Saturday, September 29, 2012

Internet Snow Day

This may be a quiet week-end, in terms of Internet based reading and writing.  I returned home on Thursday night to discover that our phones are out.  When our phones are out, the Internet is out.  Perhaps this is a sign that we need to upgrade.

We don't have dial-up, but we do have an Internet connection that depends on the phone.  And the technician may get there today or tomorrow, but it may be as late as Monday.  Sigh.

Oh to live in a land of fiber optic cables.  We had that kind of access once, in grad school, in the early days of Internet connectivity.  It was lightning fast.  I told myself not to get used to it.

I tell myself that there are worse things.  I'm not a big talk on the phone person anyway.  But I do love to spend time reading on the Internet.  I do love the immediacy of blogging.

It has been interesting to return to journaling on private pieces of paper that I can be relatively sure that no one will read.  I'll keep doing that.

And I do love a big stack of library books.  I shall pop by the library and stock up.

It's kind of like a snow day, only with electricity!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Collage: Soul Cards and Career Insight

The other night, instead of going to spin class, I went out with a colleague who's moving from full-time faculty to part-time.  Her income will be cut dramatically.  She's faced this before.  She taught at our school in the early 90's, in the hospitality program.  When that program was cut, she went back to school, got another degree, always with an eye to returning to teach in the institution that she loved so much.

She always said she wanted to teach here until she was at least 78.  I suppose she still can.  She just won't be paid as much.

That evening, we had the kind of storm clouds that made me turn off all the electronics when I got home.  My spouse was at Chorale practice, so I had lovely time to myself. I wrote in my paper, off-line journal. When I was done with that, I was tired, but I still felt like doing more creating.  My collaging supplies caught my eye, and so I sat down to create what I'm calling soul cards.

 I use liquid glue instead of glue sticks.  When I create images with glue sticks, they don't have the kind of permanence I want.  But, as you see in some of these pictures, liquid glue can leave ridges.

I've been keeping a repository of images:  each time I throw away a magazine, I cut out appealing pictures and keep them in envelopes.  So I began the process by looking through saved images to see what leaped out at me.  I assembled my images and grouped them and started gluing.

The process is similar to that of making vision boards, except instead of finding images of what I want to attract, I'm taking images that appeal and trying to figure out my unknown/little known yearnings.  I think of them as soul cards, rather than vision boards in miniature.  What does my soul want?  What does my soul know?  How can I tune in?

When I look at the card below, am I yearning for a new house or time on a porch or rest of all sorts?

I was going to stop at 3 cards, but then the words on the card below leaped out at me:  "Stay Hopeful," "Peace also takes courage," and "Finding answers."  Not much mystery there.

There's one thing that came to me in my journaling the other night that I want to make sure I record in several places, so that my subconscious begins to chew on it.  When I think about my future, my brain seems to go in three tracks:  writing, academia, and something to do with a spiritual life.  Any of these might require going back to school.

But what if my brain goes to those 3 because that's where I've trained it to go?  What if I might discover other possibilities, if I assumed that any avenue was open?

I'm not sure how I go about breaking out of my brain rut, but I plan to try!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ashes, ICUs, and Writing Process

Yesterday, I wrote this post which included my poem "Ash Wednesday in the Intensive Care Unit."  It came from a true event.  My mother-in-law had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit, and I visited her on Ash Wednesday.  I noticed that all the patients had an ash cross smudged on their foreheads.  I asked the nurse, and she said, "Oh, sure, the priest was here this morning."

Most of the patients were unconscious, and I wondered about the ethics of smudging an ash cross on unresponsive patients.  I decided not to ask further questions.  The nurse was probably not interested in having a theological conversation:  that's not why she went to nursing school, after all.

I got to school later in the day and tried to write a poem.  I tried to compose at the computer.  What came out was a grammar worksheet:  improbable but true!  I used it for many years.  I'll put one of the paragraphs below; can you find all the run-ons and comma splices?

"Because it is Ash Wednesday, the man in black (no, not Johnny Cash!) puts ashes on our foreheads.  The ashes represent our sins, they also represent the ultimate end to our bodies after death.  But we've been in the Intensive Care Unit, so we know better.  The end has very little to do with ashes the end comes when your body fluids go where they don't belong.  Sometimes the end comes despite the best efforts of the pumps and tubing the hospital provides.  If we didn't already believe in a Supreme Being, we'd have to invent one, it's just too hard to face the end otherwise."

Not only did this worksheet allow me to discuss run-ons and comma splices, but it also let me talk about writing that had different purposes for different audiences.  When I taught Composition, I brought my poem into the class, and we had a reason to read a poem and talk about the difference between what one attempts to do when writing a poem and when writing an essay.  When I taught poetry, I showed them the grammar worksheet and we talked about line breaks.

I also had to talk about Ash Wednesday, what it means and the customs that surround it.  It gave me a chance to have a brief theological discussion.  You could argue that such a theological discussion is as inappropriate in a Composition classroom as a priest smudging unresponsive patients.  I would argue that college should expose students to existential ideas and spiritual connections and not just in religion classes.  Since I wasn't proselytizing or pressuring students to convert, and since we spent all of 10 minutes on the theological background, I'd say I didn't overstep.

So, the experience in that ICU has been turned into a grammar worksheet, a poem, and a blog post.  Maybe it's time to write an in-depth consideration of the theological implications of smearing ash on unconscious patients.  Or maybe it's time to write an essay that considers pedagogy and theological side trips.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ashes and Atonement: Yom Kippur Dawn

Here we are, a few hours before Yom Kippur sunrise.  I have atonement on the brain.  For a more theological meditation, see this post on my theology blog.  For an even more powerful meditation, see this post written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who in the hours before Yom Kippur, helped a family prepare the body of a family member for burial. 

She reminds us of what this high holy day should be about:  "On Yom Kippur we try as hard as we can to make teshuvah, to correct our course and shift our alignment so that our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits are aligned with holiness. We try to repair our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God. We try to relinquish the emotional and spiritual calluses which protect us in ordinary life, and to go deep into awareness of our mortality and deep into connection with something beyond ourselves."

I've been thinking of atonement in my own religious tradition, which traditionally comes at Lent, that time period that begins with Ash Wednesday and takes us to the week before Easter.  I've been thinking about ashes and other symbols of our mortality.

I'm thinking about my friend's Hindu priest who smears ashes on his forehead every day.  It reminds him that we're only here for a short time.  It reminds him to keep events in perspective.  So few things are worth getting upset over.

On Ash Wednesday, many Christians have a cross of ash smeared on their foreheads.  I've written a series of poems that have Ash Wednesday in the title.  Some are more hopeful than the one I will post below.

Still, I will post it, because it was recently nominated for a Best of the Net award.  It's the first time my work has been nominated.  I'm not sure what happens next.  Do all the nominees compete against each other?  Is there an awards night?  Is there some kind of collection that exists only on the net?  An eBook of winners that people could buy?

But in the end, it doesn't matter.  I'm incredibly happy that editor Jessie Carty not only liked my poem enough to publish it in Referential, but to nominate it too.

Ash Wednesday in the Intensive Care Unit

No one has to remind us of our dusty
destiny. Here in the ICU, every day
is Ash Wednesday. Some days we reflect
that an awful lot of fluid precedes
our descent into dust—fluids
come and go into the wrong crevices,
the body leaks and oozes
before it dwindles into dryness.

Still, the priest makes his rounds, smudges
comatose foreheads with ashes from the palms
of a distant celebration. How long ago
that we protested this archaic ritual.
Now Ash Wednesday claims its place as the most relevant
day of the church calendar.

