Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Scary Stories

When I got to spin class last night, the theme from The Exorcist was playing.  After class, I said, "That's the spookiest movie ever."

My spin instructor said, "And the scariest movie.  And the scariest book!"  She said she used to keep her copy in the freezer because her friend told her that the devil couldn't get her if she kept the book in the freezer.

Ah, the 1970's, when we worried about demon possession and the devil impregnating innocent girls.

When I wasn't reading romances in the bodice ripper genre, I devoured books about the supernatural.  I devoured all books, to be honest, but I loved books about the supernatural.  I remember being most scared by Stephen King's Salem's Lot.  I remember reading that vampires can't get in your house unless you invite them in, and the vampires in that book were skilled at manipulating people to invite them in, often against their will.

So I stayed awake, worried that I'd offer an invitation to a vampire in my sleep.  Later, I'd spend sleepless nights worrying about nuclear war.  And the standard worries, like not getting my papers written.  And always in the back of my mind, the worries about rape and other kinds of violence.

When I think of our fears that affect mass populations, I wonder why we're not more worried about the damage we're doing to the planet.  We've already changed the planet in ways we're just beginning to comprehend.  Last year's Hurricane Irene was called the storm of the century.  This year, we've had Hurricane Sandy, also a storm we should see only once a century.

These days, there are few things that keep me awake at night, but that's not for lack of things that make me fretful.  Last week my husband finally broke down and got an MRI.  He's spent much of this year hoping his back pain would go away.  It hasn't.

These days, when you get an MRI, they send you home with a CD.  My spouse put it in the computer and the computer read the data!  There on the screen:  my husband's insides.  What amazing technology.

And there, clear to our non-professional eyes, the herniation that's been causing so much pain for such a little bulge.

What will he do?  Consult professionals and see what his options are.  I'm trying to stave off panic by taking this process step by step.

And there's the issue of the cell phone charger left on the plane and the other instances of forgetfulness suffered by us both.

If you want a really scary movie for your Halloween, watch the movie Iris, about Iris Murdoch's descent into Alzheimer's.  Judi Dench should have won the Oscar that year.  What a frightening transformation.

What makes that movie scary is the very real possibility that it could happen to any of us.  I don't much worry about demon possession these days.  I do worry about losing my faculties, especially if it happens early.  Likewise, I worry about my spouse's health. 

Iris Murdoch had one of the most brilliant minds of her generation, and the movie was terrifying in its depiction of the complete loss of that brilliant mind.  As an English major, I can't think of anything more sad, whether that loss is delivered as death or Alzheimer's.

And as a writer, there aren't many things that frighten me more than the idea of that steep decline.  I'm not happy about the small losses I'm seeing now.  I used to remember more.  Now like the rest of the world, I look things up on the Internet. 

I've outsourced my brain.  Now there's a scary thought.

Maybe we haven't outsourced our brains.  Maybe we've just freed them to do other things!  My Halloween brain runs to apocalypse.  My sensible girl brain won't let me linger there long.  I have a memoir manuscript to pull together after all.  Will it be a scary story?  A comforting story? 

More than anything else right now, my hope is that my memoir will be a wise friend on a journey undertaken by many people.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Hurricane Anniversary

Months ago, my mom asked if we could all come up to Williamsburg for their 50th anniversary celebration.  I did the usual calculations:  where would I be work-wise, what else was on the calendar, any other considerations?  Did I think about hurricanes?  Probably not.  If they had been married at the end of August, possible hurricanes might have entered into my calculation, but I'd have likely proceeded anyway.

Who would have guessed that we'd spend so much time monitoring a hurricane all week-end?  I should have known.  After all, I am always haunted by Hurricane Wilma, which wiped out the end of October 2005 and much of the rest of 2005 for us. 

Many more millions of people will probably have similar memories about Hurricane Sandy.  Although it's early, I predict that it will take at least a month to recover from this massive storm, and when I say "recover," I mean only on the most basic level.  And as we know, many humans and some institutions will never recover.

We were scheduled to leave on Friday afternoon, so I spent much of last week trying to guess where the storm would be and how strong it would be.  On Friday morning, it became clear that we'd be able to leave, but less clear that we'd be able to get back. I had one friend suggest that we cancel our trip.

I had already written to my parents to make sure that if we were stranded up in Virginia, that they'd be OK with that.  I have some extra vacation time, so it wouldn't have to be catastrophic.  I did have one friend remind me that it might not be vacation-like if we were stuck without power.

We decided to go and take our chances on the return.

We got to the airport early, since there was a storm in the area, and I wasn't sure what would happen.  It couldn't have been more easy.  We walked right up to the Jet Blue counter to check in our bags and had similar success at security.

As we left, the pilot said, "It may be a little bumpy, but we'll fly out of that soon.  If you're on the right side of the plane, you should be able to get a pretty good view of the hurricane."

We were on the right side of the plane, but all I saw were thick clouds, even though I kept looking for the characteristic swirl.  Still, it was cool to see the layers of the clouds.

We had an easy flight to the Richmond airport.  We did leave the cell phone charger on the plane, but that was the only glitch.

We had a great week-end with my parents, and my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.  It was rainy and breezy, but since we didn't have sightseeing plans, that was fine.  We lifted our glasses several times throughout the week-end to the 50 years of married life my parents have enjoyed.

And since my parents lived in the outside edge of the hurricane cone, we kept tuning in to the Weather Channel.  It became clear that we wouldn't suffer a direct hit, but as the forecasters kept warning, it was hard to predict how much of the effects we would feel.

I usually get a lot of reading done when we travel, but I was too distracted by the storm.  I watched the Weather Channel on the Jet Blue flight up and back.  I got up in the morning and got sucked into the Weather Channel vortex.  Even though I know that once you've seen about 15 minutes of their programming, you've gotten the most important info, it felt impossible to tear my attention away.

Yesterday, I got up and checked our flight info.  The plane was still listed as an on-time departure, so we headed off to the Richmond airport.  We were one of two flights set to depart, so the airport was gloriously empty.  Before we checked our bags, I checked to make sure we had a plane and a crew.  The guy at the desk said we did.

We checked in and breezed through security. 

I happened to think to ask about our cell phone charger that we left on the plane. The woman at the Jet Blue desk said she'd just seen it in the break room where they keep the lost and found items. She called to see if someone could bring it to me at security but they were short staffed, so no luck.

But security had been easy, and we had 40 minutes before departure, so I decided to go back and get it. Sure enough, there it was. Hurrah! And I had no trouble getting back.  I was happy out of all proportion to have retrieved our lost cell phone charger.

And even if I had run into a line at security, it wouldn't have mattered, because our departure was delayed. One steward was delayed by flooding, so another one volunteered, but he still faced a challenge in driving to the airport through the increasingly heavy rain. 

But he made it and off we went to sunny South Florida.  It's cooler here than it was when we left.  We slept with a few windows open.  Ahhhh!

This morning, my thoughts are with the people who were more directly impacted by Hurricane Sandy than I was.  It's no fun to deal with that.

I wrote a poem about it, which I won't post here.  I found out over the week-end that my poem "What They Don't Tell You About Hurricanes" was accepted by Paper Nautilus and will appear in the Fall 2012 issue, when I will repost it here.  It seemed a fitting end to the Hurricane Anniversary week-end.

And perhaps I'll write a poem about Golden anniversaries and Hurricane anniversaries.  If you feel similarly inspired, feel free to play too.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Poem for Reformation Day

Yesterday was Reformation Sunday; Reformation Day itself is October 31.  It put me in mind of a poem I wrote with images pulled out of the Reformation narrative.  It was written years ago, during another annoyingly hot October, where I thought about weather and social change--and this poem emerged. It appears in my first chapbook. Enjoy!

Reformation Day

The catholic heat holds us
in a tight embrace for what seems an age.
We participate in the sacraments
designed to make us forget the hellishness
of everyday life: afternoons at the pool,
barbecues, beach trips, and for the fortunate few,
a trip to the mountains, a retreat, a pilgrimage.

We pay alms as we must: electric bills,
pool chemicals, cool treats. We pay indulgences
when we can’t avoid it: the air conditioning repair
man, the pool expert who keeps the water pure,
men versed in mysteries we cannot hope to understand.

