Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Post-Christmas, Pre-New Year

--While the rest of the world is making resolutions, I'm seeing movies!

--Often I only see movies during holiday stretches, and often only when someone else suggests it.  Yesterday, my mom and dad and I saw American Hustle.  Today we'll see Inside Llewyn DavisAmerican Hustle was quite good, the kind of film that bears re-watching.

-Reports of the death of the movie may be premature.  For more on why moviemaking may change but is still essential, see this great article by A.O. Scott from The New York Times.

--Here's the most interesting part of that article:  "Equally hard to refute is the idea that we are approaching a horizon of video convergence, in which all those screens will be equal and interchangeable and the distinctions between the stuff that’s shown on each one won’t seem as consequential as it does now. We still tend to take for granted that a cable drama, a network sitcom, a feature film, a web video and a first-person combat game are fundamentally different creatures, but they might really be diverse species within a single genus, their variations ultimately less important than what they have in common. They are all moving pictures, after all, and as our means of access to them proliferate and recombine, those old categories are likely to feel increasingly arbitrary and obsolete. The infrastructure of a multiplatform future is before us, and resistance to it can look like an especially tiresome kind of sentimentality. Cinephilia is nostalgia. We might keep going to the movies out of habit, or because it’s sometimes nice to leave the house, but we are losing the old, sustaining belief that this is a special and exalted cultural activity, the supreme mode of participation in the popular arts."

--Scott says this convergence will be good for movies and narrative storytelling of all sorts.  Could that also be true for print books?

--It is interesting to be watching in a movie theatre in a group.  The audience behaved well.  The movie wasn't too loud.

--Sunday, the noise in my little house was too much to bear; my spouse played a Jim Reeves Christmas CD that isn't one of my favorites--very Lawrence Welky.  My spouse sang along, but not quite along.  There was dinner prep noise and talking.  I decided to go for a walk.

--I wondered what would happen if I just kept walking and didn't come back.  How long before someone noticed I was gone?  Would anyone notice?  Would they care?  I was in danger of sinking into maudlin, poor-pitiful-me thoughts. 

--But then an older man on a bike rode by.  He had an iPod playing.  Neil Young's lyric, "Old man take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you" drifted on the evening breeze.  I had to smile.  Did he realize the irony?  Had he been listening to this song since he was a young man?  I assume so.  He is now that old man of the Neil Young song--does he know it?

--And here I am, still in midlife, not quite old, not quite young, headed to the other side of midlife.  I have been thinking of Marge Piercy's blog posts which I started reading yesterday.  I'm impressed with how many poems she writes in a given week.  I'd like to write more poems this year.  Could I do one a day?  Could that be my goal without it being oppressive?

--My goal has been a poem a week, and I'm often good at that.  But if I miss a week or two, it's easy to lose a whole month.  I still end up with an impressive number of poems at the end of the year, but I do wonder what ideas slip away.

--To that end, this morning I captured in a poem an idea that almost slipped away, an idea captured in a Facebook post:  deadheading the marigolds on Christmas morning.

--Yes, more writing this year.  I have wasted too much time.

Monday, December 30, 2013

What I Read on My Key West Vacation

A few weeks ago, when I was at the Broward Symphony, I thought about Marge Piercy's novel Summer People.  It's about artists, all sorts of artists.  One of them, Dinah, is a professional musician.  I decided to reread it the next time I needed a book to read.  So, I took it with me on our trip to Key West.

Once upon a time, I returned to the novels of Marge Piercy more frequently than I do now--of course, once I returned to any number of novels more frequently.  Piercy's novels hold up well, although there are certain markers of the time of the novel.  For example, the richest people in the novel have a car phone, an extravagant luxury.  One wonders what these characters would make of our cell phones, which after all are much more powerful and portable than those ancient car phones.

I remembered a difference in the novel between the true artists and the craftspersons:  carpenters and the one character who designs fabrics.  There's a snootiness about the difference between arts and crafts, and as a woman who does both, I get impatient with the distinctions.  But that may be more about my weirdness--coming from the mind of the characters in the books, the snootiness made sense.

The thing that I didn't remember about the novel was the way they all manipulated each other.  For some characters, it's pretty subtle, so subtle that my younger self didn't pick up on it--and the rich financier character is so obnoxious and obvious in his manipulations that they overshadow the manipulations of everyone else.

But I came away from the novel wondering if any of these characters cared about anyone other than themselves.  It disturbed me.  It made me wonder if I'm supposed to be disturbed or am I supposed to believe that some of them have changed--more specifically, does Dinah change?  Does she really want the choice she made at the end of the book for the reasons she says?  These are not the most self-aware characters, and I'm more suspicious of them with this reading; my 48 year old self does not cut them the breaks that my 24 year old self would do.

The novel explored the issues that many of us wrestle with:  how do we balance what our creative work needs with what we need to do to bring in money with our deepest desires with our relationships.  It was interesting to be finishing that novel as I watched the episode of American Masters that explored the life of Marvin Hamlisch.  Marvin Hamlisch seems like a much more likeable artist than the characters in the book.

I didn't always feel this way.  It's interesting to see my analysis change through the years.

I did love reading about musicians and sculptors and carpenters.  It was fascinating to read about artists on the Cape, as I am trying to carve out an artistic life on a different shore.  It was fascinating to read about how Dinah, the main character who's a musician, rejects an academic life. 

