lives but who are very far away.  In the northern hemisphere, the season shifts into winter, a time when it's hard to ignore the final part of life's cycle.

And I'm a Lutheran, a liturgical Christian, and December is not the Christmas season for me so much as it's the Advent season.  And Advent is a time of looking forward and staying alert.  Advent is an eschatological time in the Church, a time when we think about end times, but not so much in terms of apocalypse and the ruin of the earth, but in terms of salvation and new beginnings.  My religious tradition does not believe that God will rapture us all before destroying the earth, but that God breaks through incarnationally into our normal lives and invites us to be part of the redemption of creation.

My grandmother goes towards her final exam (as Gail Godwin beautifully visioned the last days of an illness in her achingly beautiful novel, The Good Husband).  I'm struck by elements of her small town life, elements that most of us won't experience ever again.  For example, my grandmother's doctor has made lots of time for my parents and uncle to talk about what's right to do; yesterday alone, they conferred for three hours.  Three hours!  Suffice it to say that my doctors wouldn't do that--they can hardly make time for me, in this era of booking multiple appointments at the exact same 15 minute slot.

My grandmother's funeral service, whether it comes soon or years from now, will be at the church where my grandfather was pastor for decades, the church where my parents were married, the church were my spouse and I were married.  She will be buried in Lexington, South Carolina, in the graveyard of the Lutheran church that's across the road from my grandfather's family farmlands.

Those farmlands are now surrounded by strip malls and suburbia.  When I was young, those farmlands seemed very far away from what I would have called civilization.  When I was young, they were far away.

How many of us still have that kind of connection to land, to place, to one church?

And yes, I understand that those kind of connections can be VERY stifling.  Still, I feel a bit of sadness that so many of us are rootless and unbound.

So, here we are, a week away from Christmas Eve.  Will it be a week of festive baking and meals with friends?  Or will it be a week with a trip back to the family homeland?  Or will it be both?  It is Advent after all, the time of promises kept, Messiahs becoming incarnate, the now and the not yet of redemption.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Self-Organized . . . in Unlikely Ways"

For those of you who thought I might talk about the writings of Christopher Hitchens, who died yesterday, you'll need to go over to this post on my theology blog.  Actually, it's not so much a post as a few thoughts and then a posting of a book review of God Is Not Great that I did for an offline newsletter. 

I always admired the pieces that Hitchens wrote, even when I didn't agree with him.  I almost always found him to have a fascinating mind, and I can't say that about many op-ed writers.  I'll miss him, even though his tone was too angry for me to want any more than the occasional piece to read from him.

If you want more about Christopher Hitchens, the Slate website has lots of remembrances and lots of links to past pieces by Hitchens.  You'll mourn a brilliant mind gone too soon--but what a prolific mind!

For those of you who need a dose of wonder today, try Michael Gerson's piece in The Washington Post, a piece that talks about God and physics and various mysteries of our planet and the universe:  "Not only does the universe unexpectedly correspond to mathematical theories, it is self-organizing — from biology to astrophysics — in unlikely ways. The physical constants of the universe seem finely tuned for the emergence of complexity and life. Slightly modify the strength of gravity, or the chemistry of carbon, or the ratio of the mass of protons and electrons, and biological systems become impossible. The universe-ending Big Crunch comes too soon, or carbon isn’t produced, or suns explode."

And so I sit in my office and wait for the students who are likely to show up to complain about failing a class.  They will say things like, "I don't understand.  I turned in everything but that last project.  And that thing that was due week 3.  But I came to every class.  Surely there's something you can do."

I will try to look on them with gentleness and compassion.  I will remember that the universe is self-organizing in unlikely ways.  I will hope for epiphanies to come to these students.

And maybe I'll go to the holiday luncheon.  I always worry it will be like the worst of high school, where there's no place to sit, and I don't see anyone I know anyway.  Maybe it will be like the best of high school, where I have friends who seem to understand me, even though I have self-organized in unlikely ways.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Morning of Sonnets and Cinnamon Bread

This morning, I thought I would write a poem that somehow combined elements of zombies, hospitalized Grandmas who aren't eating, and Advent, based on my post of a few days ago (and for those of you who want a more theological approach to zombies, see today's post on my theology blog).  It wasn't going well. 

I thought about writing a blog post here about whether or not I miss teaching.  I always answer that I miss the classroom and the interactions with the students--but I do not miss the endless grading of essays.  I thought about all the teachers out there who are finishing up autumn terms.  I thought about posting this sonnet from my 2nd chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Posthumous Existence

All during that penurious winter,
while struggling to breathe and coughing up blood,
Keats wrote lines so achingly tender
and letters that came as if in a flood.

