Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Feast of the Visitation and Its Meanings for Moderns

Today, some of us will celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, the day that celebrates the joyful reunion of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist.  If you're in the mood for a religious kind of meditation, see this post on my theology blog.

Some feast days come with a whole passel of traditions, including all sorts of food traditions.  This feast day doesn't appear to have those associations.  So all morning, my mind has spiraled about the kinds of traditions I'd create, if the Pope appointed me the one in charge.

Yes, I know, I'm a Lutheran and a woman, and thus, the Pope is not likely to appoint me in charge of anything.  But it's fun to play.

And yes, I hear my inner 19 year old howling with her fierce, feminist rage.  She would protest this feast day with its emphasis on pregnant women.  She would insist that biology is not destiny.  She would want a feast day that celebrated women making advances in male-dominated fields.

My middle-aged self is willing to admit that biology is often destiny, although not in the womb-centric way that the phrase is often bandied about.  I'm seeing too many people at the mercy of bodies that they have increasingly less control over. 

So, today, let's think about Mary and Elizabeth, two women at the center of miraculous fertility.  Let us think about what new life is in us, waiting to be born.

I'd encourage us to think beyond babies and future generations.  What creative work haunts your dreams?  What visions for the future make your innards leap for joy?  What social justice work remains to be done and done by us?

Every feast day needs food traditions, so today, I'd encourage us to nourish ourselves as if we're pregnant with a child who will go on to save the world, and thus needs a good head start.  Today is a great day to eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Enjoy the finest protein.  Drink an extra glass of milk--but because it's a festival day, make it a milkshake in your favorite flavor.

Then ask yourself why you don't show this level of self-care every day.  And be gentle and realistic with yourself.  Buy some multi-vitamins for future days when you don't have time to stock up on nourishing food or when you don't have time to eat.

Today is a good day to make a resolution that those days will be few and far between.

And when you get to the end of the day, take a few minutes to think about all the elders who have guided you along your path.  Who has been Elizabeth to your Mary?  You might even write a thank you note or e-mail to those people.  You might think about the younger generation who looks to you for similar guidance.  Write an encouraging note, e-mail, Facebook post, or Tweet.  Think of other ways you might serve as a shepherd for the next generation:  tutoring, reading in the schools, leading a Scout troop, getting involved with a group that speaks to your heart, donating money to a group that does good work--the list is as varied as we humans.

And at the end of today, this day of honoring all the ways we can nurture ourselves, our dreams, our potential, and others, take a few minutes to make a gratitude list.  Put on the list everything for which you're grateful.  Carry it with you into the days and weeks to come.  Remember that you are blessed in so many ways.  Remember that the world desperately needs what only you can offer.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Great Ones Passing Away

Yesterday, the world lost another great master:  Doc Watson died at the age of 89.  Earlier this year, I wrote this post about the loss of another legend, Earl Scruggs.  Just as Earl Scruggs changed the world with his banjo picking, so did Doc Watson change the world with his guitar.

You may say you've never heard of Doc Watson, but his guitar techniques changed the worlds of country music and bluegrass--and perhaps all popular music.  Before Doc Watson came along, the guitar was thought of as a back-up instrument.  Before Doc Watson, you'd never see the lead musician in a group playing a guitar--the thought was just ridiculous!

I would guess that more people now know how to play the guitar than just about any other instrument.  I wish I knew how to play the guitar.

But when Doc Watson was first playing the mountain music that would make him famous, the instrument to know would be the fiddle.  He played with a group that had no fiddle player, and he could never master that particular instrument.  So, he started playing the fiddle parts on his guitar.  And the world would never be the same.  He showed that the guitar was capable of complicated melodies.  His flair with the flat pick inspired generations of guitarists.

I love these stories of artists coping with a situation that at its face would seem limiting, like not having a fiddle player at a time when gigs required the fiddle.  I love these stories of artists exploding the boundaries of what's been done before, taking a liability and transforming it into a benefit.

Doc Watson was blind, but he did more than most sighted people will ever contemplate.  He mastered instruments, he toured, he created a music festival, he remained committed to the old mountain music and hymns while exploring new music too.  He supported younger generations of artists; one of my all-time favorite CDs is Michelle Shocked's Arkansas Traveler, which has the influence of Doc Watson braided through it (and in places, the actual playing of Doc Watson).  I also love The Three Pickers, a CD which features Watson, Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs.  The Three Pickers and Arkansas Traveler have provided the soundtrack to many a road trip.

I love that Doc Watson continued to honor those that had gone before him, while being innovative.  I love that he preserved an American heritage--Appalachian music--that so many of us have come to value.  I love that he supported younger artists.  I love that he never forgot his roots, but that he didn't let those roots hem him in.

He died at 89, so at least he had a good, long life.  Still, how quickly it seems that these great ones are leaving us:  Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm, Doc Watson . . . and that's only the musicians that come to mind.  Many of the artists who have meant so much to me will not be far behind, but I shall continue to wish for them a long life, well into their late old age, with ever-increasing mental acuity and a physical body that holds together. 

In fact, I wish that for us all, along with a life's journey where we transform obstacles into opportunities, where we continue to treasure what has nourished us, a life that stretches us without breaking us and a world transformed by our creativity!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Movie Theatre Is the New Sports Stadium

The movie theatre is the new sports stadium--by which, I mean that I have no idea how a regular middle-class family takes their group to the movies.  I'm guessing that normal middle-class families long ago gave up going to professional sports stadiums.

My spouse and I went to see Dark Shadows yesterday.  It's the rare movie ad where we look at each other and say, "That could be fun to see in the theatre."  Yesterday, I was reminded of why we go so rarely.

We went to the bargain matinee.  Now, I knew it wouldn't cost $3.00, like the bargain matinees of my youth.*  Still, I was shocked to find that the bargain price is now $9. 

And of course, we bought concessions--yes, that's our own stupid fault.  I justified it by saying, "Well, we go to movies so rarely.  Let's do the full treatment."

I bought the large size soda and popcorn--they came with free refills, so even though I didn't want but a few more handfuls of popcorn, I got the refill anyway.

I spent the whole night with a tummy ache.  Again, my own stupid fault.  I was so annoyed with how much we spent on concessions that I ate more than I had planned.

And I must say that I was annoyed with the movie too.  It's one of those all-too-common movies where by the time you've seen the ads trying to entice you to the theatre, you've seen the best bits.  I felt restless, and dare I admit it?  Somewhat bored.  At least my fellow movie-goers weren't as awful as they sometimes are.  No cell phones, no people acting like they're in their own private living rooms.

Last night, we watched reruns of M*A*S*H.  It seemed a fitting way to end Memorial Day.  And contrasting that writing to the writing for Dark Shadows, I couldn't help but notice that the writing for M*A*S*H was SO much better.  And free, broadcast to my non-cable TV.

Every so often, I have to learn this expensive lesson over again:  sometimes, the best entertainment is free.  Or at least, cheaper than the manufactured entertainments that our cultural institutions would like me to buy (movies, professional sports games, concerts, and the like).  And serendipitous.  My favorite recent memory is of a few weeks ago.  My spouse and I went to the beach with no clear plan except to wander down the Broadwalk.  We noticed that the organic brewery had finally opened.  We tried an ounce of each of the 4 beers brewed on site.  We shared a pint of the wheat beer, which was the freshest beer I've ever had.  It had a non-bitter taste, light and bubbly, with a pleasantly grassy undertone.  We drank it after walking two miles on a hot afternoon.   It was the perfect refreshment. 

And much cheaper than the movie refreshments we had yesterday.

*Does anyone but me remember the dollar movies?  I used to say, "Everything comes to the dollar movies, if you wait long enough."  I had a writer friend who heard me say that; he said, "I'm going to use that as the title of my first book."  I said, "You can't.  That's going to be the title of my first book."  Neither of us used it, and now we can't, since they don't seem to exist anymore, at least not where I live.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Many Meanings of Memorial Day

Last week I talked to a co-worker who was mourning the fact that Memorial Day is so different down here.  I nodded.  But then she went in a direction I didn't anticipate.