Trapped in our failing flesh,
the liturgical year stopped
in the beginning of this season
of penitence. We long to believe
in resurrection, but in this hospital,
we realize that the viruses and bacteria
will inherit the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Midlife Job Searches

Today is the last day of work for 45 of my local colleagues, and for 800 people in my school's nation-wide network.  A very few of us will be rehired.  At my local campus, only 5 people were able to transition into other jobs in the reorganization of our local school.  Some people are leaving happily, while others are less thrilled.  Only a very few are retiring.  The rest face a job hunt at midlife.

I have the issues of midlife job searches on the brain for obvious reasons.  There's also the larger national discussion going on, like this story that tells of the Colorado State U offering an assistant professor in English position, but specifying the requirement that Ph.D.s be granted after 2010.

I earned my Ph.D. in 1992.  Sigh.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday, who thinks that my older Ph.D. is better.  She says it's from a time when a Ph.D. signified some real rigor.

I think a Ph.D. still signifies rigor.  I also know that there are more unemployed Ph.D.s than ever, which means more competition.  How would I stack up?

I have hopes that my 25 years of teaching would be seen as a plus to anyone who looked at my CV.  But it's true that I'm more fully formed than a brand new Ph.D.

I have an odd mix of publications:  lots of poems, lots of blog posts (both for love and for pay), and a variety of other things:  academic essays, reviews, articles of all types.  I've presented at academic conferences and done literary readings.

People might look at my CV and say, "What an interesting colleague she would be."  Or they might focus on what's missing or what they'd like to see more of.

My CV makes my various interests much more clear.  When I first entered the job market, I wasn't the diverse candidate that I am today.  That might be a good thing or a bad thing.

When I first entered the job market, I had no online presence--most people didn't.  Now I'm much more of an open book.  Not in the really bad kind of way:  as far as I know, there are no ill-advised pictures of me floating out there.  But you can look at my online writing and come away saying things like "She thinks the wrong thing about this literary figure" or "I don't approve of this teaching technique" or "Nope, we're not hiring any religious people if I have anything to say about it." 

I've also been thinking about more mundane issues, like letters of recommendation.  When I was a newly formed Ph.D., it was clear who should write those letters:  my professors.  But now?

Sure, there are supervisors.  But my most recent supervisors would speak about my administrative skills.  What if I want to move back to teaching?

I have a variety of friends who might write a good letter.  I've begun to think about how they'd perform on the phone.  I know that it's possible that job search committees would start by calling references.  Could my friends be articulate, particularly if I use a personal phone number and not an office number?

A month ago, as I recovered from the phone call that told me I was losing my job but could apply for a new one, I looked at my job search materials.  I've kept my various CVs enough up to date that it's easy to get them ready.  But my letters of recommendation haven't been updated since 2007.

Even though I have a job right now, it's important to get all of my job search materials ready.  The last two years here at my school have shown that we could be laid off with very little notice.

And frankly, the history of employment over the past 40 years has shown us that too.  In the late 70's and early 80's, I didn't know anyone whose father hadn't lost a job--assuming the father was still part of the family, so that ruled out about 40% of the families I knew.  Those years should have taught us that it's wise to keep our job search materials in circulation.

Midlife job searches also come with other considerations.  Can we sell our houses if we get a dream job elsewhere?  Does a dream job really justify a move?  What if family members don't agree about dream locations?

Of course, one must get the dream job first, which means getting the paperwork in order.  And I'm well aware that for many of my departing colleagues, they'd settle for any full-time job that comes with health insurance.  Their definition of dream job is one with benefits.  I have the luxury of thinking in terms of what I'd be teaching and what my publication expectations would be.

Monday, September 24, 2012

When the World Sends Writing Assignments

I've been somewhat amazed at the good writing news coming my way.  Late August and September is usually a time of submissions for me, not a time of getting good news (because I've only just started submitting to journals and periodicals for the Fall reading period).

But since I got the phone call that told me of the restructuring at my school, I've gotten an abundance of good writing news.  I've gotten an assignment from my editor at The Lutheran, my editor of Living Lutheran, and Her Circle.  I've gotten several acceptances of individual poems, some from journals which have never chosen my poems before.  Hurrah!

I've gotten some other positive feedback too.  When brainstorming with people about what might come next, many people have talked about specific writing that I do and asked if I had ever thought about ramping up those efforts.  For example, I've shown that I can write blog posts regularly and about a wide range of topics.  More than one person has asked if I've ever thought about doing more with blogging.

Yes, yes I have.  Right now, I like writing blog posts better than just about anything else that I write.  Could I be paid to do that?

Yes, I know, I hear the negative message that often comes up at this point in the conversation:  no one would want to pay me to write simply what I want to write.

Well, that's not necessarily true, and even if it is, the trick would be finding the people who would want to pay me to write about the topics to which my brain regularly returns:  academics, teaching ideas, theological writing, cooking, reviews, creativity, historical events and figures.  Hmm.  Let me think on that some more.

What kind of sign would I need from the universe?  What kind of sign would tell me that I could make a living with my writing?

I'd need some regular money coming in.  I heard the writer Steve Almond talk at the 2011 AWP convention.  He said that what kept him going as a writer was his monthly column for Martha Stewart Living.  That column paid regular money, good money, money that he could count on.  I want to say that he told us that the column paid $1000.  That would be a good base.

He was writing about topics that delighted him, like the joys of candy.  He didn't have to force himself to write about topics that were horrible to him.

So, although I do have enough paid work that I pay taxes on it, I don't have enough that I do without my day job.  A gig or two that paid $1000, that would be a sign from the universe.

I've often wondered what kind of book contract would offer a similar sign.  What kind of advance would I want to have?  What would I need to have to say, "OK, it's time to leave my office job and commit to the book"?  Several hundred thousand would be nice.  Perhaps not realistic, but if we're going to dream, why not dream big?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Epiphanies, both Profound and Mundane

It's been a month of epiphanies, some more profound than others.  I have always thought that I was ready to go on the job market in a minute's notice.  My dad always trained us to keep our resumes updated and ready to go:  a modern variation of keeping our powder dry, I guess.

So, I didn't need to spend much time updating, although I was a bit surprised to learn that I hadn't updated in months and months.  Still, it didn't take long:  a paper presentation here, a publication there, and the documents were ready.

As I prepared to interview for the new version of my job in the reorganized structure, I faced that eternal question:  what to wear.  Everyone said, "Just wear what you always wear.  Everyone knows you.  That's what they'll expect to see."

But I worried that just wearing what I always wore might send the signal that I assumed the job was mine, and that way disaster can lie.

So, I chose a more conservative outfit among the ones I usually wear.  I have no blazers or jackets that are summer weight, so I added a light sweater.

And then, the real fun began.  What shoes?  Should I spend Labor Day week-end shoe shopping?

I used to have a formal pair of shoes:  black, small heel, closed toe.  But when I wore them to my grandmother's funeral, they literally fell apart.  They were never comfortable anyway, so I threw them away.  I bought them over 15 years ago, so I got my money's worth, even though I wore them infrequently.

I wear sandals year-round down here, but those shoes feel too casual for a job interview.

I hear some of you laughing at all this thought about footwear, but I've been on the other side of the interview table, and I know that it's often these small details that sink a person.  I was on a job search team once with a woman who got mightily offended when women showed up at interviews with bare legs and no stockings.  I've been at more than one session when we spent more time talking about what candidates wore than what they talked about in their interview.

In the end, I didn't buy new shoes.  I did pull out a pair of sandals that I haven't yet put in the every day rotation, a newer, non-scuffed pair.

So, my first epiphany, which may be major or minor, depending on your view:  I need an interview outfit and interview shoes.