What a thing of beauty would be such letters,
so different from that horrid e-mail
that seeks to chain her in these fetters
with the quest to leave a paper trail.

Once she read the great odes.
Now she reads prose that’s spectre-thin.
She teaches all the Composition modes
to students with ears of tin.

How she yearns for poetry’s beaded bubbles.
But she gets incomprehensible sentences for her troubles.

I wrote this poem in 2009, during an autumn that included reading Stanley Plumly's biography of John Keats, Posthumous Keats, and seeing the wonderful Keats movie Bright Star (see this post and that post for what I was thinking at the time).

I returned to my morning zombie/Grandma/Advent draft and notes and rewrote it in sonnet form:

I want to believe in the power
of a kiss to wake the comatose.
I want to believe our love won't sour
if we pay attention in a daily dose.

Will you recognize my face
when you lie dying?
Will you call my name?
Will I come flying?

I think of my grandmother's favorite foods
that she now refuses to eat.
I got through a variety of moods
as I tempt her with her favorite treats.

What a lie these narratives weave;
from death we will be granted no reprieve.

Here's what I first wrote for the last couplet:

What a lie these narratives weave;
we forget that everything we love must leave.

I'm not sure I'm happy enough with this sonnet to do much more with it, which truth be told is why I posted it here.  But I thought it would be interesting to people who wonder about the writing morning of a poet.

I have been dipping in and out of Nikky Finney's Head Off and Split, a wonderful collection that won the National Book Award this year.  Her sprawling poems make me feel like I'm writing spare, sparse little things.  Of course, the sonnet form lends itself to spare, condensed writing.  And I firmly believe there's room in the world for all sorts of poems.

Still, reading Finney's book makes me wonder if I should experiment with longer poems.  I tend to write poems the length of a page of 8 x 11 paper.  What if I went for 5 pages?  What if I wrote a series of poems?  I'll keep these ideas in mind.

I've also been making cinnamon bread and cinnamon rolls this morning.  Yes, it's been a busy bread week in my kitchen (go here to see a photo essay about my Santa Lucia Day bread).  And it's been a busy work week, and a week of increased family phone calls, as we try to keep updated about my grandmother's health.  I'm grateful to get a poem of any kind--and a kitchen full of bread fills me with gratitude too!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Movie for Those Who Don't Want Christmas Sugar but Don't Want Zombies Either

We've spent a lot of time lately watching a variety of Christmas episodes of our favorite television shows, as well as the first season of The Walking Dead--ah, the joys of Netflix!  For more on my zombie watching, see yesterday's post.  In the midst of it all, we watched a very quiet movie which may end up being one of my favorite Christmas movies:  Midnight Clear.

I'm not talking about the movie about World War II (called A Midnight Clear), but the movie that came out in 2006 with Stephen Baldwin in it.  It's got lots of characters and story lines that I knew would intersect but I wasn't sure exactly how.

Because part of the film involves a church youth group that's out carolling, some have written it off as a feel-good Christian movie, but I didn't see it that way at all.  A feel-good Christian movie would have a more upbeat, rah-rah Christian/Christmas message, and this one didn't.

The movie follows a variety of characters through the day and night of Christmas Eve.  Along the way we see that no one is living a perfect life, although the diversity of ways that these lives have gone wrong almost stretches my willing suspension of disbelief at times.  The movie also presents several characters whose lives haven't gone wrong so much as just not according to plan.  I thought it was refreshing to see a conversation between the youth group leader and the pastor, in which the youth group leader expresses his doubt that carolling is worth the effort.  The unspoken part of the conversation that hovers below the surface is the possibility that the youth group leader doesn't think that any of the church work that he's doing makes any kind of difference at all.

In some ways, this movie has a lot to say to us about work and the ways we look for meaning in our work.  One of the characters owns a shabby convenience store out on the edge of town, and we see him doing tasks before opening up the store--including scrubbing the toilet.  I thought, hmm, I don't think I've ever seen the American workplace depicted quite this realistically.

So, these characters go about their lives on Christmas Eve day, and their lives intersect--a typical movie might go the route of their lives will never be the same, but this movie doesn't--or does it?  It's hard to say.  The ending is very subtle, but very powerful.

I've spent days thinking about this movie.  It's an interesting counterpoint to the zombies which also took up a lot of my viewing time.  If zombies work as a metaphor for some of our deepest fears, this movie shows a more realistic depiction of the fears that many of us have:  what if my work/life really doesn't make any difference at all?  what if I will end up abandoned after all?  what if I am stuck in an endless loop that will make me brain dead sooner rather than later?  Perhaps this movie has more similarities to The Walking Dead than I realized.