She said, "It used to be a time when we'd go and open up our beach houses and summer homes."  On and on she went with these memories which are completely outside of my frame of reference.  It became clear to me that she'd owned at least one beach home, in addition to some sort of home in the vicinity of New York City. 

I was raised to be polite, so I didn't blurt out the question that seemed obvious to me:  "You come from wealth.  How did you come to be working here?" 

I come from a middle-class existence; if we were lucky and times were good, maybe we could afford to rent a house for a week.  And it wouldn't be at the Hamptons either.  It would be at some low-rent place, like Myrtle Beach, in an unairconditioned house with indoor-outdoor carpeting or linoleum.

No, what I miss about Memorial Day is the sense of gratitude towards military people who gave their lives for freedom.  I've tried writing that sentence in several ways, and it's hard to find a way that doesn't feel overused.

My favorite Memorial Day memory is going to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., shortly after it opened.  More than any parade, that Memorial makes clear the price of war.  And it only has the names of the dead.  So many names.

Of course I yearn for a time when we beat our swords into ploughshares.  Of course I can admit that many wars are misguided.  But I also understand that few of us have much influence over the larger policy issues.  We can still feel gratitude for those who have served.

On Friday night, we watched that show where famous people find out more about their ancestors.  We watched the last bit, where Rob Lowe found out about his German ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.  It was oddly moving to watch Rob Lowe get teary over this ancestor who took all sorts of risks and to see Rob Lowe get an invitation to join the Sons of the American Revolution.  It seemed a fitting way to start Memorial Day week-end.

I don't think of Memorial Day as the start of summer.  I've always lived places where summer begins long before late May.  In fact, before we moved to South Florida, I didn't even have Memorial Day off.  Before moving here, I worked in community colleges in South Carolina, which didn't have the kind of generous holiday schedules that others enjoyed (no Memorial Day, no President's Day, no week of Spring Break).

It's good to have a day off.  It's good to take a few moments today to remember the people who don't get time off.  It's good to remember those who died so that we can enjoy our summer barbecues and beach trips.   

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What Pentecost Has for Writers and Other Authors

Today is one of the big three church holidays; today is Pentecost.  For those of you who have no reference, Pentecost is the day that comes 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus goes back up to Heaven (Ascension Day).  We see a group of disciples still at loose ends, still in effect, hiding out, still unsure of what to do.

Then the Holy Spirit fills them with the sound of a great rushing wind, and they speak in languages they have no way of knowing.  But others understand the languages--it's one way the disciples argue that they're not drunk.  And then they go out to change the world--but that's the subject for an entirely different post.

You may be saying, "Great.  What does all that have to do with me?"

I see that Pentecost story as having similar features to the creative process that many of us experience.  If you replace the religious language, maybe you'll see what I mean. 

Often I've felt stymied and at loose ends.  I think back to times when I've known exactly what to do and where to go next.  I find myself missing teachers and other mentors that I've had.  I may wallow in feelings of abandonment--where has my muse gone?  Why don't I have any great mentors now?  Have all my great ideas abandoned me?  What if I never write a poem again?

And then, whoosh.  Often I hit a time of inspiration.  I get more ideas in any given morning than I can handle.  I jot down notes for later.  I send of packet after packet of submissions. 

Some times, it feels downright scary, like something has taken possession of me.  But it's a good spirit, and so I try to enjoy the inspired times.  I've been at this long enough that I know that these inspired times won't last forever.

The good news:  those inspired times will come back, as long as I keep showing up, keep waiting, stay alert.

That's the message that many of us will be hearing in our churches today.  And it's a good message to remember as we do our creative work.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Conforming--or Not--and Coping

Despite my better judgement, I've continued to listen to punk rock on the way to work:  Bad Religion, the Clash, the Violent Femmes, the Ramones.  I've thought about the non-conformists that I've met throughout the years.  I've thought about my own years of resisting becoming what the greater culture told me I should be; sure, I read Seventeen magazine and Glamour, but I read them more to avoid becoming that kind of female than to pick up beauty and fashion tips.

Some of you might say I internalized that process a bit too well.

Or maybe I'm just sloppy.  I prefer to think of it as having set priorities.  I'm not going to spend hours every week ironing.  I'll put on some lipstick, but I'm not going to take a half hour or more every night before bedtime to moisturize.

Or maybe I'm lucky to be blessed with relatively good skin.

It will be interesting to see if these priorities change as I get older.  Will I spend more time coloring my hair as more gray comes in?  Will I spend more time smoothing creams on my skin as I see more creases and wrinkles?

My dermatologist would jump right in to remind me that I don't spend enough time on sunscreens now.  He's right.  I don't like lotions, so my beauty regimens, such as they are, avoid those things.  I have more sensitivity to smell than lots of people, so chemical smells are often a problem for me, as are most cosmetic and soap smells.

I will, however, tolerate the noxious fumes if I can have a bit of brightness added to my hair.  Yes, I realize the contradiction.  I realize the cost:  I could buy a lot of mosquito netting that would help African children avoid malaria for the cost of the coloring my hair that I do several times a year.

I found myself thinking about my own aesthetic ideas of beauty and art yesterday as I read the various people commenting on the controversy erupting in the young, gay, male art scene in New York City (go here for a succinct timeline of the controversy with links; go here for further elucidation by one of the poets who kicked off the conversation with an interview in The New York Times).  It may take you back to the horrors of young adulthood and remind you of why you're happy to have made it safely to the other side.

It's interesting to be at midlife and find our relationships with our physical selves changing.  When I was young, I felt myself at war with my body and its tendency to hang on to more weight than I wanted it to (oh, those infernal last 5 pounds).  Now that I'm older, I'm more at peace, and profoundly grateful not to be facing some of the challenges that my friends have faced or are facing:  cancers of all sorts, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, herniated disks, the list goes on.

The other day, I found myself wondering if those of us who resist conforming find ourselves with coping skills we didn't expect later.  I've spent a lot of time thinking about what our culture tells me I should want (beauty, endless youth, fame, money) and my own values.  I've thought about what I want (time to create, a life lived with integrity, social justice) and what to do when what I want conflicts with what the culture tells me I should want.

I work in higher education, a field facing job losses and reorganization and shrinking futures.  I wonder if my past as a sneering adolescent has better prepared me for this time than someone who has spent their whole life trying to maintain appearances, trying to afford an upper-middle-class existence.

Or maybe it's my apocalypse girl self, the one who's always scanning the horizon for the mushroom cloud, the one who stockpiles staples, the one who shudders at how easily the water supply can be disrupted--maybe she's the one who keeps me calm in the face of possible catastrophe.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Are We All Archivists Now?

Kelli's recent post about poets and the importance of archiving our lives made me think about a book I just finished reading, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia.  It's a book that I started out loving, but in the end, it wasn't the book I hoped it would be.

There's a lot to like about this book.  It's an interesting look into the lives of aging musicians and siblings at midlife.  But I most enjoyed its exploration of what it means to narrate our lives, to be our own archivists, to catalogue all our creative work--and to make a creative work out of the cataloguing itself.

Nik, the aging musician, began cataloguing his work early on.  Along the way, he creates both real and fake narratives, which leads us to question what the truth of his life is.  His motto is "Self-curate or disappear" (page 2).  Much of his work is done the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Nik's neice wants to create a documentary, and part of the book shows this process.  It's much more boring to read about her filming than to read about Nik's elaborate album covers, his liner notes, his interviews with fake reporters--he even elaborately illustrates and decorates the paper that he uses to wrap the items that he mails.

I wonder if Spiotta does this on purpose, this making of the hand-made more alluring than the making of the film.  I say this because the end of the book made me feel that Spiotta had run out of steam and just wanted to bring the narrative to a close.  I was very unsatisfied with the ending, although it did work in its own way.