Finally, the heat breaks. A cold front swoops
down upon us from the north country, a Reformation
bringing with it the promise of other Protestants,
more weather systems to overthrow
the ubiquitous heat, to leave
us breathless with the possibilities of change.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Celebrate Literacy and the Arts on Reformation Sunday

Today is Reformation Sunday.  A year ago, I wrote about why artists and writers should care.  It's a piece that bears repeating, so here it is again.

Even if you're not spiritual or religious, if you're a scholarly sort, you should celebrate. If you're a writer, or indeed, an artist of any kind, you should celebrate.

Martin Luther and those other Reformers not only created new approaches to church, but they launched us much further down the road towards modernity than we'd have been otherwise.

I'm a Lutheran, so let me just offer some examples from the life of Martin Luther. Martin Luther was the first to translate the Bible into a common language that everyone could read. Why does that matter, you ask. Once everyone could read the Bible, the priests lost the control they had once had. Having access to those Scriptures made it possible for people to think for themselves.

And having the Scripture in those common languages made people yearn for literacy so that they could read those Scriptures. And I'm a liberal arts gal, so I believe that more literacy is better than less.

Yes there are dark periods in Church History where the arts have been repressed, and we see that repression more in some of the religions that came out of the Reformation than we do in Catholicism. But unfortunately, one of the messages of human history is that we're always struggling to find a balance between healthy expression and darker aspects of our nature.

So, on this Reformation Sunday, lift a beer or an apple cider in a toast to the Reformation. Take a popular song and make new lyrics, like so many of those early Reformers did: some of our most famous Lutheran hymns have melodies from drinking songs. Read a book or a blog post and think about how wonderful it is to have the ability to read and more stuff to read than you can ever plow through. Try a new art form. Think about your own art form and the reformations you'd like to see. Treat your inner artist with a spirit of grace, not judgment.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Marriage, Hope, and the Cuban Missile Crisis

My parents celebrate their anniversary today:  50 years together!

A few years ago I wrote an appreciation of their marriage, and since I have yet to write anything stronger, let me paste it here again, for your reading pleasure.

I can always remember how long my mom and dad have been married if I can remember the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). My dad was a young officer in the Air Force, and up until just about the moment they got married, they weren't sure if my dad would actually be there, or if he might be called back to his unit. In later years, as I've realized how close to nuclear war the world came during that month, I'm amazed that they actually pulled it off--I'm amazed that we're all still here.

My mom and dad have only recently begun to talk about their wedding in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can't imagine my mom, as a young bride-to-be, planning the last details of her wedding, while watching world leaders huff and puff. She's rarely talked about that.

I can imagine how I would feel: terrified. I might wonder what would be the point of marrying and pretending that life would go on as normal.

And yet, here we are, 50 years later, with life going on as normal. If my parents had cancelled their wedding and lived as if nuclear bombs would rain down at any moment, they'd have spent 50 years living that way. They'd have missed out on the joy of marriage and raising two children. They'd have had no grandson (my sister's boy). They wouldn't have travelled or gone to back to school or had all the joys they've had.

I, too, have been haunted by the prospect of nuclear war, as have many people of my generation and older generations. I've noticed that younger generations just look at me, baffled, when I ask if they worry about the possibility of nuclear war.

Oddly, they're probably more at risk than I ever was. At least when the Soviet Union was intact, we knew where the nuclear weapons were. Now, many of them have vanished--but we know they're out there, somewhere.

Nuclear imagery has found its way into a substantial chunk of my poems, but I've never used my parents' marriage and the Cuban Missile Crisis in a poem. Maybe I'll let that percolate.

In the meantime, I hope that we can all continue to make gestures of wild hope, during these tough times, the way my parents did, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What would that wild gesture of hope look like, in this time of global warming and pandemic flu?

Love is always such a gesture. To commit to another person, to love others, even though you know they will disappoint you in ways that you can't even imagine--that's a radical act of life-affirming hope. We love, even though we know that all we love will be lost if we live long enough. Even if we don't have the dramatic backdrop of a international standoff that would likely end in nuclear war, to commit to love in the face of all that would erode that love is a such a bold act.

And of course, our love is not limited to people. We adopt pets with lifespans significantly shorter than ours. We write poems, even though we know that we'll be lucky if our readership measures in the hundreds. We read, even though we might be the last generation of readers--and some of us continue to be committed to our esoteric reading interests, even though we might be the only ones still reading those texts. We teach, even though we can't be sure of the lives we'll change--we can only hope to do no harm--and most career trajectories are similar, I suspect. We duck and cover and keep an eye to the horizon for those mushroom clouds--and in the meantime, we live our lives and hope for the best.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad! May we all have lives as full of love as you have had.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Missiles, Retired and Otherwise

Our local NPR affiliate, WLRN, was running Cuban Missile Crisis stories yesterday morning.  They included an interview with Dr. Henry Mack, a man who was very close to sending missiles to Cuba.

He said, "Seeing four 41-foot Nike Hercules Missiles painted white, pointed skyward is a formidable and frightening sight."

His comment reminded me of seeing an ICBM in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  Here I was, nose to nose with one of the missiles that had haunted my nightmares for so long.  And it looked so tame.

I wrote a poem which first appeared in The Ledge.  This week-end, the 50 year anniversary of the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has been to nuclear war thus far, seems a good time to print it here.  And it's a great way to celebrate Disarmament Week, which commemorates the founding of the UN (more info here).  May we all continue to be safe from nuclear nightmares--and those nightmares caused by other kinds of missiles.

ICBM Retirement

Strange to see you in this Museum of Air and Space,
when for years you gave us neither:
spectre of our youth, haunting nightmares
and torturing us with thoughts of nuclear winter and instant
adulthood. Able to leap across continents,
to hone in on a world half a planet away,
fearsome fury kept coiled in silos
underneath the most fertile soil
in the hemisphere, you must wonder
what you’ve done to deserve this ignominious fate.

It takes two stories to encase you in plexiglass.
Children who have not heard of your prowess press
their runny noses and hands on the glass to leave prints.
In your glory days, you could have vaporized
them in a heartbeat, but now you let them stare.

So few want to stare, after all. Attracted
to the sexier exhibits, Skylab and the IMAX theatres,
most visitors leave you to your metallic
silence. Your sinister sleekness repels
all but the most dedicated Cold Warriors.

What haunts your nightmares? Do you
scream to wakefulness at the visions
of happy children growing into their full potential?
Maybe you long for weapons you weren’t meant to mate,
the heavy breathing of a machine gun, the orgasmic roar
of an airplane as it hoists you up and over.

Or perhaps I’m unfair.
Perhaps you crave an altogether different
destiny: loving hands to scrape away the rust,
paint you shiny once more,
plant flowers in your every nook and cranny.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Non-Writing Highlights and Some Photos from My Mountain Trip

Isn't the Cuban landscape supposed to shred hurricanes?  Well, that hasn't happened with Hurricane Sandy.  I felt jittery all day yesterday, with the shrieking winds and the fact that yesterday was the anniversary of Hurricane Wilma's crossing over us.

So, to keep my mind off this hurricane to our south, let me note some other highlights of our trip to the mountains.

--Along the way we stopped at the South Carolina Artisans' Center in Walterboro.  What a neat place!  I got great photos and will post a photo essay at a later point.  But here's a photo to whet your appetite:

--I noticed a wide variety of prices.  I'm fairly sure that the artists set their own prices.  Not for the first time, I wondered how artists decided on prices.

--I also wondered how many other venues these artists had.  At some point, do they quit going to craft shows, or does an artisan always need to do that?

--Lutheridge was jam packed this week-end.  Hurrah!  We got to stay at the newish Lakeside cabins.  Yes, on the field where we played Capture the Flag during my camper days in the 1970's, now sit these cabins:

--Inside there are two bedrooms with a double bed and 3 single beds in each bedroom.  Each bedroom has its own shower, sink, and toilet.  The shower and toilet are in separate rooms--brilliant!  There's a living area that has a sofa and small dining table and a kitchenette:  sink, microwave, coffee maker, small fridge.

--If we got serious about downsizing, we could live in this kind of space.  We'd need a better kitchen, though, with a stove and full-size fridge.

--My spouse and I spent much of our time playing cards (no T.V.!).  It took a surprisingly long time to remember the rules of card games that once consumed our childhood.  How do you play Old Maid again?