This morning, I was thinking about composing this blog post, and I was thinking about a conversation I had with a colleague/friend yesterday.  I talked about our upcoming split of our department into two halves as the death of our department.

He snorted.  He said, "Death?  Don't you think that's a little dramatic?"

Actually, no, I don't.  Our department is about to change in many ways:  split into two halves, with new leadership (eventually) for one half, colleagues leaving, colleagues going to part-time.  I'd like to see it in more positive terms, like a metamorphosis.  Maybe in a year, I'll see the beautiful butterfly that's emerging, but right now, it feels like shipwreck and ruin.

Maybe it's because I have other grim news on the brain, like this past summer being one where we set the record for the least amount of Arctic sea ice.  In this blog post, Dr. Jeff Masters sums it up this way, "Earth's attic is on fire." 

I am currently playing with composing a poem, right now, even as I type and zip through various Internet sites, and read book reviews.  One review contained this line:  "This will end in tears."

Tears, Arctic sea ice slipping away, sea lanes opening, shipwrecked departments, shoes of all sorts:  can I really mold these things into a poem?

Feel free to play along.  It's a rainy, rumbly Sunday morning here:  perfect for poem composition.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Discernment Begins

At work, we've had two years of bad news:  student enrollment in decline, lay-offs every 6 months, reorganizations, and the ever-more-precarious state of post-high-school education.  I work at a for-profit college, and the for-profit higher ed industry has been facing stresses that other kinds of schools don't have, like needing to have an ever-greater profit margin for share holders even as we've been enduring the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. 

At various points, people have asked me what I think will happen.  Will the school close?  Will there be more lay-offs?  Will we reverse our enrollment numbers?

I have always said, "We can't know.  All we know is that as long as the lights are on and our keys unlock the doors and the paychecks clear the bank, we have a job to do."

Yesterday, on the last day of the quarter, I got to work, and the doors were locked, and the lights were off.  For one minute, I said, "The school has closed for good."  Then I saw clusters of humans, and I thought, it's a bomb threat or a fire.  But the lights were off, which made me think, maybe something dreadful has already happened, and we're not allowed back in the building--something done by a disgruntled student or soon-to-be-ex-employee?

Nope--just a massive power failure.  And I'm trying not to read too much into it.  I'm an English major, after all, always able to see signs and symbols.  I remind myself that sometimes a power failure is just a blown transformer.

Eventually I went back home, where I had power and Internet access and a computer.  And then, in the afternoon when the power was restored, I went back to the office.

Last night, my department gathered for a happy hour event that was bittersweet.  We're losing 5 department members because of our Reduction in Force.  Some will be back as adjuncts, but some won't.  And regardless, our department is changing, soon broken into two units.

We drank our happy hour specials.  We ate wonderful happy hour food specials.  Some people stood in line for the roast pig.  I did not; the presence of a head with eyeless sockets kind of freaked me out.  I decided to continue eating $4 piles of fried calamari.

We started at the outside bar that tries to make you believe you're on a Caribbean island, when, true to the tropics, a huge storm blew through.  We were fairly sheltered, but given the instability of the weather, we decided to move inside when the rain let up.  The inside is light and airy too, and air conditioned which was good, since it was hot and muggy outside.

We toasted each other and shared memories and started to face the future. 

In terms of my personal finances, I feel like I've been granted a temporary reprieve.  A temporary reprieve is better than no reprieve, but I feel like there are many signs that it's time to plan for what I would do if my job no longer existed.  The obvious answer:  save more money. 

But I must do more than that.  I plan to enter a time of dreaming which I'm hoping will lead to concrete planning.  I want a time of discernment.  I figure that I'm at the halfway point of my working life.  What would I like the next 25-30 years to look like?

I'll write about some of that process here and at my theology blog, in case it proves useful to people.  It won't be the only thing I write about, of course.  But it will be a subject to which I return periodically.

A month ago today, I got the call from my dean, which I wrote about here, the call which told me of the restructuring that I have survived.  In the next few days, I'll write about some of my discernment that I've done in the past month and some of the things I've already learned.  I need to write some of it down, while I'm still remembering. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Equinox Eve

I confess, when I think of Autumn, I think of this:

I have always loved the blaze of leaves, the chill in the air, the change in produce from melons to pumpkins and apples.

I do not have that kind of autumn down here in South Florida.  I remember one year walking into a grocery store and getting a strong whiff of the cinnamon brooms.  I thought, oh, yes, autumn approaches--in other parts of the U.S.

Yesterday in the grocery store, I noticed that I can still buy melons, even as much of the produce section shifts to more autumnal offerings like sweet potatoes, apples, and winter squash.

I do what I can to mark the shift in seasons.  I buy flowers that aren't native.  Instead of hibiscus or bougainvillea, I get some mums, and I wonder if mums are that autumnal in color or if they've been dyed.  I try to remember the mums that my grandmother grew, but I remember her summer gardens:  snapdragons and hydrangea.

I have a collection of autumnal placemats and other decorations.  A few days ago, even though it's still blazingly hot here, I put out the Halloween table linens.  I arranged the fireplace mantel with gold candles in their holders in the shape of pine cones, the fake pumpkins, and some autumn colored ribbons. The framed print that you can see in the picture below is by artist Jim Gray:

I book-end the mantel with ceramics made by my potter friend Mary Mason:

Yes, you read that correctly:  I put these items on my fireplace mantel.  Even though it's only cold enough for a fire a few times a year, we have a fireplace in our living room; usually when we use it, the AC kicks on.

But it's good for decorating, which is the main way I mark the change of seasons here. 

I also change my baking.  Last week, I made the first batch of pumpkin bread.  My spouse said, "It smells like fall in here."

He went out to mow the lawn.  I moved on to making a pot of soup with plans to crank up the AC when it was time for dinner.

Still, each day the sun sets a smidge earlier.  Soon it will be time to think about Halloween in a more serious way.  Soon, it will be Thanksgiving.  Soon, I will decorate the mantel for Christmas.  It's a way to keep me mindful, since the weather here certainly does not.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Living in Trouble, Living in Love

Last night, I was feeling anxious, and it took me some moments of analysis to understand why.  I'd been deep in Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing, and it took me awhile to surface from the book.

I don't read every Lippman book; some sound a bit too intense for me, and some are closer to the straight mystery novels that I don't often read.  But this one sounded good:  people who were friends when they were children in the 1970's, a dark secret, insights into both modern life and the past.  And it is good, but the dark secret from the woods haunts not only the characters, but me too, the reader.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that the secret that seems to be the secret is not the real secret.  I'm 3/4 the way through, and the darkness begins to pull closer.

I was listening to Alan Cheuse's review of Joyce Carol Oates' latest short story collection on NPR's All Things Considered.  Rober Siegel introduces the review this way, "Alan Cheuse finds this batch of stories a big step into darkness."

I thought, A big step into darkness?  A darker direction than the usual Joyce Carol Oates' world?  Yikes.  I remember seeing the movie, "Smooth Talk," based on Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"  That depiction of the manipulated teen-age girl still haunts me.  Oates has always depicted the world as dangerous and dark.

Cheuse ends his review this way:  "In her fresh, direct, energetic and often shocking prose, she bestows life wherever she turns, excavating in what first appears to be ordinary ground and discovering that to live means to be in trouble."

I've been thinking about fiction, more specifically, what makes good fiction.  Compelling reading comes from the kind of crises faced by characters living in trouble, or dancing with trouble, or meeting trouble in the dark woods/fast cars.

So far, when I've written novels (so far, all unpublished, thus available!), my characters fall in love.  With my last novel, I declared, "No love stories!"  But my characters went and fell in love anyway.