Come to think of it, that would be another anachronism, or perhaps I should say another sign that the book isn't set in 2013.  She gets grants and invitations to play and she can cobble together a life that way.  She would have a harder time now.  And an academic job would not be forthcoming.  That career path is closing down--I suspect it's closed already, with the days of tenure gone before we knew tenure was vanishing.

I loved reading the lush descriptions of the gardening, an interesting counterpoint to our own journey to the botanical gardens at Key West.  These characters are much more successful at creating gardens out of sand than we have been.

When I first read this book, a relationship that lasted 10 years seemed very long-lived to me.  Now it seems like a blip.  These characters do not seem mature and grown up, the way that they did when I first read the book.

Still, it was great to revisit them again and interesting to wonder what I've missed with this read.  I want Marge Piercy to write a book that's as honest about aging and relationships and the creative process as this one is about having families and relationships and the creative process.

I've been to her website and been reading blog posts (accessed here), and perhaps she's working on what I need to be reading.  Or perhaps that's what I need to be writing.  Ah, to be that fearless!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Coolest Part of Key West

I am back from a few days in Key West--it seemed like millions of people had a similar idea.  And there were more on their way yesterday; the southbound traffic had slowed to a stop as we made our way north.

In many ways, the car trip is one of my favorite parts about a trip to Key West.  It's just so gorgeous, for so much of the trip, the sea stretched out on either side of the car, all the different colors contained in a single ocean.

I've written about Hemingway's house before, in this post and this post with pictures.  Luckily, we didn't want to go to Hemingway's house this trip; the line for the house stretched down the block.

We traveled with my mom and dad.  We are not barhopping types.  We didn't have a long shopping list.  We're impatient with crowds.  In many ways, you might wonder what we were doing in Key West.  There were many moments when we wondered the same thing.

But we did have a great time--just not in the way you would expect.  As you first get to Key West, around mile marker 5, you see a sign for the botanical gardens.  And so, we went.  We expected lovely gardens, which we experienced, along with butterflies.

We didn't know we'd find a part of the park with neat musical instruments for us to play.  How neat to stand with the thunder rumbling in the distance, making music of our own.

The most moving part of the garden was off to the side, along with a chapel.  If you knew it as there, you wouldn't even have to pay--although the $7 entry fee is a bargain, especially in an inflated place like Key West.

It was an interesting collection of boats used by refugees fleeing Cuba, a sculpture garden of a different type.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I've written about tiny boats before, most notably the colonial boat at Charlestowne Landing and the boats used by refugees, especially Cuban refugees (see this collection of posts and readings of Elisa Albo's "How to Make a Raft").  But I'd never actually seen any of the Cuban boats.


I am amazed that people would take these chances.  It puts me in a reflective mood.  I think about what people are willing to risk for what so many of us take for granted.

We travelled with my parents, who are retired military, so we went with them to the various naval bases around the island.  Again, it was interesting to reflect on the sacrifices people make so that regular folks like me can lead our lives.

We finished our time in Key West by watching the episode of American Masters about musician Marvin Hamlisch.  What a great artist and all around great guy.  It reminds me that we're here on this earth for a very short time, and it may be shorter than we think.  Somehow, it seemed a fitting end to the type of Key West trip we'd just had.  It is time to think about what's really important.

Unlike Marvin Hamlisch, I haven't had my greatest artistic acclaim as a young person.  I assume that I haven't written my best work yet.  That show reminded me that if I continue to lose focus, I may not have a chance to do my best work.

Yet the Hamlisch show also reminds us that the work isn't going to be enough.  We also need to pay attention to our relationships.  One of Hamlisch's great losses was his mom; one of his great joys was finally finding a soul mate.

Above, you see me with my mom, Key Largo in the background.  I'm lucky that my parents are both alive and in good shape.  I'm lucky to be able to say the same thing about my spouse.  I'm happy that most of my friends are in good health.  I want to be able to find ways to be more present for them all.

Ah, to live a life in balance:  the writing with the relationships with the other creative work with that which must be done to pay the bills and stay healthy.  It's my continuing quest, as I suspect it is for many a creative thinking person.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Year-End Review: The Writing Edition

Let me not lose sight of what I have done in terms of writing:

--I have written 5 short stories.  It's not the pace of a story every 6-8 weeks that I was hoping for, but it's close.

--I have filled more than one purple legal pad with poems--it's about average for me.

--I wrote a month of prayers for the devotion book Bread for the Day, and I wrote 6 weeks of corporate prayers that Sundays and Seasons sends to Lutheran churches across the nation.

--I blogged on an almost daily basis, for both blogs that I keep.

--I continued to create blog pieces for the Living Lutheran site, about 1 a month.

--I wrote one book review for a journal.  I also created a presentation for an academic conference.

--I made some progress on my memoir:  I got it organized into a rough draft (no small thing), and I'm revising it into the book of essays that I want it to be.

--I continued to send work out into the world.  This has not been a good year for acceptances, but I know these things go in cycles.  Maybe I'll have better luck next year.

So, when I feel like I've done absolutely nothing creative in the past year, clearly, I'm wrong.  It's good to take stock.  I often make goals, and when I accomplish one thing, I immediately add 5 more things to the list.  But I don't often stop to say, "Good job!"