Along the way Spiotta gives the reader an interesting window into the rock and roll world of the late 70's.  The main character Denise reflects about the subversiveness of the Sex Pistols: "No one except us girls understood how subversive Johnny Rotten's anti-sex stance really was.  So obnoxiously and unanswerably defiant, the perfect retort to any concern:  It's boring." (page 162, emphasis in original) and  "One other truly subversive thing about the Sex Pistols and the British punks:  bad teeth.  Bad smells, bad teeth, bad skin--this was the real stuff of rebellion.  It didn't last long as an aesthetic.  But wasn't it amazing for a moment?"(page 170).

The sadness of the book is that no matter how defiant we are in our wayward youth, we all must face aging.  This book shows an aging parent in the full throws of dementia, with some interesting observations about the holding hands that  calms the agitated parent:  "We started out with all this body intimacy when I was a baby and then a child . . .  .  We were back to the intimacy of our two bodies." (page 187).

Here's one of my favorite lines from the book:  "He pursued a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future" (page 33).  And of course, even that kind of coping, the excess drug and alcohol abuse, won't save us.

But will self-archiving save us?  The book doesn't wrestle with that question, not explicitly.  I suspect that it's a question that haunts most artists, just the way it haunts the musician in this book.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Modern Families, Modern Workplaces, Modern Music

--On Tuesday night, we did our spin class to the music of Donna Summer and the Bee Gees.  I forgot how good a lot of that music was.  And it's got a great beat, and you can pedal to it--I was very sore the next day.

--Of course, maybe I was sore because I couldn't stay for the cool down and stretching.  In taking care of my physical body, stretching is the area that I most overlook/avoid/skimp on.  The only stretching I do is the cool down after class.

--I do try to get up from my desk periodically to take a short walk.  I should incorporate some stretching.

--On my way to work yesterday, I listened to the Clash.  I have written before about listening to the angry music of my youth whilst on my way to meetings, so I won't do it again here.  Would my mood be different if I listened to disco music on my way to work?

--I've been watching old Mary Tyler Moore shows and thinking of how few modern shows depict the workplace.  No wonder I thought that having a career would be fabulous.  We never see Mary Tyler Moore wonder if her work makes a difference, if she's living up to her full potential.  Even the annoying colleagues are lovingly annoying, not annoying in a sociopathic way.

--Interesting, too, to watch the newsroom and to know what tidal waves of change are heading towards Mary Tyler Moore and her colleagues.  I seem to recall that the Mary Tyler Moore show spun off Lou Grant (the boss) in his own show where he went off to work for a newspaper--bad career move!

--Suddenly, I have an idea for a poem that I wouldn't have had without this blog post.  Here are lines that just bubbled up to me:

No one is sexually harassed on the Mary Tyler Moore show.

No one faces lay offs on the Mary Tyler Moore show.

Mary Tyler Moore faces few existential crises.*  At the end of the day, the evening news gives information and she can sleep the sleep of the satisfied, those sure that they are doing what they were put on the planet to do.

--O.K., for that last one, I probably wouldn't keep it as one line.

--Here's another poem idea:  what does Mary Tyler Moore dream of?  Piloting an airplane across the Pacific?  Going back to school to be  . . . what?

--After watching Mary Tyler Moore, I watched Modern Family and reflected on how the world has changed since Mary Tyler Moore.  A gay family!  Minorities!  Characters who move easily between Spanish and English!

--And last night seemed especially ground breaking.  I'll save the big surprises for those of you who have yet to watch it.  But I can tell you this without spoiling anything:  we finally see the gay couple behaving tenderly with each other.  While I agree that it's great to see them as a normal couple who fight and bicker and get frustrated with all the regular stuff of daily life, I'd also like to see them adoringly gaze at each other or--gasp!--kiss.

--What do any of these characters on Modern Family do?  How do they afford such nice houses?  One of them is a lawyer, and one sells real estate--both males.  What do the women do?  What year is it on Modern Family?  How strange is it that Mary Tyler Moore still seems so revolutionary in terms of depicting women working for a paycheck?

--We don't see many television characters who go to work, do we?  Of course, I don't watch much TV, and I know that scripted shows aren't as numerous as they once were.   Still, we don't see many characters who work outside the home, or characters who are wrestling with artistic ambitions, or characters who are wrestling with how to integrate their spiritual yearnings with their regular lives.

--I realize I'm not a typical viewer, but surely I'm not the only one who would like to see these types of characters.  A woman at midlife dreams of different narrative arcs . . .

*or at least few existential crises that can't be solved by the end of the episode

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Comforts of All Kinds

Today is the birthday of Jane Kenyon.  If I was teaching an American Lit survey class, I'd include her as a poet who has done more than perhaps any other poet to show us what it's like to live with depression.  What I especially like about her work is that she shows that there's more to her life and work than just the depression.  My favorite poem of hers is "Otherwise," which you can find here.

Or is my favorite "Having It Out with Melancholy"?  Read it here and contrast it with "Otherwise."  Just that simple exercise shows her range.

I love her simplicity, which hides a complexity--read "Let Evening Come" here and see what I mean.  It's a great poem to show your writing students the value of repetition, the value of syllabics.

What I find interesting about my love of her is that even with knowledge of her depression, her life on the farm with soulmate and fellow poet Donald Hall sounds so idyllic.  Read this essay of his and see if you don't agree.

Of course, reading that essay, I'm haunted by the knowledge that Kenyon will die young of leukemia.  Idyllic life will only last so long and take you so far.

The loss of Jane Kenyon led Donald Hall to write some of the most searing poems of grief I've ever read.  Once, long ago, I subscribed to The Threepenny Review.  I was back and forth between the town where I worked and the town where my spouse was going to grad school, and it was getting to be exhausting.  I got the issue which presented Hall's "Letter in Autumn," which you can read here.  When I got to those last lines, that longing to be a tree, I wept.  I still haven't found the courage to read his collected poems of grief, Without.    I should find a copy of it and keep it--at some point, I expect to have some heavy grieving to do as I outlive everyone I love (unless, of course, a freak accident takes me out earlier).

Today is also the birthday of Margaret Wise Brown, who is most famous for her children's book, Goodnight Moon.  I didn't have this book as part of my childhood, but years later, I read it over and over again to my nephew.  I came to understand its appeal.

In fact, there have been many times that I wished I had my own copy.  I fancied it would be soothing.

Out of those longings, came these two poems.  I wrote the first poem, which I then reworked into a sonnet.

Goodnight Moon

Even though the children are grown and gone,
she still sings at night.
Fretful memories haunt the house.
So she does what she always
did, for twenty years, before childhood ended.

She heats the milk in a pan, pours
it into calming Christmas mugs (no matter the season), dusts
each with a sprinkle of nutmeg. She goes
from room to room, checking closet doors
and dimming lights. And she sings
the special lullabies, that repertoire of sleepy songs.

He sits in the armchair in the den
and sips his mug of milk.
The cats linger in his lap
as he leafs through the books his children used to love.

In the sonnet version below, the last 2 lines are from Brown's book:
Goodnight Moon

She still sings at night,
though her children are grown.
Her songs soothed their fright,
and they now soothe her own.

He sits in his chair
with the cats gathered round.
They all sit and stare
mesmerized by the song’s sound.

She brings him warm milk in an old Christmas mug
with a dash of nutmeg on top.
They read the old books, stretched out on the rug
until sleep makes them stop.

“Goodnight stars, Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Holmes, House, and Other Recurring Characters

On this day, in 1859, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born.  What would the world be like had we never had a Sherlock Holmes?

Last night, as I watched the special show before the last show of House, I was most interested in the segment where the writers talked about how Sherlock Holmes influenced them, even down to the names of the characters:  House/Holmes (say the last name out loud to remember that it sounds like Homes), Watson/Wilson.  And of course, the reasoning on the show can be very Sherlock Holmesian.  If you consider every possibility, you're more likely to find the answer.

I don't know how often Holmes had an a-ha moment of epiphany as he was doing something completely unrelated.  That type of discovery has played a large role in House.  Or maybe that's just what I remember most.