As I think about the future and possible writing careers, perhaps I should think more seriously about my tendency towards love stories.  After all, romances still sell.

So far, I haven't written the traditional kinds of romances that keep their authors from having to get a day job.  My romance plot lines tend to also wrestle with sexual identity, age discrepancy, artistic obsessions--none of which are parts of the traditional romance genres.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don't use those themes the ways that traditional romance novelists have done.

Even in the 50 pages of a historical novel I started writing, sexual identity and gender issues worked their way in.  The novel was set in the Civil War in Charleston, SC, a time when I figured that women could be a bit more free and leave their gender roles, since the city was in smoking ruins.  And I threw in a female pirate who dressed like a man (based on a true historical figure!) for good measure.

I may return to that novel some day.  The Internet leaves me better equipped than I would have been in 1994, when I first started writing it and quickly got stymied by questions of what was the furniture like back in 1864 and other details of daily life.  It was easy to determine the big questions of war:  who fought when and how was the city barricaded.  It was more difficult to determine how women would have lived that history on the ground.  Diaries and journals gave me a sense, but at the time, if a comprehensive analysis of civilian life during the Civil War existed, I wasn't able to find it.  Now I suspect the problem would be just the opposite:  too much information.

I still have that novel in my head. Maybe it's time to get it onto paper/pixels.

I'll probably return to writing that historical romance and curse my migratory self.  I started writing it after a January of expeditions when we bought "Be a Tourist in Your Hometown" passes.  Because it was off-season, we got to see all sorts of historic homes and plantations that I never would have paid for otherwise.  Those excursions inspired me in all sorts of ways.  When I started writing, I always thought that I could go back if I needed to check on any information or be inspired anew.  Now, those historical spots are much further away.

But they're still within driving distance, and I still have good friends in the area.  Maybe the Piccolo Spoleto Festival will invite me to read my poetry, and I can create a trip with multiple purposes!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Laws of Unintended Consequences and the Administrator Life

Last night, as darkness began to drop, I drove home under a cinematic sky.  Lightning zigged between towering clouds.  Surrounded on many sides by a threatening weather, I hurried home so that I could turn off the electronics.

Perhaps it was the threat of storm that pulled my thoughts to the negative.  I thought about how much my work as an administrator has changed.

Not so long ago, I was proud of the fact that I'd managed to keep our full-time people from going part-time.  Back then, the policy was that if your full slate of classes didn't meet the right amount of enrollment, you'd go to part-time for a quarter. 

I fought this threat of people going to part-time by solid scheduling, by creative scheduling, and by arguing for the necessity of certain classes, even with low enrollment.

It was an inhumane policy, and in a way, I'm glad we've changed.  But the law of unintended consequences gets us in the end--now faculty face permanent reductions to part-time determined by a complicated matrix that falls on our heads from above.  Administrators have little choice in the matter; our school simply takes the last hired and changes their status.

Of course, it's not my fault.  I can't do anything to change these circumstances.  Even if I was a brilliant logician, even if I could argue skillfully for the necessity of my faculty, I couldn't save them.   These decisions are not up to me.

You might think that it would be easier this way, that I could sleep at night because I am not the agent of change.  My brain doesn't work that way.

I try to keep myself from sinking into despair over the fact that I can't save jobs.  I try to focus on what I can do as we go through these wrenching changes.

I spent part of the day yesterday doing all the work necessary to bring back one of our colleagues laid off a year ago.  She will teach remedial Math.  She will have an opportunity to move into teaching, an opportunity she might not have had if I hadn't been there to make the calls and do the legwork to make it possible.

In the past weeks, I've worked with faculty members who will soon be going to part-time.  I've tried to help them salvage as good a schedule as is possible.  Soon it will be time to put together the Winter schedule of classes.  I will continue to consult with faculty to give them the classes that their schedule needs dictate, even though it would be easier for me to announce what classes exist and let people take or leave them.  No:  though I can't give people the full-time work that they need/want, maybe I can make their part-time work life a bit less stressful.

I remind myself that I do some of that kind of work every day, that background work that makes life a bit easier for faculty, students, and other staff.  I try to convince myself that it's enough, even though it's not the kind of work that will find its way into a valorizing movie.

Think of all the inspiring movies we've had that depict the lives of teachers.  Now try to come up with any films that depict the administrators who work in those schools in a similar way.  Imagine your favorite movie star in the role of an administrator who puts together an excellent schedule, who finds a talented adjunct, who mediates a conflict between a teacher and a student.

So, aspiring filmmakers, I give you this gift:  make us a film about work life that's inspiring, not absurdist.  Make a film about administrators/officials that shows them as fully human, not as cartoonish buffoons.  Surely it can't be that hard.

By the end of the night, we hadn't had a huge storm.  We had a light show that lasted for hours.  I wanted to camp out in the yard so that I could watch.

And this morning, I woke up thinking about all the positive poetry news that I've gotten in the past month. It's not the best news, like book-length manuscript acceptance or being made poet laureate.  But I've gotten good news nonetheless.  August is not a month that I associate with good poetry news.  Nudge from the universe or simple coincidence?  More on these thoughts later.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If You Miss the Mountains or the Seasons or the Ocean

Hannah Stephenson has a great poem up at her blog today.  It's called "If You Miss the Ocean," and it starts like this:

"Paint the ocean the way you remember it,
thick as stucco, as meringue.
Cut squares from every garment you wore
to the beach and make a quilt"

It inspired me in all sorts of ways.  I thought about the reasons why I don't miss the ocean:

Think about the ancient men who allow
their bellies to lead them down the Boardwalk

But that poem was headed in an ugly direction.  And I admired the way that she encapsulated longing in such a different way.  It's not the yearning that I'm used to seeing in poems.

So, I wrote a version:  "If You Miss the Mountains."  I'm missing the mountains and I'm missing the shift of seasons.  The autumnal equinox happens here, but the change here will be so subtle that most will miss it.

Here are some of my favorite bits that I wrote this morning:

"Make a quilt of scratchy woolen
socks and use old trail maps
as your wallpaper."

"Eat an apple and remember all that's lost
to you:  pies and butter and cider
hard as a craggy path."

"Be more like the mountains,
rising from the horizon,
resolute through the ages,
worn away slowly
inch by inch."

I like Hannah's poem better.  It's much more subtle.  I haven't gotten to the point where my longing isn't bleeding through onto the page.

I also admire how she uses solid, concrete images and drenches them with symbolism.  Masterful!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Directed Writing Insight: Focus on the Memoir!

A week ago, I'd have been in the North Carolina mountains to help plan the Create in Me retreat.  We met from late afternoon of September 9 to lunch on September 11.  It's amazing what we get done with an intense focus--it's a good lesson to remember in all areas of my creative life.  I do tend to get a lot done in little chunks, but I should probably make arrangements for a few more times of intense work throughout the year.

I was in charge of devotion time in the morning, and since I didn't know I was in charge until I got there, we did it differently:  no Bible expert giving insight.  No, the first day we did a guided writing assignment and the next day we did a lectio divina experiment.

For more on the exact process of the guided writing, see this post on my theology blog.  We did a variation of a writing assignment that I've often done with my students.  I have my students write to themselves in the voice of their 80 year old selves.  For the group last Monday, we wrote in the voice of our spiritual mentors.  First we thought about places where we needed to be rekindled, either individually or as groups, and then we did a free writing.

Free writing couldn't be more simple.  All you do is write.  You keep writing.  You don't stop, you don't go back, you don't edit:  you simply write what bubbles up.  If nothing bubbles up, you write "I have nothing more to say" over and over again until you have something more to say.