--The first night, as we played cards, we had an excellent supper of wine, cheese, crackers, a surprisingly good trail mix, and a Cadbury fruit and nut candy bar.  Such a simple meal and so unbelievably satisfying.

--We went on an apple expedition. 

--I'm always tempted to buy bushels of apples, but I have to remind myself that there's only 2 of us, and the trip home isn't always easy on produce.

--We shared the camp with a music and healing group.  When we first got to camp, we saw lots of people walking with instruments.  I thought, "I'm home!"

--At breakfast, I thought wow, what an interesting collection of colors and textures.  Almost every woman wore a scarf of some kind.  Many participants had fascinating socks.  A few sported jaunty headware.  A very nubbly group.

--I didn't get a picture of anyone, but they reminded me of fiber collections of all sorts:

--I walked the labyrinth, which is laid out on an old tennis court.  In fact, my mom, who was one of the first camp counselors 60 years ago, used to play tennis there.  I love walking the labyrinth on a space where my mom played tennis and yearned for a future she could barely glimpse yet.  It seems appropriate.

--Walking the labyrinth with autumn leaves scudding about; that, too, seems appropriate in so many ways.

--I spent a lot of time walking. It's a very muted scene, colorwise.  Still lots of green.  Lots of yellows.  Often on the same tree. 

--The reds are rusty:

--In the autumnal landscape, it's not hard to remember that Halloween is just around the corner:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Labyrinth Realizations

I had intended to make a new book-length manuscript of poems.  I took piles of poems with me on our recent trip to the mountains.  I knew that I would have some time to work while my husband was at his meetings.  Steel Toe Books has an open submission time until the end of the month, and I intended to come back with a manuscript.

Once upon a time, I divided my poems into nuclear/apocalypse poems and spiritual poems.  I had a manuscript of each.  More recently, I've been writing poems about modern life, particularly work.  And I've been noticing monastic themes swirling through some of those poems, a kind of contrast to the type of modern life that most of us live.

Do I want to create a manuscript that does a lot more with that comparing and contrasting?  Or do I want to think about apocalypse in terms of Holocene extinctions and economic collapse?  Some manuscript that incorporates it all?  How many book-length collections of poems am I likely to publish, after all?  It's feeling very late in my book-length poetry publishing trajectory, although I realize those feelings may be false.

I sorted through poems and realized that I wanted more time than I would have to put a book-length manuscript together.  I wanted time to put poems together in one way and see how they vibrated and then put them together in a different way.  I decided to wait.

In the meantime, my world of connected short stories continues to speak to me.  I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Civil War reenactors and wondering whether or not we'll still be replaying the Civil War in 100 years.  Will we move on to reenact different wars?  I wondered about Afghanistan War reenactors.  And then, I got an idea for a short story with a character whom I had assumed was going to be a minor actor.

Later in the morning, I walked the labyrinth and thought about linked short stories.  I've been planning to stop writing these stories and start thinking about the larger collection.  As I walked around the loops of the labyrinth, I realized I might have enough for two volumes.  I thought about Louise Erdrich and how when I first read Love Medicine in grad school, I thought, I want to do this.  And now, in a way, I am.  Like Erdrich, I've created stories that weave through multiple generations.  Characters who are minor in one story move to center stage in another.  When I go back to revise, I'll try to do more with setting in terms of place.

Walking the labyrinth also led me to the realization about not putting together a new poetry manuscript.  I thought about the time it would take to do the physical act of cutting and pasting to create the document.  I thought about needing to look up the publication information for the poems that have appeared elsewhere.

I also thought about my last insight that came to me at Lutheridge, which I wrote about here, the insight that I needed to work on my memoir.  I am in that space where I'm carefully evaluating my use of time.  If I work on a new poetry manuscript, that's time I don't have for other projects.

I try not to think in terms of what projects might have more monetary potential, but lately, my thinking has shifted.  Should my current job end in the next few years, what I'd really like is to have a way to make writing move to the center.  To put it bluntly, I'd like to have enough writing success to pay my bills.

Clearly, unless the literary landscape changes quickly and dramatically, a poetry manuscript is less likely to help in that goal. 

But more important, I feel like my memoir has something to say that isn't being said widely right now.  I see a need.  I think that there are plenty of readers out there who would devour a book about trying to live an integrated and honest life in the office especially when one has a spiritual life that isn't always in sync with one's colleagues.

So yesterday, I returned to my blogs, looking for posts that can lead to essays that will be part of my memoir.  My goal is to have those chosen by the first week-end in November, when I have a chunk of time carved out for writing.  The goal is in sight--and it wouldn't be, if I was trying to assemble a poetry manuscript.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Three States in Three Hours!

Once, I used to enjoy more leisurely southeastern driving tours.  I'd visit my grandmother, and often use her house as my launching pad.  I'd see friends from grad school and undergraduate school.  I'd meander back to the Charleston area to see friends from my first full-time community college job.  My grandmother and I would take trips, often to see her brother or on a quest for cloth.  I'd spend a week meandering across the state and back again.

Now my spouse and I undertake blistering trips across Southern states:  3 states in 3 hours, closing in fast on state #4!  He's on a board of trustees for Lutheran church camps, which means he's got meetings to attend, which means we're on a schedule.  I'm an administrator more than a teacher these days, which means I have some flexibility with vacation time, but not an unlimited number of days.

We just got back from North Carolina, where I wanted to see autumnal colors, but instead I saw a more muted autumn.  Was I just a week too early or is it going to be muted this year because of a mild winter and hot summer?

Still, it was great to have a different landscape to watch and to walk.  It was wonderful to have time to talk with my spouse.  It was great to be out of the office, which was full of its usual craziness while I was away--perhaps I'll blog about that craziness later.  But one nugget is good enough to record now, so that I don't lose it. 

My spouse took a cell phone message from a dean while I was driving, and he looked at me in confusion.  He said, "Something about putting off a meth lab until Spring?"

I laughed and said, "No, it's MyMathLab; OK, I know what this is about." 

Oh, if only I was the writer of scathing, hilarious satire of academia, a la Kingsley Amis or a writer of academic mysteries, a la so many people.  There's a novel in that nugget.

It was great to have a chance to journal the old-fashioned way, on paper.  I had some writing insights, which I'll talk about in a later post.  I had a character wake me up in the middle of the night--that doesn't happen often anymore, and it was thrilling.

It was great to unplug, to be off the grid.  I can't help but notice that I sleep longer when I don't have Internet access.

I am still deep in Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own:  An American Pilgrimage.  How wonderful to spend the week-end with Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy.  I had gotten to the point in the book where each writer has become somewhat (or very, in Merton's case) successful and has to wrestle with how to live the best writer's life, while staying true to their Catholic calling and their vision of their best lives.  They also must wrestle with the physical limitations imposed by a body (O'Connor's lupus, Percy's TB).

It was great to read this book at Lutheridge, the church camp which has nourished me throughout much of my life.  I'd read a bit, go walk the labyrinth, read some more, walk up to the chapel--it's a delightful way to meander through a book.

I know that some of my friends must think I'm a bit mad:  12 hours in the car, 36 hours at camp, 12 hours back in the car.  When I put it that way, it does seem insane.  I return home both tired and refreshed.

I know that I won't live this life forever.  In the future, maybe I'll have time for more leisurely travel.  Maybe I'll be on the move more, as I have books to promote and speaking engagements and retreats to lead.  Maybe we'll see an international collapse or the end of peak oil, which will rule out all petroleum based travel.

I'm working on being present for whatever phase of life I'm in, while I'm living it.  I'm trying not to get swamped in sadness for the life I once had, the regular visits with old friends that happened more often.  I'm trying not to micromanage the future.

In the meantime, it's back to regular life, whatever that is.  I've already been to the office, sorted through e-mails, evaluated some transcripts (a new element of my new position in the reorganization), returned messages.  I've done an early morning boot camp work out on the roof of a parking garage down here, while watching the sun rise--got to work off that heavy camp food somehow.  I'll do some laundry today.

I'm already missing the mountains, the cooler air.  I'll keep my eyes south, however, on Tropical Storm Sandy.  We've been slammed by late season storms before.  It's never a wise idea to turn one's back on the tropics!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Notebooks, Golden and Otherwise

Today is Doris Lessing's birthday.  Below, I've reposted material that I first posted 2 years ago.