I read somewhere that Conan Doyle created a recurring character in response to the 19th century periodical and its demand for a continuing story with cliffhangers that would require readers to buy the next issue.  Dickens was a master of this form.

Conan Doyle was a doctor, so one might imagine that he had less time to create a novel in segments.  But he could create a character that audiences would be hungry to see again and again.  Much of modern television works the same way.

I wonder how much modern literature works that way.  Certainly much detective fiction works that way.  I could make a case that blogging is similar.  I go back to my favorite blogs not so much to learn something, but because I like the blogger's voice.  I'm happy to read my favorite bloggers talk about what they're reading or what they're writing or their work lives or their children or their gardens.  It's the voice I want to hear, not the content.  And occasionally, I do want to tune in to the narrative to see what happens, but that's usually secondary.

I also find inspiring the story of Conan Doyle's literary success (ultimately he would write 4 novels and 56 short stories).  He managed to write while building a medical practice that would flourish.  It can be done!  We can hold down full-time, demanding jobs while creating a body of literary work that will outlast us and influence creative types over 100 years later.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Birding and "The Big Year"

On Saturday, after an intense few hours of outdoor work, we settled in for a movie, along with blue cheese, crackers, and red wine.  We had torrential rain, which made being indoors with a movie--after doing some outdoor work--especially wonderful.

Even better, we had a good movie.  I don't know if it's something about the movies being released or something about me as a viewer at midlife, but most movies just don't seem worth the time anymore, even if it's just to kill a few hours on a Saturday.  For example, last week-end, we watched The Descendants.  Even the presence of George Clooney and the beauty of the Hawaiian setting couldn't relieve my persistent feeling of boredom.

On Saturday, we watched The Big Year.  It showed up on some end-of-year lists as a movie that was surprisingly good.  I was doubtful:  a movie about people watching birds?  Really?  But it has a great cast and a quest theme, and I thought it was worth a risk.

It was a delight.  I loved the idea of seeing how many birds you can see in a year.  I wish I had the kind of life where I could just take off to the opposite side of the continent because a big storm will scare up lots of rare birds.  The adventure aspect spoke to my inner 19 year old who would rather be biking to California or hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I didn't expect the characters to be as engaging as they were.  I didn't expect some of my favorite themes, like redemption and living an integrated life.

In fact, the movie was so wonderful, I'd watch it again.  These days, I rarely find myself thinking that.  I'm usually looking at my watch and saying, "How much longer?"

I'm hoping for a calmer week at work.  Otherwise, I'll find myself plotting my own kind of birding get-away.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pruning and Prepping for Hurricane Season

Yesterday after spin class, I pitched in on some yard chores.  I drug branches around to the curb--it's bulk pick-up week.  And then, I got out the clippers and did some pruning.

Our trees have gotten quite overgrown.  They could be shrubs, if we stayed on top of the pruning, but we'd really like them to be trees.  As it is, they've started looking like scruffy, shrubby, small trees.

As the first hurricane of this season started forming yesterday, although we didn't know it was forming, we started pruning, both to shape the shrubby trees, and to prepare them for hurricane season.  It's a tricky thing.  You want them thin enough so that the wind can move through them, but not so pruned that you've caused damage.

I found it very satisfying to snip and cut, once I got over my fear.  We could see literal storm clouds gathering, so we knew we wouldn't have to devote the whole day to the task.  We could do an hour or two of sweaty work and then reward ourselves with wine and cheese and a movie.

It's also satisfying to do the kind of work where one sees almost instant results.  I haven't had that sensation much this past week.

It has been the kind of week where I often shook my head and said, "I did not go to grad school for this."  I've tried to sort out not one, but two, room mix-ups, which in retrospect, could have been avoided, if I had made a few different choices.  It's the time of the quarter where students realize that they can't continue to goof off indefinitely. I've seen more than one student in my office who cannot come to terms with the fact that they've blown it for the final time. I've dealt with co-workers who have feathers ruffled in varying degrees of severity. I have tried to stay patient, to hide my frustration, to not blow up as people continued to push and push and push.  Some days I've done a better job of being Zen Kristin than others.

I have wanted to believe that we're all working on important projects, but it hasn't been that kind of week.  So, it was satisfying to do some work on a Saturday that had immediate results--today I can get in and out of the car without fighting the shrubby tree; I can walk up the front walk without being afraid of a branch in my eye.  Hurrah!

Friday, May 18, 2012

When Your Favorite Theologian Dies (and It's Not Donna Summer)

Yesterday afternoon, one of my coworkers told me that Donna Summer had died.   Then I checked my e-mail and saw that Walter Wink had died.  Actually, he died a week earlier, but deaths of theologians don't often make the national news. 

Who is Walter Wink, you ask?  He's one of my favorite theologians.  A great tribute to him is found here.

I first became interested in him because he takes the turn the other cheek passage and turns it into a text of resistance.  You might want to re-read that particular Gospel in Matthew 5:38-48.

Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:

“Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek...' I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, 'When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek.'

Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, 'I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.' This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”

Wink explains the other elements of the Gospel resistance readings here. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to his work, especially for those of us who aren’t up to reading his multi-volume works on resisting the various powers at work in this world.

Wink is also important to me because he helps me square the idea of a God who is active in the world with the idea of free will.

Walter Wink reminds us that even if we believe in free will, this belief doesn't mean that God can't act in the world. But God won't act if we don't ask or demand it: "This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present" (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, page 301).

I was a bit too young for the disco era, although that music is familiar to me.  I was not dancing into the wee, small hours of the morning.  Unlike some of my older gay male friends, I don't remember disco music as the backdrop to a social movement or a journey of self-discovery.  But I am always sad at the news of a death of a famous creative type.

However, it was the news of Wink's death that made me feel weepy at work.  He had ideas that took my breath away.  He wrote books that I underlined copiously.  He made me want to work for social justice, and he convinced me that social justice was possible.  He will be missed, but happily, he lived a long life, and left behind a body of work for us to continue to cherish.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mississippi Mud Cake

This morning, I made a Mississippi Mud Cake.  When I was a child in the 70's, this dessert was one of my favorites.  Now, as an adult, just reading the recipe makes my arteries clog a little.  The cake itself has a cup of oil, the cake is spread with marshmallow fluff, and the icing has 2 sticks of butter, sweetened condensed milk, pecans . . . oh, all right, I'll post the recipe below.

Why am I making such a thing?  Well at lunch time tomorrow, there's a multi-cultural cook off.  We're supposed to bring foods of our homelands. 

I'm a woman who has no homeland.

Yes that's a melodramatic statement, and not exactly true.  But it came to me, and I loved the rhythm of it, so I'll write it here, on this blog, where I write all sorts of lines that may or may not migrate to poems.

But seriously, when I think of my homeland (the U.S. South, above the Florida border, let us say), I think of certain foods, but they weren't foods that appeared on the tables of my childhood and adolescence.  When we wanted fried chicken, we went to KFC, just like the rest of the country.  We ate grits at restaurants, but not at home.  At home we ate tuna noodle casserole and tacos from a kit that we got at the grocery store (shells and a packet of seasoning to add to the meat).  We had the occasional pot roast, with lots of potatoes and carrots to stretch out the meal.  We had soupy sloppy joes.  We had all sorts of miscellaneous stews that came out of a crock pot.

None of those dishes exactly screams "Modern Crowd Pleaser."  I'm not sure that this Mississippi Mud Cake will please everyone.  You won't like this cake if you're the kind of person who wrinkles your nose and says, "My, it's awfully sweet, isn't it?"

When we were kids, we ate second servings.  Now, I can only eat a smidge.  But what a tasty, gooey smidge!

Tomorrow at work we will have the noon cook off at work and our department no-pressure potluck in the late afternoon.  I wonder if I can get an extra work out in?

So, if you want a taste of tomorrow (or a taste of yesterday, a childhood in the 70's), here's the recipe:

Mississippi Mud Cake

2 C. sugar
1 C. oil
1/3 C. cocoa
1 1/2 C. flour
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 C. pecans

Mix all the ingredients together and put in a 9 x 13 inch pan.  Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.  Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes.  Spread with one jar of marshmallow creme.