Let us all say it to ourselves now:  "Good job!  Keep up the good work!"

Friday, December 27, 2013

Year End Review: How I Spent 2013

Now that I've thought about my goals for 2014 in this post, let me think about the year that has just passed.

When I think about all the things (mostly writing and creative things) I haven't accomplished this year, let me take a minute to remember what I have accomplished.  There's a reason why I didn't have my memoir revised by Labor Day.

--The biggest event:  we bought a house, moved to it, and sold the old house.  This process lasted from April to October.  It felt like a much bigger ordeal than the last time we moved.  In a way, it was:  we have more stuff now.  It felt like a bigger process in terms of paperwork, and it was.  Changes in the law require much more documentation now.  I understand why, but it's incredibly time consuming.

--I also helped my church get a mortgage/refinance for building repairs, no less an arduous paperwork process.  And then, just as we were almost finalizing the paperwork, an AC unit stopped working, so we did the paperwork over again to have money for AC repairs.  Grueling.

--Once we got moved into the house, it was time to restore the cottage.  While that project fell more heavily on the shoulders of my spouse, it still took a fair amount of time from September to November.

--I led 2 retreats in the Spring:  one at my mom's church and one at Lutheridge.  They're very nourishing events, but no small thing.

--I taught online classes for the first time ever--not one, but two online classes in an 8 week (read compressed) session.  Before I did that, I had 4 weeks of training.  It was a busy autumn.

--Let us not forget my regular administrative job which takes at least 40 hours a week on campus, and almost always more, both in terms of needing to be in a physical space and in terms of mental space.

--And I continued exercising and doing some quilting and some art projects, not to mention activities for church.  Again, all very nourishing, but also a time consumer (better than a time waster).

But I did move forward in my writing, not in leaps and jumps, but at what felt like a tiny, crawling pace.  Tomorrow's post will give details.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Inspirations and Goals: 2014

This could be the year we get our projects done!  OK, maybe just one project, the one that's nearest and dearest to our hearts.

If you need inspiration, turn to this post. British musician James Rhodes reminds us: "Do the maths. We can function - sometimes quite brilliantly - on six hours' sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can't even smoke?"

A call to arms!

Surely we can find an hour a day, several times a week, to get our creative work done.  I've recently had an epiphany.

I finally plugged in my laptop, and because my brother-in-law has been in the guest room where I usually write, I've been writing at the dining room table.  The dining room-kitchen-living room flow is open, and so, I can write while my spouse watches TV, I can write while he practices his violin, I can write while my spouse and his brother eat.  I can participate in the discussion and then return to the writing.

It's very different from being shut away in an office.  And I realize that I'm lucky, in that I can work on writing projects while life swirls around me.  I don't need absolute quiet.  I can be distracted for a bit, and then get back to work.

Since my brother-in-law arrived two weeks ago, I've gotten more work done on my memoir project than I've gotten done in the past 6 months.  It will be interesting to see what I will have managed to accomplish by this time next year.

I want to have my memoir finished and polished and as perfect as I can make it.  By summer, I want to be sending queries to agents.

It's time to revisit a book-length manuscript of poems.  Instead of separating out the religious material, I'll put in the best of my religious poems, the best of my apocalyptic poems, the best of my modern life poems.  It may mean that some of my individual poems from the early years of this century don't find a home where they live together.

Or maybe those cold war/end of the cold war poems should be a chapbook.  Now that's an interesting idea--all the nuclear stuff that's beginning to feel dated, as I spend more time worrying about sea level rise, maybe it's not a book with a spine, but a chapbook.  Hmmm.

My best writer friend in South Florida tells me that my short stories are ready for publication.  It's time to think about which ones go in the linked collection, and which ones don't make the cut.  I'm so bad a compiler in that aspect.  Once I've committed to finding the individual pieces (short stories, poems, blog posts, whatever) a home, it's hard for me to say, "Nope.  Not good enough for the larger collection."  It's hard for me even to say, "Nope.  Doesn't fit with the larger vision."

Those are my larger goals, along with my smaller goals, to write a short story every 6-8 weeks, to write a new poem every week, to blog daily.

James Rhodes reminds us of what can be done, even if we don't have much time:  "What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you've always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring?"

He's talking in piano terms, but the lesson holds true across a variety of artistic forms and disciplines of all sorts (just 40 minutes of exercise each and every day would work wonders; 40 minutes of veggie eating would mean we'd easily consume the 5-9 servings each day that would make us so healthy; 40 minutes of quality time with friend/lover/spouse/child would deepen our relationships; 40 minutes of volunteering would leave the world a better place . . . on and on I could go).

That's my plan, and I post it here:  40 minutes of writing, 40 minutes of veggie eating, 40 minutes of exercise, 40 minutes of paying attention to humans face-to-face, 40 minutes of good deeds.  Let's see what I can do.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Kristin's Petals: Christmas Eve Crumbs and Fragments

Christmas morning dawns windy down here on the southernmost peninsula of the U.S.  For some reason, I wake with this line in my head:  "We have kept our Christmas faithfully."  Is it Tennyson?  "In Memoriam"?  I've done some Googling, but no success.

But before we get away from Christmas Eve, let me record some observations from yesterday.