In the end, Midnight Clear is a Christmas movie in the best sense of that tradition, with a quiet, gentle insistence that we will not be left alone to our own self-destructive devices.  In our hectic Decembers, we often forget that part of the Christmas story, that glad news, the great tidings of joy.  This movie reminds us of the true message of Christmas, and it manages to do it without sinking into either irredeemable pathos or treacly sentiment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse! (for Advent?)

Some months, we hardly use Netflix at all.  And then there are months like this one, when we've been sick, and at points can hardly move off the sofa--months like this one make me wonder what we did before we had Netflix.

We spent much of last week watching the Christmas episodes of every television show we've ever loved; it's amazing how many of them are on Netflix.  And then, on Friday, I came home, and my spouse said, "I watched the first episode of a TV series I think you'd like.  It's about zombies, but it's got an apocalyptic theme too."

Oddly, I had just heard this episode of On Being, where Krista Tippett and Diane Winston talked about theological themes in recent television, and they devoted a significant amount of time to The Walking Dead.  So I was already interested in the show even before my spouse told me about it.

We've just spent the last few days devouring every episode from Season 1.  I'm struck, of course, by the theological themes.  I'm also struck by how the show is a metaphor for non-zombie-apocalypse life.  In one episode, the main characters discover survivors that seems like a holdover from inner city gang life--but what a shock to discover that they're really a group of employees and families working hard to keep a nursing home (or is it a hospital?) going.  The gang leader turns out to have been a custodian in his former life.

One of the characters of the main group laments over how things have changed, but the former custodian disputes that anything essential has changed.  He points out that the strong still prey on the weak.  Likewise, in the finale of season 1, a CDC scientist reminds the group that they will lose everything if they go back into the zombie-occupied world.  But really, isn't that what we all face?  We know that everything we love will be lost sooner or later. 

As we watched, my brain drifted back to earlier apocalyptic loves of mine, most notably those nuclear war movies of the 1980's (The Day After, Threads, and Testament).  I thought of lovers and families who are separated by apocalypse, who aren't quite sure what has happened to their loved ones, who want to maintain hope, even as the likelihood of reunion grows ever dimmer.

I've also wondered about what our apocalyptic scenarios say about our deepest fears. Sometimes, it's obvious: the nuclear war movies of the 1980's seemed rooted in what might happen any day as Ronald Reagan joked about bombing the U.S.S.R.  The episode with the gang who turns out to be inhabiting a nursing home or hospital has clear Hurricane Katrina allusions--it's what we're all afraid of, being helpless, whether it be in the hospital or helpless in some other way, during a catastrophe.

We're in a zombie renaissance right now. Everywhere I turn, I'm seeing zombies in popular culture, whether they're taking over Jane Austen or appearing in Colson Whitehead's The Zone. What does it say about us? Are we worried that we're losing our humanity, that we're becoming little more than reactivated brain stems? I'll keep thinking about those questions.

You might not approve of my habit of watching apocalyptic movies during holiday times, but I'd say that it works theologically.  I'll write more about this on my theology blog later this week, but for now, I'll just say that I come out of a liturgical tradition that stresses eschatology during Advent.  We read the ancient prophets, like Isaiah, while remembering to stay alert and watch for the light.  Some years, the texts stress the rebuilding of the ruined devastations of human endeavor; some years, the focus remains on the ruins.

It's also interesting to watch zombie apocalypses in the midst of Advent, which is part of our 6 week food fest that goes from Thanksgiving Week until New Year's Day.  The Walking Dead has lots of scenes of zombies feeding, and rather voraciously, on very bloody corpses.  Last night, I got the Santa Lucia bread started, while my spouse made homemade pizza, and then we settled in to watch different feasting.

I also have food on the brain because my grandmother lies in a hospital bed 700 miles away; she's not eating.  I think that if I was any kind of good granddaughter, I'd get in my car with her cast iron skillet, and I'd head up there to cook her favorite foods.  If life operated like a holiday movie, that would be all it would take!  My grandmother's eyes would open, she'd eat the peach cobbler I would make for her, and she'd be magically cured of her pneumonia.

Of course, real life doesn't imitate that art, does it?  I'd more likely drive 700 miles to an unresponsive grandma would wouldn't be able to eat the food I made, no matter how wonderful the out-of-season peaches in the cobbler.

Well, this post is not a cheery one, is it?  For those of you hoping for a Santa Lucia Day reflection, head here to my theology blog, where you'll see I've been doing some baking while the rest of the world slept.  Or if you're in the mood for some background about this feast day, head here.