Frosting:  Melt together the following:

2 sticks butter
1 pound powdered sugar
1/2 C. cocoa
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 C. condensed milk
1 C. pecans.

Spread over the marshmallow creme.  Ideally, the creme spreads into the frosting and looks mud-like. 

This cake is even better if you can make it one day ahead of time. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Measuring Productivity: Grad School Terms or New Media Terms?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a proposal and sent it to an editor who's putting together a collection of essays about women poets and mythology.  It was accepted.  It will be 2700-3000 words, which in the olden days of calculating, would be about 12 pages.  So, it's not a full-blown academic paper size; I think of those papers as 25 or more pages.  But neither is it blog post size.

A few days ago, I saw a call for papers from an editor who's putting together a book about poetry and film.  I immediately thought of one of my favorite films, Bright Star.  I put together an abstract, which my spouse saw, and we chatted while I got ready for work.

I said, "My one concern is that if this paper gets accepted, I've got two papers due in December."

And then I had to laugh at myself.  In grad school, I used to have 3-6 papers due at the end of any given semester.  My grad school friend might remind me that often I'd be writing 20-60 pages in a week-end.  So why am I worried about writing 2 papers in the next 7 months?

Well, in grad school, my main job was to write papers.  My secondary job was to teach a class or two and to go to classes.

But here's my main fear:  in grad school, I had a really good library.  Now, I don't.

I know, you're saying, "But now you have everything that's available on the Internet."

That's better than having no library and no Internet.  And I can get books by Interlibrary Loan.  But it's not the same as having a library with a finite amount of resources.  It's not the same as knowing the general areas of the library where I'll find the books I want.

I miss the University of South Carolina library.  It is probably time to explore the libraries of our local public universities, which will likely be smaller but probably perfectly adequate. 

And it is also time to think about my time management.  Am I accomplishing everything I want to be accomplishing?  If I could write 20-60 pages in a week-end 20 years ago, why am I not doing that now? 

And I might also think about what I am writing:  a blog post at each of my 2 blogs almost every day, a poem or two most weeks, additional blog posts elsewhere, essays here and there, a short story occasionally.  I may actually be writing more these days, but since I don't measure it in grad school paper terms, I don't realize it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Off to See the Wizard

Today is the birthday of L. Frank Baum, most famous for having written The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Would we even remember him if there hadn't been a movie?  Hard to say.  I read many books in the series, saw the movie, read Gregory Maguire's Wicked (but have yet to see the musical).  It's becoming hard for me to remember which details go with which work.

But let me just take a minute to think about the aspects of our culture that wouldn't exist had not Baum written his book that started the whole saga.  We would probably still have the idea of two siblings, one good, one bad; but we wouldn't have that wonderful phrase, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"  Maybe someone else would have memorably made us consider that we had everything we needed before we even left home.  Another movie maker likely would have used the difference between black and white and technicolor to great effect, but how gloriously that motif came together in the movie.

What would life today be like if Judy Garland had never stood at that fence and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"?  Think of the iconic images:  the ruby slippers (silver, in the book), the tornado, the yellow brick road to a distant Emerald City, the Munchkins, the flying monkeys. 

The dominant themes still seem so relevant:  the yearning for home and the longing to be anywhere but home, the nagging feeling that somewhere out there is a community that would better understand us.

I continue to be intrigued by the Scarecrow wanting a brain, the Tin Man wanting a heart, the Lion wanting courage.  The Wizard of Oz gives them a pincushion, a silk heart, and a drink (at least in the book; the movie details escape me now)--but of course, they've already demonstrated the personality traits that they desire.  Still, that talisman seems important.

There's the whole motif of the journey and what we learn.  And in the book, I remember that everyone who visits the Emerald City has to put on glasses--which, of course, makes the world green.  We see so much in this saga about how we see and how we learn and how we come into our full potential.

Sure, there are some that would make the story be a tale about the gold standard and paper money.  Maybe it is.  But that's the beauty of a well-told tale:  different readers can come away with radically different interpretations, and if they're skilled literary critics, they can likely find support in the literature they're discussing.

Many cultural critics would tell you that this story is one of the most familiar pop culture narratives ever.  That's an enormous accomplishment.

I also find myself thinking about how future generations will take the story and make it their own.  We've already seen Gregory Maguire's approach, and I suspect much more remains to be mined.

Monday, May 14, 2012

When Your Art Project Dies

Just before this year's Create in Me retreat, a huge storm system moved through the North Carolina mountains.  Our 2011 community art project returned to its broken state:

Once upon a time, it had looked like this:

And before that, it looked like this, as we filled its plexiglass form with broken bits (the theme of last year's retreat was "broken but beautiful")

I wrote at some length about creating this community art project; that post is here

But we got to the 2012 retreat and found ourselves with a decision to make.  What to do with this art project that had taken on a new form of brokenness?

I was reluctant to do what must be done.  The obvious solution:  to take the creation to the dumpster.  I mourned all those broken bits:

I mourned the way that they had jumbled together into a new and beautiful creation:

I came up with a crazy plan.  Only one side of the cross was broken.  We could somehow get the broken bits back into the cross and seal up the plexiglass with duct tape.  Because only one side would be beautiful, we'd lash it to a tree--and then it wouldn't risk blowing over again!

Even as I said it, I knew that I was trying to preserve what was already gone.  Sometimes, you have to let go of a past project.  Not everything can live/exist forever.  Sometimes, we do more damage to a project by trying to preserve it beyond its lifespan.

It makes me think of my various writing projects.  I've let go of past manuscripts--often, when a new way of collecting poems captures my imagination.  I've put novels in drawers where I expect that they will rest forever.  Some of them will live in a box because they're weak:  I'd like to write mysteries, but my mystery novels read like interview of suspect after interview.  Yes, it's as boring as it sounds.

It's good every so often to re-evaluate.  The trick is not to second guess ourselves too much, not to kill our creative projects prematurely.

Some of us also need to learn to let go, when it's time to let go.  Sometimes, a project can't be redeemed.  It's good to remember it as it was, rather than making it worse by refusing to let go.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Aging Eyes and Baby Quilts

These days, the main quilting that I do is creating baby quilts, which I love because I can complete a small project.  My larger quilts sit waiting for me.  This morning, my fingers are sore from doing some intense quilting yesterday.  If I'm creating a baby quilt for a specific pregnant woman, the project comes to a point when it must be done.

I've been in some denial about my eyes.  I've only just started putting on reading glasses when doing transcript evaluation, but I've told myself that it's because the transcripts were fuzzy or had small print--or both.  When I use my reading glasses at night, I tell myself it's because my eyes are tired.

They aren't even my glasses.  I'm borrowing my spouse's.

Yesterday, I was having trouble threading my needle, and I borrowed his glasses.  I got the thread through the eye on my first try.

Perhaps it's time to stop denying my need for reading glasses.  Am I in denial about the aging process?  Perhaps a bit.  But part of why I resist reading glasses is rooted in the same reason why I resist a smart phone:  I don't want to have to cart around so much stuff.

I like my younger self, with a credit card and a lipstick in her pocket, and she was ready to go anywhere.

There are many reasons why I chose not to have children; part of that decision has similar roots.  I didn't want to be weighed down in that way.

Of course, my younger self would be horrified at the ways the world weighs us down, even if we travel through it without children, without reading glasses, without a smart phone.  We accumulate baggage.

It's interesting to be quilting on Mother's Day week-end, thinking about aging and the doors that are closing.  It's interesting to think about choice.  I've always assumed that I had plenty of choices, plenty of time.

It's harder to keep thinking that way. 

But instead of mourning, let me use this awareness as a spur.  I won't be here forever, and time grows ever shorter.  What is my life's important work still left to be done?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

First Days of Memoir Writing

Yesterday was a long day at work, but not hard.  I spent the day doing a transfer of credit analysis here and there, proctoring a quiz for one of my faculty members for students who needed to take the quiz in a quiet, distraction-free place, and working here and there on projects.  My day was book-ended by lovely, deep conversations with friends.