Those of you reading my blog know where I need to be rekindled.  You may have insight that I don't have.  I've been very focused on my job and the future.  Even now, when I've gotten a position in the new, reorganized institution, I'm still seeing it as a temporary reprieve.  The state of higher education overall is shaky.  Many call it the next bubble that's about to pop (like the tech bubble, the housing bubble, all our bubbles).  So it's wise to continue thinking about what comes next.

When I started writing last Monday morning, I thought I might get wisdom about going to seminary.  I had stayed up extra hours on Sunday night talking about seminary.  I thought my free writing might lead to insights about where to move.  After all, moving is my default response to knowing that something needs to change:  pack up and change locations, either locally or across the states.

We wrote about what needed rekindling, and then we started free writing with this prompt:  "What would your mentors say to you about rekindling?"

Here's what I wrote a week ago:  "You've got any number of paths you could follow.  God will make you useful wherever you are.  You can likely do what you want to do without uprooting everything.  Write that memoir.  You want to reach people--that memoir is how you will do it.  People have said that your writing style is like Kathleen Norris'--follow that path.  I cannot stress enough how much people need your words, how urgent it is that you attend to this memoir."

For those of you saying, "Memoir?  What memoir?", go to this post which will explain what I plan to do.  Basically, last spring I realized how few of the memoirs I've read talk about work life in conjunction with spiritual life. I've read plenty of self-help books that claim to do so, although none of them have been useful to me in the ways that I wished they would be when I picked them up.  And then there's the issue of being an artist and being at midlife.  My plan is to write a memoir that weaves all these strands together.  I will organize it by the calendar year.  I'll strive to make it a collection of essays that can be read each one on its own, but of course, my hope will be that the whole collection will be more meaningful when read all at once, that it will be so compelling that people won't be able to put it down.

When I started my free writing, I hadn't been thinking about memoir at all.  As I say, I'd been thinking about going back to school or finding a dream job.  But memoir writing?  I would have said that memoir writing had been far from my conscious thoughts.

I've always found these free writing exercises to yield interesting insights.  Last Monday was no exception.

I return renewed.  I will finish sorting through possibly useful blog posts in the next month.  I will go to Mepkin Abbey with a sheaf of pages, and I will begin the process of taking all the rough work and turning it into something cohesive and meaningful.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Hindu House Blessing: The Photo Essay

Before I say anything about yesterday's Hindu house blessing, let me say that I didn't take notes; I wanted to be more fully present.  I did take a picture here and there throughout the ceremony (with permission granted beforehand), but again, I wanted to be present.

Even if I had taken notes, I'm not the best person to explain what happened yesterday.  The Hindu priest was very gracious in trying to explain what we were doing, but my basic lack of background hindered my own understanding and my writing about it here.

For example, the priest explained why we gathered at the early morning hour by giving us a brief explanation of the astrology and study of the planets that determined the decision.  But I don't really know much about Indian astrology, and so I just listened.

I wasn't sure I was always understanding the priest, both in terms of content, and in terms of being certain what the priest was saying.  He had a lovely, lilting accent.

So, my standard disclaimer:  any thoughts expressed below are my own.  I don't presume to speak for Hindus, for Indians, for anyone but me.  I don't intend to offend.  If I've misunderstood any element, it's my own fault, and I'd be happy to be educated.  For more theological thoughts, see this post on my theology blog.

So, back to yesterday.  I arrived just before 6 a.m.  My Hindu friend was boiling milk, which South Indians feel is a way of bringing luck:

She has not yet moved fully back into the house; in fact, the house isn't quite finished.  But she had set up an area for the blessing to take place; when the priest arrived, he created a small altar area out of a cardboard box and a variety of objects.

Here's the area before we started:

The Hindu priest looked like I expected, but I'd met him before when we went to yoga classes at my friend's temple:

The priest later explained that the marks on his head are made of ashes.  He says that priests apply ashes every day so that they are reminded of how very temporary our existence is and how important it is to make every day count.  Not for the first time I thought about how we should all be putting ashes on ourselves each day so that we remember.

The priest carried several bags with all sorts of supplies.  He first put some powders on a plate. He dribbled water on the powders and then painted on the silver plate.

At some point, he also put a dab of paint on my friend's forehead.

The first part of the ceremony involved offerings and the 9 planets.  Each planet had a grain offering put on the silver plate:

Then the priest took a flower and dipped it into the colored powders.  As he did this, he chanted, and my friend held grains of rice.  My friend put the rice on the grains on the silver plate, and the flower went on top of the rice. 

There was also incense wafting and a statue of Ganesh and a coconut:

The coconut would become important in the second part of the service, as we moved into offerings to the gods of fire:

You can see the coconut with the flower on top of it.  What you might not realize is that the object in the middle of the square object is a coconut, not a potato.  Through the course of the second part of the ceremony, the coconut would be burned and grains and other offerings would be added to the flame:

Later, my Hindu friend explained that many centuries ago, a human would be the sacrifice.  My Western friend said, "You'd burn a woman?" 

My Hindu friend said, "No, of course not!  We'd sacrifice a man."

I added, "Wombs are too valuable to waste that way."

We talked about the coconut as womb, the coconut as a symbol of a human.  The morning was full of symbols of all kinds.

But, I digress.  Back to the ceremony.  In the photo above, you see a jar of yellow liquid between the two platters.  It's a jar of ghee, clarified butter.  It was used as fuel for the fire:

I am sure I am not the only one who thought about my friend's house fire and felt nervous about open flame.  But we had fire extinguishers and water, and I tried to calm my brain.

In the end, the super-sensitive smoke alarms went off, but happily, it was after the end of the ceremony.  We moved the flame to the patio:

The priest needed to leave right after the ceremony; he had to get to the temple to open it.  But the rest of us stayed.  We drank chai tea and ate some Indian food, along with the nuts.

The others needed to leave, but I stayed.  My friend and I went to her old/temporary place (across the back yard) to feed the cats, and I helped her move a few items back to the her restored house.  She had told us how big her television is, how heavy, how impossible to move.  I thought she was talking about an 82 inch screen or something equally massive. 

But it was an old-fashioned television, more awkward than heavy.  I insisted on moving it; I said, "What is the point of working out with weights if I can't help friends with their heavy objects?"

I have been feeling guilty because I feel like I haven't done enough to help my friend through this process.  I've cried with her and helped her salvage the objects that survived the fire and listened to her frustration with the restoration process.  Still, I wish I had done more.

Could I have done more?  I'm not a contractor, and the restoration work had to be done by licensed professionals.  I'm not the homeowner, the one who must deal with the city.  I couldn't have made the homeowner's association do what my friend wanted any more than my friend was able to make that happen.

Still, I wish I could have done more.  I feel that way about so many lives.  So, it was good to do something concrete to help, a television moved from one place to the other.

I'm so glad that my Hindu friend invited me to be part of the ceremony.  I'm so glad that I went over, despite the early hour.  I'm so glad that the priest was so gracious and inclusive.

But most of all, I'm glad that my friend was able to persevere.  I'm glad to see firsthand this concrete example that life can be rebuilt out of ashes.

May we all be similarly blessed:  our tragedies converted into resurrections, our ashes the foundations of something better yet to be revealed.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Good News Comes in Threes Too

In an hour, I'll be on my way to a Hindu house blessing.  For more on the theological/ecumenical aspects of that, see this post on my theology blog.

At the end of October, my Hindu friend suffered a devastating house fire.  She has persevered, and the house has been rebuilt.  Today we bless it at a time the Hindu priest has deemed auspicious 6-7:30 a.m.

Last night was the first night she slept in the new house.  Yesterday, I sent the first of a series of good news e-mails to let our department know of her happy news.  I've been sending out so much bad news that it was good to send out a happy e-mail.