--My mom and I began the day by walking at the Hollywood Broadwalk by the beach.  An older man on a bicycle rode by.  I realized that he was whistling "Silent Night."

--At the restaurant where we ate breakfast, we saw a man who looked eerily like Santa:  white hair and beard, white handlebar mustache, jolly eyes.  Many adults wanted to have their picture made with him, and he obliged.  They acted like he was a famous rock star.  The children in the restaurant were doubtful or disinterested.

--It was HOT down here yesterday.  But everyone seemed festive--even at the grocery store.

--Of course, we were at The Fresh Market (a bit like Whole Foods, but not as expensive, a bit like Trader Joe's, but more upscale with fewer deals).  Maybe that's why we were festive.

--We went to the earliest Christmas Eve service, at 5 p.m.  In some ways, it's not as magical as a midnight mass.  In some ways it's better.  I'm not fighting my urge to sleep.  We finish by gathering in the butterfly garden where we sing "Silent Night."  There's something profound about singing that song while the late afternoon traffic rushes by us (my church is on a very busy corner).

 --Bits of candle wax on a tablecloth can look like bits of cheese.  But they don't taste as good.  Don't ask me how I know.

--Last night I wrote the following as a Facebook post:  I went to church early and now I'm watching It's a Wonderful Life.  In the words of my little nephew, who was talking about a different movie, "This movie makes me feel anxious, Papa!" The money is missing, the daddy is yelling at the children, this will end in tears . . . and then it will end in redemption and forgiveness--my kind of story!  and yet  "Is Daddy in trouble? . . . Yes, dear, pray very hard . . . " I know how it ends, and my heart is still in my throat!

--I heard from other friends similarly involved in watching Christmas movies.  There was something wonderfully participatory and less lonely about writing Facebook posts while waiting for my spouse to come home from the later service where he sang.

--I know lots of people who scoff at Facebook.  If they could have the kind of experience that I had last night, would they still scoff?

--"Dontcha know me?  Dontcha know me?"  Different parts of It's a Wonderful Life speak to me each time I watch it.  This year, I'm struck by the need to be known, the loneliness of the characters.

--Does Facebook help us feel known, really and truly?  Or do we feel more alone and isolated?  After all, we're composing our lives for human consumption.  Most of my friends and relatives are posting the cheerier aspects of life, as am I.  We're careful about the darker stuff because we know it could come back to haunt us.  Can we really know each other via Facebook?

--I know that different friends stayed up watching Christmas movies at the same time as I did.  There was a coziness to that knowledge, even though we were watching different movies and not in the same room.  Or should I see it as a metaphor about the modern condition of isolation?

--Sometimes, a night watching movies doesn't have any deeper symbolism.  Some times, it's good just to feel that coziness, even if it's tinged by sadness that we can't be watching together, drinking Christmas tea and eating the last of the Christmas cookies.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Lines Before Christmas

Yesterday I thought I'd pop over to our local community college to take care of some paperwork issues so that my spouse can take a music theory class.  I gained some important insights into customer service and why some students will pay a lot to go to private schools and for-profit schools, even though they could get similar educations for much less money elsewhere.

You may be wondering why I would do the paperwork issues for my spouse.  He needed to stay at home and wait for the arrival of the grill.

Plus, I thought it would be easy.  Two days before Christmas--how many people would there be at the college?  Surely I'd be one of two or three stalwart souls, trying to take care of paperwork issues before the school shuts down for 2 weeks.

I was not the only one who had these thoughts.

I arrived and went to various offices, waited in various lines.  Finally, 2 hours later, I had proved my husband's status as a Florida resident and proved his capability in English.  The advisor took away the hold, which showed he had reading and writing skills.  Having taken Business Math, he did not have advanced math skills, so he will not be allowed to take any classes with a Math pre-req.  No Physics for him.

Luckily, he's hoping to increase his musical skills, which although it does involve some Math skills, he will be allowed to do without taking Calculus.

As someone who works as an administrator, I rarely see the other side of the desk in the way that I did yesterday.  I waited and waited to show the documents that prove residency, all the while thinking that if there was a way for computer systems to talk to each other, I wouldn't have to take such an old-fashioned approach:  showing up in an office with paper documents.  I filled out a paper form, with a pen, and then, 10 minutes later, a college official signed that form with a pen--and then entered everything into the computer.

Then I waited and waited to see an advisor.  The line wasn't even as long as it was when I arrived.  Still, I waited.  I read Madeleine L'Engle's The Irrational Season, so it wasn't completely unpleasant.  Still, it was tiring by that point, and perhaps a bit demeaning.

Let me hasten to add that every human who spoke to me was professional and often kind.  The process itself felt demeaning--and I'm a person who feels completely at home in educational systems.

I found it demeaning because of having advanced degrees--why do I have to do this?  I also found it demeaning because the process shouldn't be so byzantine.  I can do much of the application process online--why can't it all be automated?

Of course, that would be a lack of many jobs--lots of people were at work yesterday, bustling and taking care of us stalwart souls that would rather enroll our spouses in a class than do some Christmas shopping.