Today is the birthday of Nobel prize winning writer Doris Lessing. There are days when I'm rather sobered to realize how many Nobel laureates I've never read, and now, I must begin to admit, will likely never read.

I've tried to read Doris Lessing. I understand her importance. I just don't like her books.

In the 1980's, I started reading feminist authors in earnest. I subscribed to Ms. magazine. Doris Lessing's name kept coming up. So many of my favorite authors mentioned her work, and in particular, the book The Golden Notebook. I could hardly wait to read it.

I tried to slog through it during the summer of 1985. I was commuting to Southeast D.C., where I worked as a housing counselor for Lutheran Social Services--like President Obama, I was a community outreach organizer, of sorts. I tried to connect poor people to services and grant money. We had money to winterize houses, and we did that. I answered the phones and helped people file paperwork that would keep them from losing their homes. There were hours of downtime where I simply waited for the phone to ring and could read. Plus, I was commuting by bus and subway, which meant I had more time to read. I often carried numerous books with me.

I tried so hard to read The Golden Notebook. I wanted so much to like it. I just didn't. I finally gave up. Occasionally, I returned to Doris Lessing, but I could never finish her books.

Later, in graduate school, I was happy to understand her place in British literature, but I had other female authors from the 20th century whom I liked better: Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch for example. I could write about Doris Lessing for my Comprehensive exams, but I never managed to actually finish any of her books.

I don't understand why I can like Joyce but not Lessing. Well, I suspect the key is having a good teacher. In graduate school, I had the fabulous Dr. Rice guide us through the works of Joyce. None of my grad school professors had us read Lessing. I suspect they felt the same way about her work that I did.

Still, I'm happy that her writings came when they did, that The Golden Notebook was there to guide the development of other feminist writers who would be so important to me.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Photo Ode to Autumn

Much of the upper 48 states are deep into autumn by now.  I thought a photo essay might be nice.  And if these photos inspire a poem or a short story, all the better!

Traditional and not-so-traditional Jack-o-Lanterns.

Other autumnal gourds:

Can you find the hidden gourd?

Another Jack-o-Lantern, hiding in plain sight:

Autumnal Beer!

Autumn Bouquet:

Autumn scarecrows:

Soon our attention will shift to turkeys!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Location, Location, Location

As I've thought about the future, I've wondered about moving.  My first response to any element of dissatisfaction with my current life is to consider moving.  What might life be like elsewhere?  Would I finally find my dream job?  Would there be a better cultural climate?  Would I find a network of friends?  Would life be more affordable?

I find it odd that some part of my brain is always packing up the moving van.  When I was young, my family moved a lot, and I HATED starting over.  But the attraction of new beginnings has apparently imprinted itself in my brain.

Intellectually, I know the costs that come with moving--and not just monetary costs.  I once estimated that every move costs me 6 months of writing:  writing that I'm not doing because I'm packing, selling the house, resettling elsewhere--and not sending out writing, not working on larger projects, not following up on inquiries or losing inquiries between addresses (less a factor now, with the Internet).

More than that, I find myself missing what I've left behind.  It's easy to plunge into a full-blown despair.  I find myself missing places that I didn't particularly like when I lived there.

It's not always to appreciate the place I live while I'm there.  Recently I read two articles on Hoppin' John's in Charleston.  This article says, "A year later[after Hurricane Hugo], Hoppin’ John’s would reopen and remain open for another nine years. Debbie Marlowe, Taylor’s longtime friend and the owner of the Wine Shop of Charleston, told me that Hoppin’ John’s was where many folks came to do their research. 'His store was the Internet before the Internet,' she said."

Hoppin' John's once upon a time had more cookbooks than any other store I'd ever been in.  This story tells us about the cookbook of the same name, its author John MartinTaylor and the bookstore:  "In 1986, Taylor opened the store, Hoppin’ John’s, its name a nod to the moniker the budding bookseller had adopted a year earlier when he brought the traditional good-luck dish of rice and beans to a New Year’s Day party. Historian and author Dale Rosengarten, curator at the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston, remembers the store as a 'hole in the wall' filled floor to ceiling with cookbooks. For many years, a steady stream of journalists, chefs and home cooks poured into the store, looking for the right book. Robert Stehling, chef and proprietor of the Hominy Grill in Charleston, recalls visiting the store and watching Taylor scrunch up his face when customers asked for certain books. The owner wasn’t shy about redirecting people to other volumes."

I went to Hoppin' John's bookshop way back in 1993 or so.  I don't remember going back more than once.  I was vaguely aware of the culinary explosion happening in Charleston in the mid 1990's, but by then, my spouse was back in grad school, and we were plotting ways to move to a less conservative part of the country.

I do find it ironic that I now go back to the South Carolina lowcountry once a year to visit a monastery that I didn't even know was there when I lived there.  There are all sorts of resources across the state for people who want to eat locally.  The University of South Carolina now has all sorts of literary stuff going on that it didn't when I went to grad school there.

I also have a spouse who loves living here. If one spouse loves a location and the other is always yearning to live someplace else, maybe it makes sense to stay put where the one spouse is happy.  Maybe I should make more of an effort to remind myself of the advantages of my current location.

I remind myself that I'm in a part of the country that also has a flourishing literary life.  It's hard to eat locally here, unless you want to live on tropical fruits, but that idea would appeal to me if I lived elsewhere.  I worry about hurricanes, but the weather has become problematic in most locations.  I worry about rising sea levels.

Maybe we will live here until the rising seas sweep us away.  Maybe it will happen later rather than sooner.  After all, if my life has much of a lesson up to this point, it's that the catastrophes that overtake me are seldom the ones I expected.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

St. Luke and Creative Pursuits

Today is the feast day of St. Luke.  You might be saying, "Wait, don't you have a theology blog where you could discuss that?"

Indeed I do, and I also write for the Living Lutheran website, where my current blog post about St. Luke appears.  But even if you're not a spiritual sort, you might find all sorts of inspiration from St. Luke.

St. Luke was a writer, after all (he gets credit for the Biblical books of Luke and Acts).  He's also given credit as one of the first iconographers.  Today would be a great day to write our own Gospel that tells about the Good news that we're seeing in the world.  Or we could celebrate this patron saint of artists this way:

"We could experiment with the visual arts to see how they could enrich our spiritual health. We might choose something historical and traditional, like iconography. Or we might decide that we want to experiment with something that requires less concentration and training. Maybe we want to create a collage of images that remind us of God’s abundance. Maybe we want to meditate on images, like icons, like photographs, that call us to healthy living."

St. Luke is also the patron saint of students.  Maybe it's time to plan for a class we want to take in January.

Or maybe we just want to make a beef stew; St. Luke is also the patron saint of butchers.  This NPR webpage gives a great beef stew recipe, and a link to an interview between Fresh Air's Terry Gross and the America's Test Kitchen chefs which tells how to maximize flavors in your beef stew along with other culinary chemistry wonders.

So, enjoy the feast day of St. Luke, a saint that should be dear to the heart of creative types.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Disconnected from Debates

I have a guilty confession, although you may find it strange that I feel guilt when disclosing:  I am so disconnected from this year's election.

Yes, I will still vote.  No worries there.  I know how many women struggled for so many years (centuries!) to secure this right for me.  I understand how the choices affect me.  At the very least, the president will make some Supreme Court decisions.  At the most, the president will lead us in a certain direction and make sure to get things done.

For people who think that a president doesn't matter, especially in times of divisive politics, I'd say, go read up on LBJ.  Now there was a man who knew how to get things, some good, some horrid, done.

But I've made my decisions, and I don't really feel a need to discuss them.  I'm not going to spend a lot of time on further deliberation.

Which brings me to the debates, which I have not been watching.

Part of it is that I fall asleep early these days, especially if the T.V. that we're watching is boring.  But part of it is weariness.  I'm just not interested in politics as blood sport anymore.

On some level, I don't recognize myself.  I think back to the year 2000 (12 years ago!).  I not only watched the debates, but I taped them and I made my Composition II students watch them and write analytical essays about them.  It was an Argumentative Essay writing class, so they analyzed the debates as argument.  Some of them did a good job.  Most of them seemed a bit baffled. 

In retrospect, it would have been a better assignment if I had been teaching a Speech class.  Ah, hindsight, my mother would say.