If you want to read more about this process of reclaiming a house, my friend has been keeping a blog for years, and she's written eloquently about her journey.  I'm hoping that great art will come out of her loss and pain.

Like the writerly vampire that I am, I, too, have found inspiration from her ashes.  If you want a writing prompt, see this post.  My friend has always been generous, and she doesn't seem to begrudge being this kind of inspiration.

Yesterday at work, I also got to let my department know that one of our colleagues successfully defended his dissertation.  I am in awe of people who can do this:   have a family, teach a 5-5-5-5 load, and do graduate work.  Astonishing.

And then, I was able to send out my own good news:  I will transition into the new position in the restructuring of our school.  I have been the Chair of General Education, and now I will be the Academic Coordinator of Humanities and Communications.  My sister says it sounds like a more impressive title.  I'm seeing it as a lateral move, although our restructured school has directors and coordinators who report to directors in the Program areas.  I will report to the dean.

So, technically, it may not be a lateral move.  But I am not suffering a cut in pay or benefits, so I'm not going to quibble over titles.  And quibbling over titles would do no good.

Besides, my title just doesn't matter to me--unless you're giving me a title that says something about my good personality traits.  If you titled me Kindest, Most Understanding Administrator Ever, well, I'd like that title.  Least Hypocritical Christian We Have Known--how I strive to be worthy of that title.  Generous, Patient:  some days I master those titles.  Poet of Extraordinary Figurative Language:  I'd love that title.  I strive to avoid this title:  Poet Who Inserts Line Breaks Into Mundane Prose.

I wouldn't know how to put any of those titles into a resume or CV.  But those are the titles that spur me, not the more mundane titles of the world.

Friday, September 14, 2012

World Changing Art: the Conflagration Edition

Yesterday I heard many news reports about the unravelling situation in the Mideast, along with a bit of analysis here and there of the film/film trailer that seems to have sparked these assorted riots, if riot is a severe enough word.  I must confess to thinking:  this amateur object has wrought all of this violence and death?  THIS film-like thing????

I think of when I used to tell my students that art and other creative acts can change the world.  I was always hoping to inspire them to change the world for good with their art and to remind myself that change for the good is possible.

Did the makers of the film intend to wreak this violence?  Are they watching in horror or glee? 

I find myself thinking of what societal changes I'd like to create with my art.  I wrote to a friend and colleague yesterday about my frustration with my inability to give my department members what they needed, like full-time jobs and fully paid health insurance.  I closed by saying, "If I ruled the world . . ."

My friend and colleague wrote back to say, "What's the first order when you begin your ruling???"

I wrote back:

"First order: no one goes to bed hungry!

Second order: anyone in a violent relationship is rescued!

Third order: medical care for all!

No, medical care will be 4th. Third Order: Housing for all!

Next, I’ll tackle the education system, when everyone is safe, fed, well, and housed."

I love this vision, but I don't have a clear idea of how my art might move the world closer to my vision.

I think of the 19th century writers, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Upton Sinclair (OK, he's early 20th century) and Elizabeth Gaskell, writers who motivated people to make social changes by documenting the squalor and desperation of the impoverished people.  I think of utopian writers who motivated readers towards social change by describing how wonderful life would be if we just lived in a different way.

As I think about writers who have changed the world, all the writers who come to mind are novelists and investigative journalists.  Can poets change the world for the better if they're not songwriters?

Yesterday I was talking to some friends about all the various reports I've written as an administrator, reports that as far as I can see, no one has ever read or only one dean has read before we shifted approaches, and I had to write a different kind of report.  I quipped, "Luckily, I'm a poet.  I'm used to writing things that no one will ever read."

But maybe being an administrator is like being a poet in a different way:  I write, not knowing exactly how my work will be utilized in the future.  I've hunted out reports written by people no longer with us when I've needed a sense of history and what has been tried before.  Maybe in the future, someone will find the reports that I've written to be valuable in ways I can't anticipate now.

I think of William Blake who was hardly read at all during most of his lifetime.  But he still continued creating and illuminating these beautiful poems, even knowing that only 10-20 people would read them immediately.

I would still write even if my poems were never read by anyone but me.  The connections I make delight me.  And when I go back to type my poems into the computer, often a year or more later, I'm often stunned by what I've created:  I wrote THAT???? How cool.  Those experiences alone would be worth it to me.

But I am a child of the post-MLK era.  I would like my life to make a difference.  I will continue swimming in that direction.

And in the meantime, I'll remain grateful that if my work has not yet changed the world, at least there's no conflagration raging because of something I've created.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Unraveling and Rekindling

I have been away, at a retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat that happens every Spring, the week-end after Easter, at Lutheridge.  The retreat to plan the retreat is both a working retreat for me as well as a time for renewal and nourishment.  It's been a treat to see friends, both at the retreat and along the way, and wonderful to get away to different scenery.  It's wonderful to return to Lutheridge, a church camp that I've been going to my whole life, a place that has great significance for my family--my mom was one of the first counselors there.  Going to Lutheridge feels like going home in all sorts of ways.

Of course, one must return to the rhythms of regular life eventually.  Or at least, the way my life is set up now, I must return.  Yesterday was a particularly tough return.

I woke up in Columbia, South Carolina, in the house of a dear friend from grad school.  I was on the road by 4:50 a.m.  As I drove south, news began to break about the attacks on diplomatic posts throughout the Mideast, and then, the news got worse:  the death of Chris Stevens, the ambassador in Libya, and some of his staff.  Of course, there's the everpresent backbeat of Iran's nuclear program and the inability to make Syria quit slaughtering its citizens. 

The world unravels, threads of all sorts pulled loose from the Mideast.  And my personal world continues to feel pulled apart.

I had hoped to have some news on the job front.  You may remember, last week, I interviewed for the new version of my job in the new structure of the reorganization of my school, and I wait to hear whether or not I've been chosen.  I wait to hear what my new salary might be.  Deadlines approach, and it would be nice to know what actions I should be taking.

Should I be packing up my office?  Should I be consulting with the woman who does the evaluation of transfer credits so that I can ask her all the questions (how do we transfer in AP test credits?  do we have official word on how to transfer in IB credits?) I'll wish I had asked later?  Should I be cleaning up my computer files?

Well, I should probably be cleaning up my computer files regardless.  I should sort through the paper files.  As always, those chores wait for another day.

Friday will be the earliest day we will get those answers.  In the meantime, I continue to try to troubleshoot possible futures.  I assign a class here and there to various teachers, while awaiting word for who might have gotten which full-time job, thus resulting in holes in the schedule.  I spent yesterday working with a variety of colleagues, trying to assemble workable schedules for each, even though the original, closer-to-perfect schedule has been blown into shards.  Yesterday, I spent time, as I seem to do every day now, in the work of comfort and consolation.

It's tough, offering comfort and consolation in times such as these, and I'm grateful for all the traditions which have taught me that there is a way to make a way out of no way.  Even when humans can't imagine redemption, there can be greater realities coming.  It's vitally important not to give up.

Before I get completely re-immersed in the down-from-the-mountain world, let me remember the glimmers of light from the past week.  Let me remember the friends who did not dwell in the world of job loss and insurance costs, friends who said, "So, now you'll go to seminary?  Now you'll proceed to this interesting possibility?  Now you'll finish __________" (fill in the blank with various creative projects).  It was great to be reminded of people who are doing what they can to bring justice to the world.  It was great to spend time thinking about creativity and the arts and spirituality and all the ways that they can intersect.  It was great to plan a retreat that will help people explore those intersections.

It was great to remember all the ways that we can be rekindled.  It was great to remember that darkness may loom, but the light will return.