If I didn't feel at home in academia, I imagine the process would seem even more strange and inaccessible.  I understood that there might be several lines, so I quickly got myself out of the wrong line when I arrived.  I understood the documents I would need and I had them.  I saw lots of people who weren't so lucky.  I understood how to explain that my husband wouldn't be taking Math based classes, and thus, my spouse is enrolled in Music Theory class.  If I wasn't articulate, he might have had to come in, take a placement test, and take a series of Math classes before he could take what he really wanted.

Or he'd have left in frustration.

I work at a for-profit school, and it's interesting to think about how we do the front end of the process differently.  Until you're enrolled, with money committed, there's no standing in line.  An Admissions rep walks people through the process.  If there's waiting to be done, there's a nice space in which to wait--but everyone works hard so that there's no waiting.  Cynics would say, "Right, so that the future student doesn't have a chance to reconsider."  That's part of it, but a larger part is the customer service ethic at that point.

Now, later in the process, there will be lines, especially at registration time, especially if students aren't the type to think to make an appointment, to work ahead.  We've had staffing cuts, which means that we simply don't have enough people to make the process streamlined.  At some point, we're not doing more with less resources, we're doing less with less.

But at the for-profit school, at the point when students have to stand in line, they're not likely to go away.  Yesterday, I had to force myself to stay and stand in line and get the process taken care of.  I knew that if there were lines and crowds 2 days before Christmas, it wouldn't get any easier after the holidays.

But I do understand why many people would be deterred by this process.  Is there a way to make it easier?  Should we do that?  If we make it too easy, would people take on the debt that most college degrees require these days with too little thought?

So, here I am, on Christmas Eve, thinking about education issues.  I am saying prayers of thankfulness, that I can navigate complicated systems, that I have the money to send my spouse to school, that I have a family who loves me and friends who would miss me if I wasn't here, that I have a house that's in good shape and that I have electricity and for now, I have a job to pay for it all.

I hear the news reports, and I know how lucky I am.  NPR just ran a piece on a man who was making decent money in the RV industry, and now he lives in a broken down camper.  He hasn't had a shower in weeks because the hose that delivers water is frozen.

Yes, I am fortunate.  And my spouse is now enrolled in his Music Theory class.  I'm hoping it's a new adventure and that years later, we'll be saying, "Who knew how many doors that decision would open!"  If not, he'll have a better grasp of how music works.

And I've had a reminder of how important it is to treat people humanely, to give as good a customer service as I can.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Cigarette Butt Baby Jesus and Other December Possibilities

Today could be a very busy day, in a holiday way.  We take my spouse's brother to the Miami airport this morning, and later this afternoon, my parents arrive by car.  Somewhere in there, our new grill will arrive, and we may go over to the community college to finish getting my spouse admitted and enrolled for a music theory class.  I'll push him to take some violin lessons too.  He says he needs more theory first. 

So, here for your holiday enjoyment, a collection of observations and ponderings.

--It's surreal to be enrolling my husband, who has 2 graduate degrees, in the community college.  Will we really need to provide high school transcripts?  Undergraduate transcripts?  Should we apply for financial aid?  Does my spouse want to be non-degree seeking or will he eventually get an Associate degree to go with his graduate degrees?

--Yesterday at church, we made nativity scenes from items we found outside in the butterfly garden.  For more on that process, with photos, see this post on my theology blog.

--I found a cigarette butt on the ground that fit perfectly into the shell of a pod that I planned to use for a manger.  Thus began the discussion about whether or not a cigarette butt was appropriate for the baby Jesus.  I said, "I'm a poet.  I could make this work."

--I decided to use a dirt clump for baby Jesus and flowers in a stick for both Mary and Jesus.  But I can't stop thinking about Jesus as cigarette butt.  I don't like the idea of humanity as a cigarette butt, but it does work in the medieval way of looking at human flesh (dirty housing for our souls).

--If we accept the theology of Jesus taking on our sins, then a cigarette butt as Jesus works perfectly.  Sin as tar and nicotine.  Jesus as a filter.

--I think that approaching symbols from a different perspective is useful, whether in a theological sense, a poetic sense, or any other sense.  It's good to see the world differently, even if we decide we want to go back to seeing the world the way we've always done.

--I woke up sweltering.  The windows are open, and it feels like childhood summer evenings at my grandmother's house in Greenwood, S.C.:  humid and warm, but with a hint of coolness.  Not much like December at all.

--In the comments to this post by Historiann, a post about beliefs in Santa and in God, Contingent Cassandra says, "Interestingly, the sermon in my church this morning (on the lectionary passage, from the beginning of Matthew), focused instead on Joseph, and what one does when one’s plans have been entirely overturned, and God is saying “just go with it; good will come of this.” This same argument would, of course, work for Mary (but the annunciation isn’t included in Matthew’s account, so it hasn’t been the subject of a sermon this particular year; we’ll get back to it another year), but Joseph had more of a choice (and Mary was in much more peril, up to and including the possibility of stoning). It was a good sermon, one which I think would even work in some ways from an entirely secular viewpoint, since the emphasis was on what to do when everything seems to have fallen apart (stop, consider/discern in whatever way fits your beliefs, live into what seems like a “mess”). But the idea that one tries to listen for God’s voice in such crises is certainly distinctive to a religious viewpoint (though few if any members of my church are expecting guidance from angels, or dreams; in fact, the preacher acknowledged that that’s not part of our experience these days)."