I was living the adjunct life, driving across multiple counties.  Having 3 debates that shaped my classes helped in terms of class planning.  But more than that, I felt passionately that students needed to be involved and thinking about these issues.

And now, here I am 12 years later, finding myself weary of it all.  Once I couldn't get enough.  I loved the debates and all the post-debate analysis (those written by my students and those written by the professionals). 

Of course, once I could have told you what each candidate planned to do once in office.  I felt they had concrete plans.  I don't feel that way as much this year, although it may be because of my disconnectedness.

Once I felt that candidates wanted to win, not simply for the sake of winning, but because they had dreams of how to make the country better.  I may not have agreed with those dreams, but at least I could have told you what they were.

I feel like a bad citizen.  I feel like a pale version of myself.

Or maybe it's a healthy development.  It's good to remember that it's bad to bet on one human to save us.  It's early for Advent, but I remember the words of John the Baptist:  "I am not the Messiah."  I find it comforting to say those words when my to-do list overwhelms me.

Perhaps they will be comforting now.  These men are not the messiah, no matter how much we'd like them to be our saviors. 

Just as it's unhealthy for women to expect that a handsome prince will come along to transform them and sweep them off to the palace, it's unhealthy for us to expect that politicians can save us.  We each have a significant amount of work to do in our own communities, just as those running for national office will have a significant amount to do on the national level.

So maybe my disconnected attitude is not as disastrous as I worry it might be.  I'm not disconnected from the woes of the nation, after all.

And I'm willing to be happily surprised, to be astonished out of my apathy about national politics.  I'm ready to be jolted by hope. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Piecing Together Possibilities

Over the past few weeks, across multiple conversations, I come back to a central idea that bubbles up whenever I think about a future that doesn't involve a full-time job in academia:  what would it take to move my writing to a front and central (read main wage earning) position?

Before I go much further, let me answer the protests that always arise at the idea of the loss of full-time jobs in academia.  I don't think that higher education is going to disappear anytime soon, although the changes are coming quickly now.  I think there will be jobs for people like me, people with a Ph.D. in English.  But I think that those jobs will be part-time.  We've seen a serious erosion of tenure-track jobs in the last 10-20 years.  As people retire, those people are replaced by part-time people.

Maybe I can keep a step or two ahead of these developments.  But it's time to think about other possibilities, which leads me to thinking about how to make the writing more central, the academia at the margins.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm working on a memoir that looks at leading a spiritually integrated/honest life if one spends a lot of time in a workplace that doesn't always support that idea.  I've thought of ways that memoir could lead to other things:  regular columns in magazines, speaking engagements, leading retreats.  I've even thought of other books, like how to books (how to find a new job at midlife, how to use the lives of saints to inspire our 21st century lives).

I think back to conversations I've had with friends who have known me for a long time.  A few years ago, at Mepkin Abbey, one of my Charleston friends said, "You've talked about becoming a spiritual director for a long time now.  Maybe it's time to pursue that with more focus."

Another friend recently told me, "You've mentioned hospice work a lot lately.  Maybe it's time to contact some hospice people just to see what kind of jobs would be available."

I've always assumed I would need to be ordained to be a hospice chaplain.  In my Lutheran tradition, to be ordained would require 4 years of school that I would pay for, at least most of it.  So, barring some really good scholarships, I'd be looking at roughly $60,000-$80,000, I think.  And that's without counting the cost of relocating.

Of course, not every possibility would require lots of money or relocation.  I really like this program that trains spiritual directors, for example, a distance learning kind of program that would only require me to be on site several times a year.  It's like a low-residence MFA.  The same group offers this program for training retreat leaders.  It, too, is a low-residency program.

And there's always teaching.  I'm not opposed to academia, just unwilling to count on academia alone.  I'd love to do more teaching of poetry, especially if I could combine it with teaching of spiritual disciplines (a class on Writing Poetry, Writing Prayer anyone?).

As I told my friend on Friday, I feel like I have a lot of different pieces that could end up working together, but right now, I am unsure of how/when it will all come together.

Yesterday, it occurs to me that in 3 years, I'll be 50 years old.  I'd like to have these pieces in place by the time I'm 50.  Of course, if a different set of pieces assemble out of my discernment process, that will be O.K. too.  But I'd like to be ever more intentional over the next 3 years.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Happy Birthday, "Charlotte's Web"!

On this day, 60 years ago, Charlotte's Web was published. I remember the shock I felt in grad school, when I realized that one of the guys who wrote the Strunk and White guide was the same White who wrote Charlotte's Web. I'm always impressed by people who can write equally well in different genres, and also by people who write well for both adults and children.

I adored Charlotte's Web. It's probably one of the first books I read over and over again. I loved that the characters pull together against great odds and develop interesting, non-violent ways of resisting their oppression.

Of course, I wouldn't have used that language at that time.

Charlotte's Web is why I'm not afraid of spiders. I suspect it's also the reason that I've been drawn to vegetarianism my whole life, although you wouldn't know it by the way I've been eating lately.

I haven't gone back to reread Charlotte's Web as an adult. I suspect it would hold up well and hold my interest as an adult reader too.

That book has a great first line, some might say one of the greatest first lines ever:  "'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."

Most of us think about the characters, when we think about that book, but E. B. White says he was writing about the barn.  Other critics/scholars say that he was working out his longings for his childhood and for other settings in this book.  It's a great reminder that we can do the same thing.

You can find a great NPR piece here.

A quote from The Story of Charlotte's Web:  E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims:

"'Remember that writing is translation,' White wrote to a student while composing this tale about the animals in his barn, 'and the opus to be translated is yourself.' The Story of Charlotte's Web explores how White translated his own passions and contradictions, delights and fears, into a book that has had astonishingly broad appeal across age groups and national boundaries. He knew that empathy is a creative act, an entering into another's reality. Empathy and curiosity happily coexisted in his spacious imagination. He studied the lives of spiders for a year before writing his novel. 'I discovered, quite by accident,' he explained, 'that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows.'"

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Surreal, but Super, Friday

Yesterday was a strange day, but overall a good day.  It seemed surreal as I lurched from experience to experience.  Did it seem surreal because I got so little sleep the night before?  On Thursday, I stayed up until 11 working on computer issues.  Of course, I still got up early.  I worried that I'd slog through the day, but I felt energized, for the most part.

How was my day both strange and wonderful?  Let me count the ways:

--I got to the office to find I had no working phone.  It's been technology hell week at the office, with computers going out, power failures, and now my phone. 

--Actually, I'm quite happy not to have a phone.  I can't get much work done without a computer, but the phone really seems like an anachronism to me.

--Along with work my school pays me to do, I got some poetry packets ready to send to literary journals.  I love putting packets together, thinking about how 5 poems work together.  I love the chance to reread my poems. 

--I met a writer friend for lunch at our favorite all-you-can eat sushi/Chinese buffet/mongolian barbecue place.  I always load up on veggies and allow myself a few fried things.  We haven't seen each other since July, so we had a lot of catching up to do.

--She's now in a relationship with a person in Oregon.  She went out there to visit and told me about her adventures with Civil War reenactors.

--Yes, Civil War reenactors--in Oregon!  Oh, my brain wants to run with this.

--My friend has been wrestling with anxieties about logistics and the relationship.  There's a continent between her and her beloved, after all.  They both have strong roots to their current location.  It's not an easy airplane trip.  Her beloved is in the Air Force, which means it's even harder to think about the future.  Her beloved is convinced that it will all work out and doesn't want to dwell on all the anxieties.

--I suggested that my friend write out her anxieties.  "Write a novel," I said.  "Two lovers, separated by a continent and the Air Force.  Throw in some vampires and an apocalypse of some sort, and you've got a best seller!"

--I suggested that she go further, that she write a chapter, send it to me, and I'd write some more and send it back.  I love this idea of writing a novel this way--but how long would it be before I chafed and wanted to do what I wanted to do with the plot?  Or would it continue to be a lark?

--In the afternoon, back in the office, I decided to change my password so that on Monday, I could be ready to go with the mandatory sexual harassment webinar training that I'm required to do by the end of the month.  But it was so quiet that I decided to go ahead and do the training.

--It's the exact same training that we did a year ago!  Sigh.  And I'm required to spend 2 hours with it.  So, as it droned on and on, I deleted old e-mails, stopping occasionally to do the required tests.