Rekindling and unraveling:  could I write a poem that uses those disparate metaphors?

At some point soon, I'll write about the revelations that came to me as I did a directed writing exercise. At some point soon, I'll write about the insights I got as I wrote in my journal.  At some point soon, perhaps I'll sing the praises of Gwendolyn Brooks' latest, Caleb's Crossing, the book I read during my travels, the book which reminded me that as difficult as life is now, it's nothing to how difficult it was to be a woman in colonial Boston and the outlying islands. If those colonists could make a way out of no way, so can we.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Start with the Monster

A few days ago, I wrote this post about the fiction lunch I had with my Indian friend.  She teaches both Mythology and Fairy Tales (mainly the Grimm brothers), and she has her students write their own stories too.

She had some great techniques, and I'll list them here, so as not to forget them.  She says that in her culture, the sacred is rather abstract, while the monster is concrete.  So she always has her students start with describing the monster.

It makes a lot of sense.  Once you know what kind of monster your characters face, you'll know what kind of weapons they need, what kind of houses they'll need to live in, what their deepest fears are, what their dreams for the future would be.

This approach seems more applicable to fairy tale and fantasy, but she took me through another exercise.

We talked about our current lives and what our monsters would look like.  I said, "A mist."

Her eyes lit up.  "What kind of mist?"

"Sometimes it's barely visible, and other times it's quite opaque and solid."

"What kind of weapons would defeat it?"

I mentioned attitudes and such, but she didn't like that answer.  I didn't come up with any good weapons, but I am intrigued by the idea of mist as enemy.

And I like this approach to figuring out the conflict by beginning with the monster.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Writing About September 11

I haven't written a lot about September 11, at least not much in my poetry and fiction.  I can think of about 3 poems of mine that reference September 11.  It was only in the past 6 months that I've done much with Sept. 11 in my fiction.

I'm writing a series of linked short stories, and they often go in directions I don't expect.  I thought I was going to write a story about a woman at midlife who was having an unusual midlife crisis:  "I felt my midlife crisis nibbling at the edge of my day, but it wasn’t the midlife crisis I’d been trained to expect.  I loved my husband, loved my daughters, loved our home life.  My job as an HR expert wasn’t thrilling, but I did it well, and I’d been around enough HR departments to realize that few people did HR work well.  What was making me feel vaguely edgy and dissatisfied as I watched Adam and my daughters work at learning the song I once adored best in the world?"

I didn't anticipate that Jo, the main character speaking in that passage, would resolve her midlife crisis in the way that she did, and I didn't plan on using the events of September 11 at all.  But I did, and in the short story that I was writing last week, Sept. 11 surfaces again.

Last week's story is about Jo's granddaughter, who is at the end of her teens and has decided to take time to explore her artistic passions.  This part of the story is narrated by her father:

"'You know, your mother’s mother had a brief time in the art spotlight. Something to do with hands and September 11.'

'September 11?'

'You remember, when planes flew into the Pentagon and into two towers of the World Trade Center?” When my daughter shook her head, I shook my own head too. “What are they teaching you kids in schools these days?'

'Don’t get off track, Daddy. I think we’re in agreement about my shoddy education. Back to Grandma’s art career.'"

The story takes place in the late 2030's, a time when 2001 will be a distant memory.  Even now, when it's not a distant memory, 2001 is getting to be some time ago.  It's interesting to think about how future generations will interpret the events of Sept. 11, 2001.  Will it be seen as minor, in light of horrors yet to come?  Will it be seen as one terrorist event in a long string of terrorist events?

As a fiction writer, I can speculate.  As a human, I wish I could know.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Restoring All Our Seams

Tomorrow is September 11, which will be a very tough day for some of us.  Some of us will be doing service kinds of activities.  Maybe some of us will meet in spiritual settings. I'll be finishing planning for the creativity retreat that Lutheridge offers each spring; that feels appropriate.

I haven't written much about September 11, and I'll write more about that tomorrow.  I thought I'd offer a poem today, and when I looked at it, I realized that it's a Sept. 11 poem in a different way.  It was recently published in Adanna.  It's a poem that wouldn't exist without a variety of other people's thoughts and pictures on their blogs.  For more on that process, head on over to this post I wrote when I first wrote the poem.

Restoring the Seams

She used to count every rib,
a loom around her heart,
like the Appalachian tool
that spools honey into her tea.

But years of good food and wine
now hide her ribcage.
She lets the seams
out of the side of her favorite
dress, a dress bought long ago,
a dress stitched by a distant
woman in Afghanistan in a different decade.

She thinks of that country
come undone, torn and shredded.
She slides the seam ripper
under threads made softer
by the humidity of many Southern summers.

She thinks of distant graveyards,
young men buried in alien
landscapes. She thinks of English ivy,
that invasive immigrant, clinging
to the marble markers,
obscuring the names beneath.

Hours later, half blind from restoring
seams, she walks the woods
of a neighboring monastery.

The monks have reclaimed
an old slave cemetery, but a toppled
angel lies face down in the rich dirt.
She sets the angel upright
and brushes soil off her half-eroded features.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Posting and Repurposing

I've been reading about Jonah Lehrer, the latest journalist who has committed misdeeds (see this Slate piece for more).  The investigator mentioned that he had recycled blog posts and presented them as new.  I assume he was a paid blogger when he wrote the original blog posts.  Should we also assume that he was hired to write entirely new pieces?

I thought about my own blogging practice.  I use my blogs for all sorts of purposes.  I write about what I'm thinking, and some of it is topical.  I write about holidays of all sorts.  I write down ideas for future pieces of writing.  I puzzle over revision of creative pieces.

I also recycle my own writing.  I repost poems, almost always telling readers where they're from.  I take chunks of one piece of writing and put them into other pieces of writing.  If I'm busy, I'll rerun a post from a past year. 

Often, I've used a blog piece as a starting point for new writing.  I almost never can take a blog piece and just recycle it.  But I don't see a problem with repurposing it.

Of course, if someone hired me and specified that my thoughts must be completely new and original, then I wouldn't do that.  I'd do some searches on my blog, just to make sure I wasn't unconsciously revisiting a topic I'd already written about.

I'd also ponder whether or not it's actually possible to write something new and original these days.  I try to keep track of where I've seen various ideas.  I try to give credit where credit is due.  It was easier to keep track of my reading back when all my reading was non-electronic.

I've also been thinking about this blog post over at Historiann's blog.  She's been pondering the question of whether or not blog posts can be repurposed into a book.  She concludes that it's a tough-to-impossible task: 

"In the main, my problems with the book-to-blog concept revolve around the fact that blogs are a particular genre of communication that I don’t think translate particularly well to other media, and maybe to print media in particular:

--Blogs are not just about the blog author’s ideas, they’re about her audience’s reaction to her ideas and the interplay between and among the author and commenters. How would a book capture the freshness of an ongoing conversation or debate? (Even if it published the comments on each post, I don’t think it would! If yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip papers, then maybe it’s OK for old blog conversations to go down the memory hole.)

--What about the links to other blog posts or articles? What about the images that accompany most blog posts?

--Blogs are not peer-reviewed or edited, and many books-from-blogs appear never to have been edited or revised for clarity."

That's just a partial list, and I encourage you to read not only her thoughts, but the comments.  Very intriguing.

I agree with her points, yet I want to believe that I can take selected blog posts and transform them into a book that would work well.  It's the revision I need to pay attention to. 

That's my project for autumn:  to continue looking through my blog posts and collecting what I've already written about work and spirituality--the places where the two meet.  I've seen plenty of memoirs about work and plenty about being a spiritual person, but hardly any that mention the spiritual person in the workplace.  I can't be the only one longing for such a narrative.