I love this paragraph.  I love the idea of living into what seems like a mess.  Living into the mess!  Maybe that will be my motto for 2014.

--I dreamed I was reading a novel about a family in Louisiana.  Each chapter had pictures of debris, and I realized I was seeing wreckage from Hurricane Katrina.  Am I dreaming about hurricanes because it's oddly warm?  Does it portend something else?

--Just after Thanksgiving, I dreamed I was going backpacking.  It was such a vivid dream!  The mountain landscape in my dream was so beautiful.  But not only was I wearing an overstuffed and badly packed backpack, but dragging a suitcase.  Clearly I was going to have to leave some stuff behind.

--If God does speak in dreams, it's pretty clear what that dream is saying.  No matter what I've already ditched, it's time to ditch some more.

--I need to ditch my recent practice of eating cookies for breakfast and sometimes nothing else all day--or worse, eating nothing but cookies throughout the day.  Sigh.  How have I backslid this way?

--Soon the holiday season will be over, but there will still be plenty of mess to live into:  our campus will close one of 2 buildings, my brother-in-law will find a place to live in Homestead and bring his family down, and that's just the upheaval I know about.  More as it develops.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Notes from the First Term of Online Teaching

Sandy has written an interesting piece on reading poetry in an age where one can get so much literary scholarship without leaving the house:  "You see, back in the bad old days, we did not have the vast resources of the internet. To research a poet and/or a poem meant a trip to the library across campus (and remember CSB/SJU is in central Minnesota where the biting winds of winter knock a girl down from late Oct. through late March). Once we reached the library, there was a thick reference book to search for articles on the poet/poem, A Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (all hail, Michelle Holschuh Simmons for the reminder of the name) and then a set of stacks of print periodicals where we hoped to find the article itself. If not, then we had to inter-library loan the article (having it faxed from another library). If not looking for the most current articles, we could, of course, use the library catalog (which had just switched to a digital form) for books on the subject at hand and then go to the book stacks, perhaps stopping after all of this to copy a relevant chapter or article at the copier (10 cents a page) so we could annotate that as well."

Now, of course, everything is different.  I have not been teaching graduate classes online, but this past term I've taught 2 first year classes completely online, an Introduction to Literature class and a Short Story class--these are not the MOOCs you may have heard of.  No, my enrollment began at 15 and 19 students in the classes and ended at 12 and 15.  It's been interesting, in ways that I did expect and ways that I didn't.

At first, I didn't blog about this openly, or even talk about it much.  I wanted to be sure that I could do it before I talked about it.  Even though I haven't signed a non-compete clause, it felt strange to be teaching elsewhere.

Now that I'm done with the first quarter, I want to record some of my reflections, before I lose them.

For the online classes that I taught, I didn't have to do curriculum development.  The complete shell came to me, complete with discussion prompts and quizzes that would be autograded and paper assignments.  The computer coding was done, and because of the Desire2Learn Learning Management System, it was very easy to work within the shell.

Still, there were surprises.  The course shells arrived, and I was impressed by how complete they are.  At first I thought, I have very little to do, but then I started changing all the dates.  There’s a Manage Dates function, but it doesn’t change all the dates throughout the shell.  Even during the first week of the course, I was finding places that I didn’t realize existed where I need to change a date.  And periodically throughout the course, I found spots that I forgot to find.  Often I found them because students alerted me.  Happily, they were very kind and forgiving about it.

I spent hours, several hours a day for several days per class, changing the dates.  It’s exhausting in a way that creating curriculum from scratch is not.

I thought that I wouldn't really get to know my students, but I did feel like I "know" them in the same way that I would know them in a face-to-face classroom.  Some of them were silent throughout, as students in a classroom can be withdrawn.  Still, the online community was a pleasant surprise.

The discussion posts helped create that community.  I was impressed by the quality of the students’ posts on the discussion board.  It occurred to me that if we’re all teaching the same works of literature in the online courses taught by adjuncts, there might be a pool of responses out there.  There could be rampant plagiarism, and how would I know?

One class had student responses to the posts of fellow students as a requirement, and one did not.  I find that I prefer that the students respond to each other, even though the responses can be somewhat shallow.  I like to think that it requires them to read each other’s responses.  And I like to think that it forces the plagiarists, if there are any, to write no matter how they try to avoid it.
I've already written this post about the peer editing and rough draft process in this post, so I won't repeat it here.  I was surprised by how many extensive comments I wrote on rough drafts, comments that were completely ignored in final drafts.  Sigh.  Some parts of teaching will always be thus, I imagine. 

I did keep track of the amount of hours that I worked on this teaching project, and I spent more time with the online classes than I would have if they had been onground.  Will this change as I learn the technology?  We shall see. 

In the end, I liked the online classes for the same reasons that many students do, and most of those reasons boiled down to convenience.  I could take care of my teaching responsibilities from any number of locations, at the time of day that suited me. 

What I didn't like is that it's one more item that makes me feel like I can never completely disconnect.  If time had gone by, I felt like I should check in on my courses/students, even if they had no reason to be expecting me.  I know the panic that comes from sending an e-mail that isn't answered in a timely manner--and I know that the more time goes by, the more the panic grows.   So even if it's only been 4 hours since I sent the e-mail, I feel like more time has gone by. I didn't want my students to have those feelings, so I tried never to be gone for too long, or, in the case of Thanksgiving, to let them know when my Internet access would be spotty. 