Whatever way you use to chase back the winter dark, if you're in this hemisphere, or the metaphorical dark, I hope it's working for you.  Beat back that chill however you can!  That's the Advent message.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Claustrophobia of "Room"

I am prepared to be the only person who doesn't like Emma Donoghue's book Room.  When it first came out, I said, "Hmm.  A woman held for years as a sexual captive, along with the child who is a result of this captivity.  And the book is narrated by the 5 year old child.  No thank you."

But then I read rapturous reviews.  And I heard Donoghue interviewed by Diane Rehm.  And I heard more and more people who loved the book.  So, I added it to my 2011 list of books to be read.

I've only read half of it.  Maybe it will get better.

Don't get me wrong:  I do admire what Donoghue has done.  By using the 5 year old as narrator, she avoids the trap waiting for writers who write about horrid crimes:  the readers turn into voyeurs.  And she seems to capture the voice and the mind of a 5 year old.

But it's not a voice I want to spend hundreds of pages with.  What's charming for 20 pages quickly turns exhausting.

I wondered if Donoghue intentionally spent so many pages in the world of the garden shed turned jail.  Once again, at first I found it a charming place, full of imagination, even as I was realizing how reduced its horizons were.  As I read the first half of the book, I started to scan it; I only need so many examples of how the mother and child have turned trash and tidbits into toys and imaginary companions.

I'll finish the book, since it's a quick read.  But I must admit that if I had picked up this book without the benefit of any reviews or interviews, I wouldn't have continued reading.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Creating in Narrow Windows of Time

One of my favorite undergraduate English professors always claimed that politics had no place in great art.  She often went further and said that if a writer is political, the writer cannot create great art.  In many ways, she made us wrestle with the question which haunted the 19th and 20th century:  how engaged can/should artists be with the world?

Two authors with birthdays today have been seen as important precisely because their art or their lives forced their readers to think about the role of government in the world.  It's the birthday of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet writer who paid quite a price for his art.  I've always thought that writers like him played a role in bringing about the end of the U.S.S.R. by showing what life was truly like inside that regime.

Yet his life shows us the price that artists might pay when they engage with governments in this way.  We know that Solzhenitsyn was forced into exile, and in some ways, he's one of the lucky ones amongst Soviet artists.  He could have been killed.  As it was, he was sent to a labor camps.  He was allowed to leave; many weren't.  His cancer was treated; many prisoners were not so lucky.

In an interesting parallel, Grace Paley was also born today.  In her life, we also see a cautionary tale about the price that artists might pay for their creative works.  While she wasn't sent to prison or exile, her extensive involvement in political work meant that she wouldn't have the same kind of creative output as other writers.  I've always admired her fierce work in the field of disarmament, peace, and women's liberation.

Many of us these days may wish that political work was the force that kept us away from our writing --but for many of us, it's the actual work that we must do for pay.  We may think longingly of what we'd create if only we didn't have to work for a living.

In an essay in The Washington Post, Abraham Verghese talks about the challenge that many of us face as we try to balance our creative work, our work for pay, and our family lives.  He sacrifices sleep:  "What remains, then, is the time that belongs to sleep. And it is most often from that cache that I must steal. It’s not a happy or ideal arrangement; I have as much need for sleep as the next person. I wake up wanting more sleep, and even on days when I plan to catch up on my deficit and go to sleep early, a novel or something else keeps me reading past the 15 minutes I allow myself."

Along the way he has this interesting nugget about modern parenting:  "The current obsession for parents to be everything to their children, from purveyor of Mozart in utero to muse, coach, camp counselor and chauffeur to as many enriching activities as one can afford ultimately produces parents who accomplish too little at work. I wonder if it produces children who are more accomplished than the parents who had none of these things. (There, I said it. Someone must.)."

He contrasts this modern method to the one employed by his mother, and the advantage to a more left-alone approach to parenting.

And for those of us who only have a very tiny window of time, Dave Bonta offers encouragement in this post that describes the benefits of writing in brief increments.  He says, "I find that just a few minutes of mindful awareness can yield creative dividends for hours. In fact, I often purposely refrain from trying to write a small stone for a couple hours after I come in from the porch, giving my observations time to age. A mere grain can germinate and take root — or irritate, like a grain of sand in an oyster."  The post is full of rich nuggets like this one.

So, here we are, two weeks away from Christmas, the time of the year when most of us find our schedules increasingly busy and perhaps more frantic.  Now is a good time to remember how much we can accomplish creatively, even if we only have a smidge of time each day.