Transforming blog posts into a narrative--that will be the focus of my revision.

And tomorrow, since I will be neck deep in retreat planning, I will be presenting a published poem and pointing readers to the original blog post where I explain how I came to write the poem--the poem which wouldn't exist without the blog writings of others that inspired it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Time Remains for the Water: A Photo Essay

Three weeks ago, we'd have been flying to Maryland for what has become an annual sailing trip with my sister, her husband, and their son.  What fun we had! 

I love to see a different shoreline:

We went crabbing from the marina dock:

we actually ate what we caught.  I think I could eat fresh-caught crabs every night and not get tired of them. 

Of course, melted butter makes everything taste better.

While on the shore, there's time for a sword fight; I like this shot of the sword fighters in the foliage:

How I would love a bayside cottage:

Especially if that bayside cottage comes with a swing at the shore:

We anchored out on a mooring ball in the Annapolis Harbor:

It's a great place to see the sunset:

It's a great place to see the sunrise:

By the end of next summer, I want to try this:

Many of us still have a few weeks of summery weather left; some of us, in the lowest lower 48 will have several months of summery weather.  There's still time to experience some summer joys one or two more times!  Maybe I'll try paddle boarding before Halloween . . .

Friday, September 7, 2012

Fiction Lunch Learning

Yesterday, my writer friend and I had a fiction lunch.  We both came with a short story; if it wasn't for these commitments, I don't know that I'd be writing any fiction at all.  I try not to think of past years, when I've written 1 story or more a week.  I remind myself that I wasn't blogging then.  I'm still writing a lot, just in different genres.

Yesterday's writer friend is from India, and I always pick up interesting nuggets from reading her stories.  Yesterday's story had a woman who married a tree.  The character's fortune (foretold by her Kundali, which I think is a Hindu form of determining the future, which is different from Kundalini, the yoga term) told her that her first husband would die, and thus, the marriage to the tree.

I assumed it was some kind of charming Indian magic realism, but my friend assured me such marriages are common in India.  She told me about one event where the woman was married to a goat, then the goat was killed and eaten at the marriage feast of the woman to her human husband.

Or was my friend telling me the plot of a story she'd written?  During our fiction lunches, it can be tough to tell.

As I say, I learn all sorts of things during our fiction lunches.  I had never heard of Kundali, which I will not be able to explain here, with its mathematical calculations and different dimensions.  So, there's one vocabulary word for your Friday.

Here's another:  Catoptromancy.

It means to tell the future by scrying.

You don't know the term scrying?  I didn't either.  It means to look at a reflective surface to tell the future.

Her story was doing all sorts of interesting things with the telling of the future by all sorts of means.  Her characters look into mirrors, her characters have their Kundali done.

My story, by contrast, was very rough--but that's what we've pledged, a complete rough draft.  I plan to go back and add more symbols:  stuff from The Wizard of Oz, Harriet Tubman imagery, plants.  I tried to write in 2 voices, but I suspect they both sound the same.

At some point, I need to return to these rough drafts I'm creating.  As my friend said yesterday, "What would happen if you thought of revision as sculpting?"

I need to make time for that sculpting!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rainbows and Work Weeks

It's been a long several weeks at work.  I've been getting all my annual evaluations done, even though they're not due until Oct. 1.  In light of all the uncertainties, it seems wise to get them done. 

Our annual review process involves observing the faculty member teaching a class, preparation of lots of paperwork in advance of the annual reivew process, a meeting with the worker who's being evaluated, then more paperwork and some electronic forms and then the copying and the filing.  August and September were already going to be busy months for me, as half of my department has a hire date of Oct. 1.  With all the other disruptions, it's even more hectic this year.

Yesterday evening, thunderstorms rumbled through.  My office is close to an outdoor patio, and I sometimes go outside, just to take a break from staring at screens.  It's a fairly protected space; last night, I stepped outside to see what the weather was doing.

I turned to go inside, and part of my brain said, "Wait!  Is that a rainbow?"

I turned back and scanned the sky.  Sure enough, a rainbow!

My rational brain knows that rainbows are a result of water droplets and light fracturing into colors of the spectrum.

My optimistic brain sees a rainbow as a good sign.  I remember all those Sunday School lessons that presented rainbows as a symbol of God's grace, a promise that we're protected.

So, in a week where I interviewed for a job in the new organization of my school, in a week where I completed mounds of paperwork, in a week where I spent an astonishing amount of money on car repairs, it was good to see a rainbow.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wednesday Wanderings: The Unwavering Hope Edition

--My interview went well.  It is a bit surreal to apply for a job that I'm already doing, that will change with the addition of one more coordinator in ways that no one quite understands just yet.  My current job will be split in two:  Coordinator of Communications/Humanities and Coordinator of Science/Math.  But it's not just a splitting of 1 job.  Other full-time folks will be RIFed, and it's hard to know where those duties will be redistributed.

--It's also strange to interview with people who have been my supervisors for 5-7 years.  Happily, they've had no problems with me. 

--In many ways, it's the best kind of job interview to have.

--I keep wondering if years from now I will look back on these blogs and wonder why I didn't mention the Presidential race.  So let me just say that it seemed appropriate to be ending the day with Michelle Obama's speech, where she was essentially interviewing for a job she already has.

--She had a much better interview outfit than I did.

--Am I the only one who thinks of the Mary Tyler Moore show whenever I see Michelle Obama?  I mean that as a compliment.  The character of Mary Richards is one of my all-time favorite characters, from TV or movies or any narrative, actually.

--I loved the narratives that Michelle Obama included:  her father working hard to make sure her school payments weren't late, Barack's grandma working hard to support her family.

--I so, SO needed to be reminded that even when we have no evidence that we're changing the world for the better, we are, if that's what we're trying to do.  One of the things I miss most about teaching is that I was sure I was affecting lives for the better.  I've had department members assure me that I am doing similar things on a departmental level, but it's not the same visceral feeling that comes from teaching.

--If you want to read or hear the speech, go here.

--Here are some choice quotes from Michelle Obama's speech:

     --"You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn't have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves."

     --"We learned about dignity and decency – that how hard you work matters more than how much you make...that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself."

     --"And he [Barack] believes that when you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of do not slam it shut behind reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed."

     --"And he [Barack] reminds me that we are playing a long game here...and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once.

But eventually we get there, we always do.

We get there because of folks like my Dad...folks like Barack's and women who said to themselves, 'I may not have a chance to fulfill my dreams, but maybe my children will...maybe my grandchildren will.'

So many of us stand here tonight because of their sacrifice, and longing, and steadfast love...because time and again, they swallowed their fears and doubts and did what was hard.

So today, when the challenges we face start to seem overwhelming – or even impossible – let us never forget that doing the impossible is the history of this's who we are as's how this country was built.

And if our parents and grandparents could toil and struggle for us...if they could raise beams of steel to the sky, send a man to the moon, and connect the world with the touch of a button...then surely we can keep on sacrificing and building for our own kids and grandkids."

     --"Because in the end, more than anything else, that is the story of this country – the story of unwavering hope grounded in unyielding struggle."

--It is good to remember that although political rhetoric can get very ugly, it can also be used for inspiration, for great good.  If I was teaching, I'd have my students analyze the speech both as political document, personal narrative, and history.  How successful was she?

--It would also be interesting to compare her speech to Ann Romney's.  That could lead to interesting compare and contrast essays.

--And it would be interesting to have students ponder what these candidate's wives say about us as a country.  What role does gender still play in our society?  And there's the intriguing race angle, the class angle.  Yes, lots could be done with these speeches.