Overall, I'm glad I did it.  Even more, I'm glad I liked it, and I'm glad that I can support online classes as a way to deliver education.  I am fairly certain that the education of the future will contain a huge online component, and I'm glad it won't be an abomination for me.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Doubts and Dimness: Winter Solstice and the Feast Day of Saint Thomas

It's the time of year when people may be feeling the loss of light most intensely.  Many of us are busy and overextended.  We still have so much to do.  We're so tired.  It gets dark so early.  We remember that we once had interests that blazed forth, but now we feel boxed in, a dim spark barely keeping lit.

Maybe we just need to wait for light to come.  It's breaking through, even if we can't sense it. 

It's the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  But from here on out, we get an extra minute of light each day.  It may not feel like much, but it will add up quickly.

Maybe we need a different kind of Christmas, if not this year, then next.  Maybe we need a different tree, by a different shore.

I love what Beth says in this post:    "Paradoxically, as the trappings of Christmas -- both physical and emotional -- lighten, it feels like the season is regaining some of its mystery and joy that I remember from early childhood. Doing less opens up a space, and within that space, I find I can see much more. O magnum mysterium, we will sing on Sunday. Yes. One doesn't have to be literal about the Christian story to feel mystery at this time of year; the wheel of the seasons turns, and then stands still for a moment, inviting us to stop, too, and find the light hidden in the dark midwinter stillness."

This December is one of the first ones where I've felt content with the weather.  Is it because we had snow at Thanksgiving that I'm not yearning for snow now?  Am I, like Beth, older and calmer, willing to let go of my expectations of what should be and accept what is?  Will this be the year that I don't cut out cookies in shapes?   It may be.

Don't get me wrong.  I've done some holiday baking.  I had a cookie swap to attend on Wednesday.  I spent much of Wednesday eating nothing but cookies.  I need to get back to healthier eating.  These days of riotous living leave me swamped with doubts.  I was riding a wave, all sorts of waves (of good eating, of regular exercise, of healthy practices of all sorts), and now I'm in danger of being overcome.

Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas, most famous for his doubting.  It's not so strange that he doubted, after all.  He saw Jesus die an agonizing death.  Why would he believe his fellow disciples with their strange tales of seeing Christ back from the dead?  He must have thought they'd finally lost their collective minds, which wouldn't have been improbable, given the events of the week.  But then he got to stretch out his hands, right into the wounds of Jesus.

Thomas should serve as a hopeful tale for all of us in these darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).  It can be hard to maintain our faith, especially in the face of the spirit-cracking grief of disappointed hopes.  We may yearn for evidence that's supported by our five senses.  We may get that evidence.  Or we may get to have a mystical experience, where we experience something that transcends the world we've always known, a gateway to a different plane.

Here is a poem for this feast day, one that I wrote years ago, in the time after Easter.  I was inspired by this blog post by Jan Richardson.  Her post made me think of those fancy Easter eggs that had a charming scene inside, and the interesting juxtaposition between those eggs and Jesus' open wound.

Into the Wound

Thomas approached his Savior’s bloodied side,
Everything for which he longed, yet so feared.
He felt the warm flesh and looked deep inside.
The vision left him changed and scarred and seared.

He saw a series of worlds in that wound.
He saw a future that could be so fine.
He saw a world of absence, so ill tuned.
He saw a table set with bread and wine.

He saw the start of all the universe
And staggered back, but Christ kept him steady.
“Wash your hands,” Christ said, his voice almost terse.
Christ knew the dangers for those unready.

Legend says Thomas walked to India;
What dream prompted him, we always wonder.
But you, too, could hike to outer Asia,
If you had the same vision to ponder.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Geography of Siren Songs

The always wonderful Denise Duhamel has an essay on women poets up at The Huffington Post.  What I love is that she assumes we've all heard of Adrienne Rich and other well-known poets.  But look at this paragraph, how artfully she works in the names of poets whom so many people have yet to discover, and yet she gives us all the benefit of the doubt by assuming we may have discovered them--and she reminds us of why we should rush out to get their works, if we haven't already:

"You may have read Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Ruth Stone, Kim Addonizio, or Dorianne Laux, for their taboo-shattering wisdom. You may have read Tracy K. Smith or Amy Gerstler for their otherworldly take on pop culture and social issues. You may have read Rita Dove or Natasha Tretheway, who both explore the United States' complicated past when it comes to African Americans. You may have read the terse and brilliant lyrics of Sappho, Emily Dickinson, or Jean Valentine. You may have read Barbara Hamby, Molly Peacock, or Marilyn Hacker who infuse female spirit in fixed literary forms. You may have read Nikki Giovanni, Sandra Cisneros, Adrienne Rich, or Nellie Wong whose performable politics are transformative. You may have read Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Daisy Fried, Sharon Dolin, or Beth Ann Fennelly who write about sexuality and motherhood with harrowing clarity. These voices were probably covered in Introduction to Women Poets. But don't worry if you haven't taken that class--there is room in this Advanced Women Poets seminar, no prerequisite required."

And then, she gets to the heart of her essay, recommending even newer poets, likely less well-known, that we should read.  I was happy to have heard of most of them, even if I haven't read them all yet.