--Can anyone in an American workplace think that it's wise to brush up against people suggestively at the copy machine?  Really?

--But I know that we haven't all evolved, and so I slogged on through.  I got a lot of e-mails deleted too.  My e-mail has been crashing every few days.  I am so bad at e-mail management.

--Of course, it doesn't help that I get e-mails that have absolutely nothing to do with me.  Yesterday, someone forwarded me an e-mail which had nothing to do with me that I could see.  I wrote back to ask for clarification, and she forwarded the same e-mail again, again with no explanation of any sort.  I was tempted to write back, to see how long we'd carry on this non-communication.  But I had sexual harassment training to complete, and so I stopped.

--After I spent hours--hours that I'll never get back!!!--on the training, I felt that cotton brain that I get when I spend hours submerged in Online Land.  I needed to do something else.

--Since I still had no phone, I went to the conference room and called a friend who has moved several states away; she kept her cell phone # so it was a local call.  She used to work at my school, so she's got interesting insights into how things used to be, and that helps me realize that things have really changed.

--We had a FABULOUS conversation about mid-life job upheaval, about vocation, about feeling called to do something or not called to do something.  I will likely write more about this in a separate post.

--I told her I'd been feeling lazy, because at one point, I'd determined that I'd only see my current job appointment as a reprieve, and I had planned to be looking for something else.  But the thought of putting those packets together just makes me feel so tired.

--She laughed, and she said, "Kristin, I've known you for a long time, and one word I would NEVER use to describe you is 'lazy.'"  She suggested that I'd been through a trauma, and even though it had ended well for now, it's understandable that I'm tired, that I might need some time to just recover.

--I felt such RELIEF when she said this.

--And then it was night, and time to head over to an inner-city, inner-county Lutheran church.  My spouse had been invited to do a drumming workshop, and I wanted to be there, in case he needed help. 

--It was an amazing experience.  I wrote about it in more detail in this post at my theology blog.  Words cannot adequately express my great joy at the experience of singing "We Are Walking in the Light of God" in a small church with a choir of 40 children drumming enthusiastically.  Wow.

--Is that joy trying to tell me something?  Music, kids from surrounding public housing, instruments, church--or is that joy leading my spouse to some place I only glimpsed last night?

--As we left the church, children ran to hug us.  Very surreal--just hours after the sexual harassment training, I've got all these tiny arms flung around me.

--One little 5 year old girl who had the most skill with a hula hoop of anyone I've ever seen asked, "Will you come back?"

--It seems like a far deeper question than she likely meant for it to be.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pilgrimages, Spiritual and Literary

The other night I went to my church writer's group meeting. It's a ragtag group, a few church people who are interested in writing but living busy lives. In fact, we're so busy that only one other member showed up. I was early, but that was OK. I had some rough drafts with me to work on.

That church writer's group is not a group that exchanges rough drafts. We have only met once, before last night, and we talked about our goals and how we planned to meet them.

Since only 2 of us came to the group, we had plenty of time to talk about my church friend's recent trip to the Abbey of Gethsemene. He was headed to Kentucky for a wedding and decided to stay 2 extra days at the home of Thomas Merton.

He had a great trip. We talked about the worship services. We talked about his conversation with some of the monks, one of whom was alive when Merton was there and considered it his life's great grace to have known Merton. We talked about silence: how refreshing it is and how hard to find it in regular life.

He talked about his conversation with a monk who told him that you realize your heart's yearning by praying.  I wondered if he meant "realized" as in to recognize or as in to come to fulfillment.
Yesterday I dug out my journal that I was keeping in 2004 when I went to Mepkin for the first time. I wrote about my yearning to go back, about wishing I had a job that would allow me to get to places like Mepkin Abbey and Lutheridge more often.

Oddly enough, now I do. At the time, I was yearning for a job that would put me geographically closer. Instead, my job morphed into an academic job that gave me more leeway about when I take vacation.  The yearnings of my heart realized?

However this week has been one of those weeks where it would be nice to be close enough that I could just drive out to one of my spiritual landscapes for an afternoon. I'd like to take some hours to walk the grounds and to sit in silence.

Maybe this afternoon, I'll give myself a break and take a virtual walk by looking at old photos.

Our talk of Merton reminded me of a plane trip where I devoured Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own:  An American Pilgrimage.  Oddly, I wasn't the only one:  I saw another man in the airport holding area reading the book too.

What a great book.  It hits all my favorite bases.  It looks at the lives of 4 great American writers:  Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy.  It uses the lens of faith, particularly the Catholic faith, and place and community and the history of the middle part of the 20th century.

Maybe this week-end I'll give myself a retreat of sorts by rereading this book.  I remembering consuming it in great gulps when I first read it back in 2004 or 2005 when I first read it; I could scarcely bear to put it down.  I could use that kind of delight and nourishment.

Here's a Flannery O'Connor quote for your Friday:  "I don't think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times." (quoted in Elie's book on page 155)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fiction Harvests, Past and Present

Today I have my fiction lunch with my friend who writes all sorts of things.  I've probably referred to her as my poet friend, my Hindu friend, a fellow drama geek.  She is all these things and more.

I know for sure that I wouldn't have written any of the short stories that I've written in the past year if we hadn't scheduled deadlines and pushed to meet them.  I think I'm about to realize that I have enough stories for my linked collection.  In fact, I think I'll realize that I have more than I need. 

What a luxury!  I can discard some of them.

What agony!  Which ones aren't necessary?

Well, the short story that I wrote for last time's fiction lunch.  I tried alternate narrators, first person, two parents.  I suspect that their voices sound exactly alike.

In fact, my worry is that all my first person voices sound exactly alike--like me.  Will it matter?  Most of the characters who narrate my stories are, in fact, very similar to me:  female, middle class, U.S. citizen, coming of age in the last quarter of the 20th century.

I was working on my story and trying to remember last names that are typical of South Carolinians.  I was drawing a blank on information that I once would have sworn I'd never forget.

I remembered a novel that I was writing in 1999, when we first moved here, and I was both thrilled to be living here and terribly homesick for familiar, Southern landscapes.  I filled that manuscript with familiar names and places and stories that I once would have sworn I'd never forget.

I read through 30 pages or so, even though I quickly found some last names to use in my current short story.  I was charmed by the novel, even though the agents and publishers where I sent it when it was finished were not as charmed (although they offered encouragement).

I recognized similar themes that I continue to work today:  how do we live our best lives as artists?  How does place and family affect us?

In my current short story writing for the linked collection, I'm always intrigued by how my stories weave/wobble back to certain themes and imagery.  There's lots of creativity going on.  Quilts make appearances--do they always mean the same thing?  We can never escape family issues.  There's a theological stream that sometimes lies deep and sometimes bubbles to the surface.

Some of you might be saying, "Hey, I recognize those themes and images from your poetry!"  Yes, indeed.  I've got my little plot of land that I continue to farm.  Hopefully the harvest will be abundant.

And in the meantime, it delights me:  the writing, the discoveries that I make as writing, the past manuscripts, my hope for the future.

And more:  it sustains me.  I feel lucky to have this rich earth (both literal and metaphorical) to call my own.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I thought about writing a post about my crankiness when it comes to Breast Cancer Awareness month.  But then it occurs to me that maybe I'm so aware of it because I go to a gym in a hospital to work out.  Maybe in other parts of the world, people aren't even aware of this month as having special cancer awareness.

Does other cancer warrant a whole month?  Maybe I'm just blissfully unaware of Colon Cancer Awareness month.

Now, before I go further, a few disclaimers.  Yes, I've lost people to cancers of all sorts, and yes, I understand the importance of early intervention.

But why no Lung Cancer Awareness month?  Lung cancer kills more women each year than any other kind of cancer.

Why no Ovarian Cancer Awareness month?  Imagine what might happen if the same resources went to solving ovarian cancer as we've spent on breast cancer.  Right now, most women won't discover that they have ovarian cancer until it's far too late.  What if we could develop some kind of test that would insure early detection?

I could write a feminist essay about how breasts have more cachet in our patriarchal culture, and thus, it's easy to have a breast cancer awareness month.  Lungs just don't have that same kind of pretty sex appeal.