Once it worried me that most of my friends are work friends.  But then it occured to me that most of my friends that I've kept in touch with through the years started out as work friends, if we expand the scope of the word "work" to include grad school.  And it makes sense.  After all, I spend more time with my co-workers than with just about anyone else.  I'm just happy that there are some kindred spirits where I work.

Yesterday morning, I met with one of my work friends who is also a writer friend.  We've been meeting every 4-6 weeks, stories in hand, for lunch and for writing discussion.  See what I mean about being lucky to have kindred spirits?

I agreed to meet yesterday if I could bring the first pages of my memoir rather than a short story.  She said yes.  I want to get back to writing the short stories for my linked collection; I have ideas that I don't want to lose.  But late April and early May was a time of travel (and recovering from travel) and paid writing project deadlines, so I knew I wouldn't be writing a short story.  But I had this vision for the beginning of my memoir, and I wanted to use our writing date as a spur to get it done before it got lost under the weight of e-mails and other minutiae.

I plan to document my memoir writing process here, in addition to my other types of writing.  It might be useful to others who want to write a memoir.  It might be interesting later, when I have the memoir published.  It will serve as a collection point for me, a place to put my thoughts about the memoir and notes for revision.

My memoir, you may or may not remember, will weave together the strands of my life that deal with living an authentic life, a spiritual life, a Christian life, while at the same time spending a majority of time in an office that isn't devoted to Christian spirituality.  I decided to start with the feast day of Epiphany and having to finish an assessment document.

My friend mentioned themes that she saw, the theme of travel/journey and the theme of bread.  She mentioned that the end of the chapter didn't work for her, because it's about the absence of a Christmas tree, the absence of light, which didn't fit with my Epiphany-inspired thoughts.

Intriguing!  Fixable!

And it's inspired me to think, right from the beginning, about images that I want to weave through the book, images that will undergird the theme.  How fabulous to have gotten that process underway at the beginning.

I must confess, at first I felt somewhat gobsmacked.  I thought, oh yeah, imagery and symbolism--I need to do that here too, not just in my fiction and poetry.  I spent a brief 30 seconds in self-loathing:  "How could I have forgotten about that?  I'm so stupid!"  Then I shut up that horrible side of myself and started to see all the possibilities.

How good it is to have writer friends on this journey.

We talked about my writer friend's story and whether or not it's a problem that it has no dialogue.  We agreed that it's not a problem, that she might have more problems if she tried to put in dialogue for her recent immigrant characters.

I've also been thinking about verb tense in the memoir.  I tend to write in the present tense.  I'd be interested to hear from readers about whether or not they find present tense verbs irritating.

One of the main things I wanted to know--would she keep reading the memoir, if she didn't know me, if she read these first few pages at her local bookstore.  She said she would.  Hurrah!

Right now what I'm doing is going back through my blogs and cutting and pasting relevant blog postings into one big manuscript.  Later, I'll read it through and see what to keep and what to cut.  Obviously, I want to write a book that's not just cutting and pasting of blog posts.  But it's a good place to start, a good route to a rough draft.

The writing of my pages for my writer friend was a good way of seeing how that process would work.  I was able to use  a sentence here or there from my blog posts, but for the most part, I was crafting something new, weaving together multiple strands and thoughts.

Let me also confess to being a bad reviser.  I produce a first draft, and I think, wow, it's better than I thought it would be.  And I feel like I'm done.  I don't want to think about how it could be better.  I want my friends to say, "Kristin, you're brilliant.  I can't see a thing you need to do with this piece."

Thank goodness my friends don't do that--because as I said the other day, I want to write works that will be intensely meaningful for people.  The gift of revision gives me multiple chances to do just that.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Meat Loaf as Metaphor

Last night I arrived home with a profound sense of gratitude.  We've been having day after day of scary storms, the kind of storm with dramatic lightning and wind howling around the buildings and rattling the doors, the kind of storm where I wonder if I should go to a windowless room closer to the center of the building.

Yesterday was also a day where there was some kind of horrific crime, officers shot, the Florida Turnpike shut down in both directions.  I was grateful to scoot home before the traffic problems in the west of the county spread across the whole tri-county area.

My spouse had made meatloaf.  It was delicious!  I say this with surprise because I've always thought that a dish like meatloaf or sloppy joes was a terrible thing to do to meat that could be grilled as burgers. 

My views on meatloaf were formed during my childhood in the 1970's, a time of incredibly high meat prices, where my mom would have made meatloaf with more filler than meat.

We also opened a yummy bottle of wine, which would not have been served with the meatloaf of my childhood.

We've been watching the best TV of the 1970's too, MASH and the Mary Tyler Moore show and the Bob Newhart show.  The writing holds up, as do the characters, even if the sets, hairstyles, and clothes look dated.

I wonder about the TV of the youth of today.  What will bring them nostalgic happiness as adults?

I'd probably vote for shows like Parks and Rec, The Office, and 30 RockModern Family also has the qualities I look for in a show, whether or not it's one being aired today or one from my childhood:  good writing, interesting characters, humor that makes me laugh out loud, a sense that order and love will be restored. 

In some ways, that's what I want for dinner too:  something that's interesting to see and taste, something that makes me feel that order and love will win the fight over chaos.  For many people, that's meatloaf. 

That's what I want in my reading and writing too.  Hmm.  I'm seeing meatloaf as an even larger metaphor.  I know that there are edgier literary critics who would sneer at my love of literary meatloaf.  Let them read their disturbing tales exploring the minds of child molesters and murderers.  Give me my spunky heroines who defy the odds and restore order when chaos threatens.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Changing Our Minds: Debt, Education, and Marriage for All

--As an administrator, one of my favorite duties is making classroom observations.  I'm ostensibly there to observe the faculty teaching, but of course, I also get to watch the students in action.  So many of them are engaged with the subject at hand, even if it's far away from the major they came to school to study.  So many bright minds!  It's good to remember that, especially as I worry about the future of higher education.

--In the abstract, it's easy for me to wonder if a college degree continues to be worth the cost, especially when I read stories like this one, about Ph.D.s on food stamps or hear the various NPR stories I've been hearing about students with enormous debt who can't find jobs.

--Those stories make me ponder other questions, like who on earth decides that taking on $150,000 in debt is a good idea for an undergraduate degree--or a graduate degree.  I know that I'm channeling my grandmother who came of age in the Great Depression and had a horror of debt.  Even though I don't cut apart cereal boxes so that I can re-use the cardboard and wash the wax paper surrounding the cereal so that I can use that too, I do share her caution when it comes to debt.

--I come by my caution honestly.  When I was young and had racked up credit card debt that I despaired of ever getting free of, I had an "embrace debt" philosophy.  I thought I would be in debt forever and so why not take on more so that I could have the stuff I wanted?

--Happily, that phase did not last long.  My spouse went back to school and we re-organized our debt.  And we got aggressive about paying it off.

--We're rather obsessed with not taking on new debt.  If you hung out with me for a week, you might notice that our cars are over 10 years old and I'm not wearing designer clothes.

--You might also ask me why I'm spending so much money on salads at Panera or other restaurants in any given month.  I'll eat a salad, and enjoy it, if I buy it at a restaurant where someone else will do the chopping and assembling.  It's a great way to get a lot of veggies.  But if I bought salad ingredients for my house, they'd molder in the crisper.

--Here's the best piece of advice I've ever gotten to get my spending under control.  Figure out how much you make an hour.  Then, when you consider buying something, calculate how many hours of work you're paying for the object/experience.  Chances are good you'll say that it's not worth 2-4 hours of work to obtain said object/experience.

--Once upon a time, I'd have told you that I believe in education for the sake of education.  I still do, but I'm not sure that education for the sake of education should leave one saddled with much debt.

--I used to think that some debt was good, while other debt was bad.  I may be changing my mind.  If President Obama can change his mind (or evolve), so can I.

--David Brooks wrote one of the better essays on marriage--gay and otherwise--that I've ever read.  And it's still available online!

--He mentions the sad state of U.S. marriage statistics (although divorce rates are improving--80% of marriages last--that 50% average takes the # of marriages in a given year and the # of divorces--it doesn't mean that if you marry someone this year that you have a 50% chance of divorce). 

--We're a nation that blabbers a lot about the sanctity of this and that, but our behaviors belie our talk.

--Brooks says, "The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity."

--I would go a few steps further.  I don't know that I believe that marriage needs to be between 2 people.  Why not 3?  Why not 4? 

--But I do believe that more of us who enter into marriage should see it as a covenant, a covenant between the people making it, the people assembled to witness it, and the God (or Gods, depending on your belief system) who created us all.

--Unlike many Protestants, I see marriage as a sacrament.  But that's a subject for another day.  Or another blog.  Go to this post on my theology blog if you'd like an essay along those lines.

--On this day in 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed.  It's one of those achievements that once seemed impossible, a project that faced all sorts of complications and once finished, had all sorts of unforeseen consequences, both positive and negative.  It seems a fitting metaphor for all sorts of modern day projects and issues.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Crafting a Trajectory that Matters

Yesterday was one of those days where I felt an almost unbearable sadness at the loss of creative people.  It has been a tough few weeks, starting with the death of Adrienne Rich.

Yesterday as I drove in to work, I listened to Fresh Air and wondered why Maurice Sendak was on, talking about his older work.  I thought, well, maybe he has a new book.  But I was afraid that I would hear what I did hear:  he had died, and Fresh Air was broadcasting highlights from past interviews.  Listening to yesterday's show, I was struck again and again by how talented Sendak was, what a unique life he's had, and how much I'll miss him.

But he was in his 80's, after all, and both he and Adrienne Rich had led full, wonderful lives full of creative output.  I felt more devastated when I learned that Adam Yauch had lost his battle with cancer.  He was 47, only a year older than I am.

I was a tangential Beastie Boys fan.  I never bought a record or CD of theirs, but I liked their music.  More, I liked their evolution.  I hold fast to that model (also evident in Adrienne Rich's life), that we can evolve, that we are not forever doomed to produce the art of our younger years.  In our art, we can move to different ways of doing that art or whole different art forms, and it will be OK.  Maybe even revolutionary and important.

I was also impressed with Adam Yauch's championing of Tibet.  I like that he renounced the homophobia and misogyny of his earlier work and called others to do the same.  I like that trajectory of his that shows that we don't always have to stay our bratty 19 year old selves.  We can mature.  Our fans will follow us.  Maybe we'll even pick up new fans.

Yesterday had a sort of surreal quality, dealing with issues at work that aren't important at all, not today, not ever.  I do not care about reorganizing the storage areas.  I am tired of wasting my writing talents in crafting e-mails that no one reads.  Engaging in endless conversations about the mysteries of the HVAC system just exhausts me.  I want a life that matters.

I remind myself that people like Rich, Sendak, and Yauch weren't doing important things every single day. 
Every life contains mind-numbing minutiae that exhausts us.

Yesterday was also the feast day of Julian of Norwich, which almost slipped right by me.  I comforted myself throughout the day by repeating her most famous quote:  “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

I also comforted myself by reminding myself that Julian of Norwich would be astonished if she came back today and saw the importance that people like me have accorded her.  She likely had no idea that her writings would survive.  She was certainly not writing and saying, "I will be one of the earliest female writers in English history.  I will depict a feminine face of God.  I will create a theology that will still be important centuries after I'm dead."

That's the frustration for people like me:  we cannot know which work is going to be most important.  That e-mail that seems unimportant today . . . will likely be unimportant hundreds of years from now, but who knows.  The poem that seems strange and bizarre and something that must be hidden from one's grandmother may turn out to be the poem that touches the most readers.  Being kind to one's coworkers who cluck and fuss and flutter about matters that seem so terribly unimportant is no small accomplishment either.

But oh how I long to create work that touches people so deeply that they weep in the car when they hear I have died!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Underwear Bombs and Lost Colonies, Lost Edens

My brain is full of strange thoughts today--so, for those of you who like an orderly essay with a thesis statement and 3 main points--well, those people probably stopped reading this blog a long time ago.

I had a strange dream, so my brain has been making intriguing associations, even as I sleep.  I dreamed I was in my grandmother's apartment, which wasn't any apartment she'd had in waking life.  I was visiting for Christmas, and I didn't realize/remember she had died until I went into a seldom used bathroom to see an art installation that my parents had created in the bathtub out of her Christmas linens and decorations she had made during her life.

I'm trying not to spend too much mental energy on what it means. In my waking life, I am all too aware that my grandmother is dead.  Sigh.

I'm also feeling oddly fascinated by underwear bombs, a fascination that would have horrified my grandmother, who would not have approved of a public discussion of underwear.  If you were an underwear bomber, would you buy something new and special for the mission?  Would you wear an old, ratty piece of underwear because why waste something nice or new on a bombing mission?  In my daily life, when underclothing chafes, I find myself wondering about bomb design and how it impacts the way the underwear fits.

I also find myself wondering about these bomb designers who spend so much creative and intellectual energy on such a destructive object.  Is it evidence of creativity gone wrong?  Could that energy have been redirected at some point along the way?

Ah, the eternal questions:  how would our world be different if more people worked for good than for evil?  And how to convince more of us to apply our creative energies to building up the world, instead of blowing it up?

I loved Hannah Stephenson's poem today.  What interesting connections she makes:  ribs of all kinds, Adam, Eve, original sin.  A delight!

I also found inspiration by Beth's post on images of the Annunciation.  The earlier paintings show the angel Gabriel with rainbow-colored wings.  Later images take the color out of the wings.  I wonder if anyone has written about this.  I wonder if rainbow wings were common or if Beth chose them because they were so uncommon.

In all my thoughts of angels, I never considered wing color.  Hmm.

I'm also fascinated by this story that looks at patches on a map to try to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony of 1587.  I have this line that may find its way into a poem:  "The Lost Colony lies beneath a golf course." 

For those of you who didn't have the same childhood obsessions as I did, the story of the Lost Colony may not have haunted your imaginations.  But I was stunned and still am.  How can a group of settlers just disappear?  What did that word "Croatoan" mean?  If the colonists fled in terror, how did they have time to carve that word on a tree?

Yes, once again, my thoughts turn to the earliest English colonists.  I also think of my own habit of thinking that if I could just move to a new location/job/house, my whole life would change for the better.  I would have been one of those colonists who fled England, only to realize, much too late, that it's hard to immigrate to a new land.

Perhaps it's this disappointment of the dream of a new/better life that leads people to design underwear bombs.  But some of us build bombs, while others of us say, "Well, this colony didn't work, but I bet if I just started over again, at a better settlement site, I'd be able to create a new Eden."  Even more of us just moulder in place.  Why?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Work and Penelope . . . or Ulysses?

Last week, I got my contributor copy of Slant.  It contains my poem "Children of Ulysses."  It comes out of a summer of writing poems inspired by the story of Penelope and Ulysses.  You can find my Penelope skin cancer poem here and my poem that thinks about Penelope as muse here.

More recently I've used Penelope to talk about work issues in the modern office, that endless weaving and unweaving and reweaving.  More about that in months to come:  I'll be working on an essay that explores how 21st century female poets use Greek mythology to explore work issues.

In some ways, this poem prefigures the later Penelope poems, since it comes out of my time working in an afterschool program.  I worked there during the summer, when afterschool care became all day care.  It's one of my all-time favorite jobs--except for the pay.

Children of Ulysses

They read the relief in the faces
of their parents, those adventurers
always in a hurry to hop back into suburban
ships, to sail away into the warrior
world of work and the wise talk of adults.

We try to weave a substitute home
in these hours together. We paint murals,
and when we run out of wall space,
we paint over it all and start again.
We learn every art and craft that tiny fingers can master.
We try to keep civility alive, to break
up fights and focus on fun.