I could write an investigative essay about how various foundations and individual crusaders have taken their personal battles to new levels.  What if one of those early crusaders had suffered from ovarian cancer instead of breast cancer?

But then I wonder if I should be writing about any of this at all.  Maybe I shouldn't let my crankiness get the best of me.

Yesterday at the office was one of those days that tested my optimism in so many ways.  Lots of fallout from badly executed decisions--not my decisions, but I'm left to deal with the negativity.  I can deal with one or two bits of negativity in any given day, but hour after hour challenges my optimism.

Here's my biggest fear:  I think of myself as an optimistic person, but what if I'm deluded?  What if I whine and complain so much that people avoid me?

I'm hoping that if I have a fear of becoming a negative force that my fear will help me be alert so that I don't allow that to happen.  I'm hoping that I can have a day when I succumb to crankiness, that people will forgive me, that I can rise to a new, optimistic morning.

So, I will try to let go of my crankiness about Breast Cancer Awareness month by being grateful for my own good health, by saying prayers for those stricken by disease, by hoping for a world where cells never go cancerous.  I'll try to let go of my work crankiness by remembering how many people would be grateful to have a job, even if it involves dealing with the crankiness of coworkers.  I'll take my time-honored way of righting myself:  by writing my way back to my true nature.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Today I Am Going to Start Living Like a Six Year Old

Edward Hirsch wrote a poem, "I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic," which you can find any number of places, but I like the presentation here.  In my head, I often confuse the title and the first line, and I often say, "Today I am going to start living like ____________."

I've written a poem with the first line "Today I am going to start living like a hospice chaplain."  But this morning, having dropped my sister and nephew off at the airport and completed a morning boot camp workout class on the roof of a parking garage, I have a different spin on the line.

Today I am going to start living like a 6 year old.

What would my life look like?

--I'd write/draw more and worry less about publication.

--I'd see the world in terms of hiding places.

--Five dollars would seem like a fortune.

--I'd do experiments with pop rocks and black cherry soda.

--I'd write up those experiments.

--I'd sing, loudly and often.

--I'd dance without worrying about what anyone thought of me.

--I'd eat at least a half a pound of bacon every morning.

--I'd play games with rules that only I could understand.

--I'd worry less about mess and housekeeping and chores and the to-do list, and I'd simply be with people.

Obviously some of these are more sensible than others.  While I love bacon, it would not be wise to eat so much of it.  My arteries just hardened a bit even at the thought.

What I really want to get at, with this post and the poem I might write, is the joy and wonder of the world that we often train ourselves not to notice.  I've been resisting that tendency to drudgery my whole life, and I hope I continue to do so.  But I'd also like to play more.  What would it feel like to write a piece that went nowhere?  Could I truly not care?  What would it feel like to waste a whole day, a whole week-end, to do nothing that had a larger purpose?

Today I'm thinking it would feel very restorative.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Columbus and Myths of All Sorts

--Today is the federal holiday that celebrates Columbus Day; I'm willing to wager serious money that most of us don't have the day off.  When your mail doesn't arrive, you can take a minute to remember Columbus, who wanted to find a shorter trade route, but failed miserably in that goal.  Still, most of us think of him as a success.

--What lessons can we creative types learn from Columbus?  Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.

--We tend to think of Columbus as being one of the few to realize that the earth was round, but that's a myth.  Garrison Keilor's The Writer's Almanac post for today reminds us:  "Legend has it that only Columbus believed the earth was round, but that's not true; most educated Europeans at the time knew the earth wasn't flat. However, the Ottoman Empire had cut off land and sea routes to the islands of Asia. Columbus became obsessed with finding a western sea route, but he miscalculated the world's size, and he didn't know the Pacific Ocean existed."

--I need to start thinking about mythology in other ways too.  In two months, I need to be finishing an academic essay in which I talk about women poets using Greek mythology to talk about work, more specifically work outside the home.  If you've got poems out there that use Greek myth to talk about the workplace as women experience it, I'd love a copy of those poems.  I've got lots of books to look through, but I'm aware that there's a wealth of poems published individually which will be hard for me to find.  If you don't want to comment publicly here, feel free to send me an e-mail:  kristinlba at

--Even if I can't refer to the works of anyone else, I've got my own work.

--Speaking of my own work, I should look through my old poetry notebooks.  I first write and revise poems on legal pads, and then, later (sometimes months or years later), I type them into the computer, making any last revisions that I can see.  Lately, the typing into the computer part of the process has gotten neglected.

--I need to do this not only for my academic essay but for my Fall submissions.  The journal Slant only accepts submissions until Nov. 15, and they've always liked my poems based on mythology best.

--And thinking about mythology always gives me an entry into new poems to write, as does history.  I have Halloween on the brain, and global warming, and the treasures that Columbus did find (tomatoes!  peppers!  chocolate!).  Could these swirl into a poem?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Joys of a Purple Legal Pad and a Well-Stocked Pantry

There's a tent set up in my living room.  My laundry basket is full of Bey blades, instead of clean clothes.  A fleet of paper airplanes made from the pages of a purple legal pad waits for a mission; in the meantime, they're on a cutting board runway. 

Usually I write poems on the pages of a purple legal pad, so I have a supply.  My 6 year old nephew asked if he could have a sheet from one of the pads I have going, and I quickly decided the best idea was to give him a whole legal pad of his own.

Oh, the variety of things one can do with a purple legal pad!

There are the afore-mentioned paper airplanes.  My spouse did an elementary lesson in division to show the 6 year old how much allowance he'd lose if he had to replace the blow up mattress because he'd been jumping on it.  The 6 year old wrote a story about a guy who loses his jacket. 

Yes, he's been in first grade for a whole month, and he has amazing language skills.  I remember being in the first grade and feeling frustrated because I wanted to use a word with a silent e at the end (my terminology might be off here), but I knew we hadn't learned that yet, and I didn't want to get in trouble.  First grade has clearly changed.

And what's interesting, my nephew is at the middle of his class in terms of his language skills, but near the top in terms of math skills.  I've always seen the language skills in action, but less so the math.

We've also gone to the beach and had water hose fights in the backyard.  These activities left us both ravenous and tired.

I did a bit of planning and shopping, but yesterday, when we were planning to have hot dogs, I realized that I had no side dishes, not even any chips.  What to do?

I had a few apples, so I thought about an apple salad of some sort.  I decided on what we called a Waldorf Salad back in the 1970's.  I changed it a bit by adding some chopped carrots.  I had no raisins.  But I do have a stash of pecans.

So, pecans and chopped apples and chopped carrots held together by Miracle Whip--yum!  And not for the first time was I thankful for my well-stocked pantry.

And I'm also grateful for my wide variety of culinary experiences, so that I could make changes to the recipe, so that I could be inspired to have the idea in the first place.

Since there's a child in my house, I'm inspired to wonder how much of our creativity is rooted in childhood.  I've noticed that my nephew is capable of endless improvisation.  Grown ups see a box of dental floss, but my nephew sees the most fabulous potential:  a tool, an enormous amount of string, a box with magical powers, all sorts of marvelous stuff.

Where and why do so many of us lose our ability to improvise?  Where and why do we lose our childlike wonder, where a simple legal pad of purple paper only has one purpose?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dreaming of Tuscany and Other Perfect Places

Yesterday afternoon, a friend dropped by my office.  It might have been nicer to go out for drinks and happy hour specials on food, but I was expecting a student to drop by with questions about her transcripts.  She never came.

The whole week has been like that.  Students show up with questions and a combative tone.  These are not questions about work I've done, mind you, but questions about transfer credit analysis done years ago or about grades given by others.  I calm the person down, explain what I know, which this week has not been enough, and then I explain that I need time to gather more information.  The student with the combative tone demands a follow-up meeting that will happen at a precise time, and I prepare.

And I never see them again.  Not this week, at least.

That's fine.  I have plenty of other work to do.  Or, in the case of yesterday, a friend to see.

She used to work at my school, but she's moved on, while staying in the area.  We talked about changing jobs, about how to decide when to stay or when to go, about moving to a completely different part of the country.

My spouse would happily stay in South Florida until the rising seas sweep him out into the Atlantic; hopefully, he'd have the foresight to have bought a boat.  I never feel quite settled anywhere.  We move, and I'm ready to think about the next move.