The children keep an eye on the clock.
As the sun sinks, they watch the horizon
and daydream of dinner, of family time, of finally
being the focus of fond attention.

Ah, futility. The unfairness of it all.
While they’ve been pining away for their parents,
the parents have had a perfectly fun adventure
without them. Not quite ready to be plunged
back into domesticity, these cunning fighters
keep their weapons sharp, the cell phone charged,
the computer a constant companion.
Dinner is a rushed affair delivered by the drive-through window.

At what point do the children of Ulysses realize
that their Homeric parents will never really return?
Do they smash their looms? Set sail themselves?
How do they weave a happy ending?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Art Exercise with Calendars

At our retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat, we tried the art exercise/meditation that our leader had planned to have us do the first night of the Create in Me retreat.  I wrote this post about the process.  To sum up, we arrived to our tables after breakfast to find 3 markers at our seats; everyone had different colors. Our leader brought in a blank calendar page, October, for each of us. We were told to fill in our calendars however we'd like. We could use the markers of our neighbors, but we couldn't talk. We would have 10 minutes.  For the more recent Create in Me retreat, we had the materials under our seats.

The one below is mine:

We had just finished Easter, but clearly my brain has moved on to the next liturgical holiday, Pentecost, the holiday that celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit in tongues of flame.

Other people, however, had calmer images of grapes:

I was interested to see how people approached this exercise.  Some filled in each square individually:

Some creations were more tightly controlled than others:

I can see the patterns in the piece above, but less so in the selections below.

And some people refused to be boxed in by calendar squares:

In the end, we took our calendar pages and hung them up around one of our main meeting areas:  fascinating to see the different approaches.

What does it all mean?  We talked about the activities that fill our calendars and our attempts to tame our schedules. We all wrestle with the same issues: too much that we'd like to do and too little time to do it all.

But the exercise reminded us that we each get precisely the same amount of time, no matter how we want to divide or decorate our little boxes. When we take a hard look at how we spend our time, we'd probably be amazed at how much time we're not utilizing well. How much television are we watching? How much Internet wandering? Are we exercising enough or not enough? Can we make a pot of soup that can nourish us for several days or do we feel the need to whip up something fresh each day?

And then there's the issue of laundry and housework. My house is dustier than I would like, but at the end of the year, I'd rather have more writing done than a dust-free house.

I came home with the resolution to do this exercise once a month.  I need to find some calendar pages so that I'm ready for the summer months.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Big Poetry Giveaway Winners!

I'm pleased to announce the winners of the 2012 Big Poetry Giveaway:

Kathleen has won a copy of my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Jessica has won a copy of my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents.

Carol has won the Adrienne Rich book Dark Fields of the Republic.

I'll be getting in touch with each of you to get a mailing address, and the books will be in the mail soon.

For those of you feeling sad about not winning a chapbook, I'll be happy to make you a very good deal, if you'd like to purchase a signed copy or two or three.  Christmas will be here before you know it!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Machiavellian Choices in the Workplace

It is the birthday of Machiavelli, the man who memorably said, "It is better to be feared than loved."

Is it?  This question may haunt us as teachers, as administrators, as parents.  Most people would say it's best to strike a balance.  But oh, how hard that can be!  We want to be compassionate, but we also want to have a spine.

Once I taught an English Comp class and we had an excerpt from Machiavelli's The Prince, which had that quote.  We had a rollicking discussion about whether or not it was better to be feared than loved, which then led to some great essays.

I have workplaces on the brain for another reason too.  Yesterday I wrote about my plans for a memoir.  I said:  "You may or may not remember that my plan for my memoir is to write a work that weaves together the strands of a quest to live an authentic spiritual life--which you may rightly say has been done to death.  But I want to weave that strand with a strand that explores work and how to live an authentically spiritual life when one must work in an office in a non-spiritual setting."

That last sentence prompted a reader to send me an e-mail asking me to clarify what I meant by a non-spiritual setting.  It's good to remember that language that includes work like "spiritual" and "religious" can lead to great confusion.

What did I mean exactly?  I've always thought that it might be easier to work in a place that nurtured one's spiritual beliefs, in a way that working at a church camp or a religious college would do--at least in an ideal world.  In my non-ideal world of work, I'm not often doing work that will obviously make the world a better place.  I strive to make our school better for our faculty and our students, but my powers are limited.  There's so much more I'd like to do, but I'm constrained by time and budget and space.

I've often thought that pastors and church camp directors and hospice chaplains spend every day knowing that they're making a difference, but of course, that can't be true.  I'm sure that their days involve thinking about building repair, writing countless e-mails that won't be important a week after they write them, dealing with colleagues with all their moods and personalities, and all those other workplace issues that can drain us.

Perhaps Machiavelli focused on the wrong dialectic.  Is it better to be efficient or to create a nurturing environment where we reach consensus?  Is it better to meet the needs of the shareholders/legislators/grants givers or the needs of students/parishioners/clients?  Are we here to please God or our bosses?

Once again, I return to a central issue that my memoir-to-be will address:  how can we best live integrated lives?  Why must we make these draconian choices? 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In Praise of Bulky Women Writers

One of the disadvantages of being an administrator is that I routinely wake up in the middle of the night fretting over work problems and how to solve them. I do not remember doing that as a faculty member.  I might have felt irritated with students or sorrowful over their personal plights, but I don't recall that these issues haunted my sleep.

I wish I could say that I got up at 3 a.m. and spent my time productively:  writing poems or sending out submissions or turning blog postings into my memoir or into magazine articles.  Alas, no.

I did write an e-mail to a friend who teaches at a different school in a different state.  She's having issues with her department chair.  I wrote an e-mail about life from her chair's likely perspective.  Perhaps I provided comfort.  Perhaps she thinks I've gone to the dark side.

I should start a separate file of e-mails that might be useful in my memoir.  You may or may not remember that my plan for my memoir is to write a work that weaves together the strands of a quest to live an authentic spiritual life--which you may rightly say has been done to death.  But I want to weave that strand with a strand that explores work and how to live an authentically spiritual life when one must work in an office in a non-spiritual setting.  I haven't seen too many of those kind of memoirs.  How-to books, yes (and not many that I find useful, frankly).  Memoirs, no.

After e-mail catch up, I found myself reading about Susan Gubar's memoir of life with ovarian cancer, Memoir of a Debulked Woman.  I wept at this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  I am not ready for this generation of feminists, the ones who blazed the trail for me, to die.  I don't know that I would have survived grad school without The Madwoman in the Attic.  I spent money on that book; I knew how important it would be to have my own copy.  I fully expected it to go out of print at any moment.  Happily, I was wrong.

I listened to this interview with Gubar on NPR's program Talk of the Nation.  I found it both inspiring, depressing, realistic, and well, depressing.  The statistics on this disease are startling.  The many ways that treatment can go terribly wrong are horrific.

Again, I find myself thinking about work.  The issues that woke me up a few hours ago are not really important.  We have been losing funding for our stand-alone tutoring center for years.  If we lose it completely, we will all go on.  It will not be perfect, far from it, but we are running out of options, and we face many cuts to the budget.  In the long run, cuts to our tutoring program may be the trivial ones.

How I wish I could believe that these cuts will save us from the larger, more painful ones.

How I wish I could stop plotting and planning over these cuts that are handed to me.  I am not consulted.  I am not given choices.  I am wasting mental energy on this.  I will not have any say over these cuts or any others.

I should follow the model of Susan Gubar, who continues to work and to write.  We have no guarantees after all.  It's a good question:  what should our legacy be?

Gubar leaves behind work that was so important.  In 1986, I bought The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by Gilbert and Gubar, not for a class, but because I felt like it was such a lifeline to me as a woman who wanted to be a writer.  I needed to know that it could be done, and that anthology was proof.  I still have it, even though it's currently in its 3rd edition.

I may only have a few decades left to write.  I may have substantially less.  What do I want to leave behind?  What haven't I written yet that needs to be written?  What story is mine to tell?