Part of me thinks it's best to stay here, since he's happy, and I'm not likely to be happy in that way no matter where we live.  Part of me still yearns for a dream job, or a dream location, or . . . gasp! both.

My friend and I talked about going to a place on vacation and immediately wanting to move there.  We laughed at ourselves.

The conversation reminded me of a poem that I wrote years ago, when everyone I knew was dreaming of Provence or Tuscany.  This poem was recently published in Adanna.

Tuscany Dreams

No one buys a suburban home
in Tuscany.
They buy old barns or sheep pens
or buildings of indeterminate
origin. In Tuscany,
the explosive wiring and undependable
plumbing seem charming
because it’s Tuscany.

No one thinks about transoceanic
flights or aging parents on a different
continent once they’ve bought
a house in Tuscany.
No one needs health
care in Tuscany. No one develops
rare diseases there.

No one mentions the cost of phone
calls to all the ones left behind in the move
to Tuscany. It’s all sun-drenched
colors and fresh foods, and no one suffers
homesickness in Tuscany.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Beach Weather in October

It is the time of year when I complain about the weather.  I used to start complaining around Labor Day, but most parts of the nation, where I'd want to live at least, have hotter Septembers than we used to have.

But October:  oh how I long for some crispness in the air.  We'd been having rainy weather, which drives my spouse crazy, but I love rainy days because it's not as hot.

Yesterday, however, it was quite steamy.  My brain thinks it's still July, and then, when dusk comes around 7, I worry about storms, only to realize that it's just getting dark.

Yes, I'm ready for cooler weather.  But I can wait for a few days, because my sister and 6 year old nephew arrive tomorrow.  I've told him that we've been getting the beach ready!

Of course, we don't want a beach that's too clean--how will we decorate our sand castles?

We will go to local restaurant legend, Jaxson's, where we'll eat ice cream sundaes as big as our heads.  We might also make ice cream by putting all the ingredients (cream, sugar, flavorings) into one plastic bag and putting that plastic bag into a larger plastic bag that contains ice and rock salt--shake for an impossibly long time (15 minutes), and you've got ice cream.  It's a great science experiment, and it's fun, and it makes delicious ice cream.

Or maybe we'll just plug in the ice cream maker.

Yesterday I bought Honeycrisp apples, the only kind my nephew eats.  They're astonishingly expensive, over $3 a pound down here.  Really?

It's a strange season indeed.  I can buy quality beef for less money than top quality apples.  And it's all shipped down here using large amounts of fossil fuels.

The world runs on dead dinosaurs.  How much longer?

The Midwest is still gripped by drought.  What will that do to our food prices in a year?  I probably don't want to know.

Well, back to planning for their visit.  The first year they came, my nephew was 2, and I scrubbed the house from top to bottom.  I was afraid he'd find a dead bug and eat it or something catastrophic.  That didn't happen.  Now I'll clean and straighten, but I likely won't have time to scrub.

We're supposed to have sunny, hot weather:  perfect for the beach, perfect for ice cream! 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lessons from the Khan Academy

This morning, I listened to Salman Khan on yesterday's The Diane Rehm Show on NPR.  He had fascinating insights, both into his own experiences with online learning and with creative projects more generally.

In fact, when they interview new teachers for the Khan Academy they don't focus as much on credentials and test scores.  They ask what the candidate has created.   

Khan says, "To a large degree when we hire people at Khan Academy, yeah, test scores are nice and grades are nice and degrees are nice, but we say, what have you created? Show us your creations. Tell us how you thought about those creations. That is at least or far more important than tests. And the other dimension that I think is completely lost right now is how much do you contribute and how capable are you contributing to the improving the learning of those around you."

I was also struck by the accidental nature of the whole enterprise.  Khan began his foray into online learning not because of a love of education but because he had a cousin who needed some help. 

And from there, his online presence blossomed:  "And so then I started teaching -- working with her younger brothers, and you fast forward about two years, word got round in the family that free tutoring was happening, and I had this cohort of students. And I started writing software for them. That was my background, you know, giving them problems and see what they knew and what they didn't know, and so that I could make more tutorials more productive. And I was showing this to a friend, and I was kind of saying, this is great, and by this point I had moved out to Silicon Valley in Northern California, and I said it was difficult now, not that I have 10 or 15 of these kids around the country, and I'm trying to coordinate with."

That friend suggested that he upload videos to YouTube.  The limitations of YouTube shaped the future of the company:

". . . YouTube at the time, for a regular account, would only give you ten minutes for each video. So well, I guess I have to redo this thing. And so I redid it, you know, and I think it was like nine-and-a-half minutes and I uploaded it. And I did all the videos in that. And you could cover a lot 'cause you could do as many videos as you like. And one, I got feedback from a lot of people that, yeah, this is working for them. They're allowed -- it allows them to pay attention."

The shortcoming of the project leads to the success of the project in ways that couldn't have been anticipated in the beginning:  I love these kind of stories!

Even though he could upload longer videos now, he's realized (and research backs him up) that the shorter format has strengths that a longer format wouldn't give him.  And so, he's continued to make short videos.  And he's making history.

You can get to links to listen or read the transcript here here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dream Job #2: Why I Am Qualified to Chair the NEA

Ah, Wednesday, when part of our nation will be watching the first of the presidential debates tonight.  I confess that I likely will not.  It's hard for me to stay awake when the TV is on, even when we're watching something that's riveting.  Will this debate be riveting?  Time will tell.

Still, as the debates have approached, and with all the various job drama of my own setting, I've been thinking about various government jobs.  I have realized that I'm the perfect candidate to lead the National Endowment for the Arts.

Here's why:

--I'm used to working with no budget. 

--In fact, I'm so used to working with no budget that I have perfected the art of asking for money, being told no, explaining why it's important, being told no, and staying my charming self through the whole process.

--Not only am I used to working with no budget, but I'm also quite good at making amazing events happen even though I have no money.

--I have no specific examples to offer in proof of that last statement, but I'm a poet, so I'm sure it's true.

--Like Dana Gioia, I have been a poet who has worked in the belly of the corporate beast.  I am not a sheltered academic who has never had to think about profit margins or shareholder profits.  I am not an artist with a trust fund who has never had to worry about money.

--I shall take a brief moment while you recover from the laughing fit inspired by the words "sheltered academic" and "artist with a trust fund."

--Much of my life as an administrator involves saying no.  I imagine that much of my life as the Chair of the NEA would involve saying no.

--But I do delight in figuring out ways to say yes to worthy projects.  I love figuring out ways to say yes more often.

--I'm used to working with disparate groups of people, as the Chair of the NEA would need to be.  I imagine days of talking to Congress people, meetings with people who might fund grants, going to arts events.  That kind of day would make me happy. 

--I'm used to finding ways to get us to consensus.  I understand the importance of getting everyone's buy-in.

--I also understand that there will be times that consensus isn't possible.  I have learned to live with that.

--Some have called me "brutally efficient."  Some say this in awed tones, as if to offer me a compliment.  Some tell me this as criticism.

--Every organization needs one or two people who are brutally efficient.  It helps if the brutally efficient people have a visionary streak.

--On good days, I have a visionary streak.

--I'm not just a poet.  Various art forms appeal to me.  I understand that the NEA needs to minister to a variety of artists.

--I'm now solidly middle-aged.  I know how to dress the part of Chair of the NEA.  I will not show up looking like a bit player in a reality TV show with too much flesh on ill-advised display.  I promise to only wear my punk outfits in private or for Halloween.  I will not dress in ways that scare people.

--I'm not afraid of travel.  I would serve the whole U.S., and I'd be happy to travel to various parts of the country to talk about the importance of the arts and to discover what's going on beyond D.C.

--I don't need much sleep.  Or perhaps it would be more correct to say I've gotten used to operating on less sleep.

--I don't need much sleep or money.  What more do I need to say to convince you that I'm the one who should be your Chair of the NEA?

--I realize that I'm of North European descent, German and Scottish mainly.  I understand that it would be desirable to have a minority presence at the head of the NEA.  I am a woman, a different underrepresented group.  Perhaps that would be enough?

--I have friends and family in the D.C. area who could help me when it's time to move to D.C.

--I understand that we already have a Chair of the NEA, and I'm not suggesting that he needs to be replaced.  But all Chairs step down at some point.  When that happens, I'm ready to go at a moment's notice.