I spent some time at the website of one of the poets mentioned, Stephanie Strickland.  I spent some time with the work Sea and Spar Between.  Wow.  She's doing amazing things with her electronic tools, where she mixes Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville.  Or is it the computer doing it?  Does she get credit as the poet for telling the computer what to do, or more accurately, for setting up the random phrase generator and telling the computer to pair random phrases?  In this instance, is it more accurate to call her a poet or a computer coder?

These are issues for some graduate student to explore in a dissertation.  I will not solve them this morning.  Much of it is  such an unfamiliar geography to me, this world of multimedia/new media/digital media--and yet, I feel its pull.

The always wonderful Dave Bonta alerted me in this post to a wonderful article about the limits of the online world.   In this article, Chris Clarke says, "I spend so much time staring into a computer screen. It’s an odd problem to have. I earn my living writing about the natural world, trying to convey the things about it that make it different from the conceptual one we increasingly inhabit online. Few things online hold the surprising complexity of an oak leaf, a beetle’s wing. Online, we create the world in our own image, and we filter out the nuance in our image when we do it."

His essay goes on to talk about the pull of the desert, which took me back to a year ago, when I'd have been about to head out to the desert southwest, the California side.  I have felt the desert's siren song even before I went, and it haunted me for months after I got back.

Oceans, deserts, mountains--it's the geography of siren songs, of seduction.  For the first few weeks of 2013, I resisted that voice that said, "Pack it all up here.  Move to the desert."  It's not a good time in the history of the planet's water supply to be moving to the desert.

Of course, it's not a great time to be living by the ocean side either.  My spouse watched part of a documentary last night that mentioned that if all the ice sheets melt, the seas will rise 200 feet.  Yikes.

Good thing we're living in geologic time, where that melt will take place slowly, over hundreds of years--if I'm lucky.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy exploring the various geographies that sing to me.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Plugging in the Laptop

Back in September, when I accepted a job teaching 2 online classes, my spouse and I agreed that I would need a laptop of my own.  When I was in Office Depot buying a new mouse, I saw they were having a great back-to-school sale that was ending that very day.

I spent some time testing out the keyboards and looking at specs.  In the end, I bought one that had the biggest hard drive:  more storage space!

I brought it home where it sat in the box for 40 days.  I only took it out of the box when I needed to send part of the box in to get the refund.  And so it sat on the guest room bed for weeks and weeks.

I took it with me on our Thanksgiving travels, but I never plugged it in.  My friends began asking me, "Have you plugged in your laptop yet?"

What finally prompted me to do it?  I knew that my brother-in-law was coming, and that I wouldn't be able to be sure of access to the desk top that's in the guest room.  I knew that my final papers would be coming in and that online grades would be due the first week he'd be here.

One Sunday night a few weeks ago, I decided to be brave, and I plugged it in.  I spent some time teaching the laptop to find the Internet.  It took more attempts than I thought it should, but I was patient.

So, as an Internet surfing device, it was great--worst case scenario, I could get the work done for my online classes.  But I still need to be able to write on it.

Thus began the inner debate:  buy the newest edition of Microsoft Office?  Put a copy of 2007 on the laptop?  As an educator, I can get cheap access to Office, at $10 a year.  But it seems to be only applicable to one computer.  I now live in a house with multiple computers.

So, I decided to load Office 2007 onto the laptop.  It took me some time to figure out where the machine had stored it.  I still really don't know.  But now I have shortcuts on the desktop to get me to the programs that I need.

Now my next goal:  before the holidays are over, to get the important stuff from the desk top to the laptop.  What do I mean by important stuff?  All my manuscripts, all my folders . . . although this would be a good time to look at those folders and determine how many of them need to migrate.  I'd like to move the photos too--similarly, this would be a good time to make sure I haven't duplicated any of them--if I was really smart, it would be a good time to reorganize them.   Right now, they're mostly chronological.  I'd love to also have a section where pictures are organized by topic.  But what topics?  Sigh. 

Frankly, this workload is why I took so long to plug in the laptop.  I knew it wouldn't be a magical, plug in and ready to do everything I need it to do kind of experience.  And we were busy with renovating the cottage.  And I figured out how to do the online class stuff I needed to do with  all the other computers available to me, which meant I wasn't desperate.

And I was scared:  scared I wouldn't be able to figure it out, scared that I wouldn't be able to make it do what I wanted it to do--and more than that, scared that I'd find out I had bought the wrong machine.

Now I'm loving my new laptop, and I'm trying to forgive myself for taking so long to plug it in.  I could have had this zipping Internet experience earlier.  I could have been that much further along on writing projects. 

But the side benefit in waiting is that I was the one who set it up, instead of what usually happens:  I'm busy, and I ask my spouse to do it.  Since I've done it and figured it out, maybe I won't be as afraid when I get my next new piece of technology.  A smart phone, perhaps?

I'm thinking of my younger self, who would be amazed that I had so much computing power in my life that I'd put off using a laptop for a season.  My younger self would be shocked at how cheap a laptop is these days--heck, I'm still shocked.  My younger self, who tends to be judgmental, would castigate me for not getting more done, with these wonderful tools that I have at my disposal.

Like I said, I'm trying to forgive myself.  I can't undo the past.  I can only move forward into the future.  Look out, 2014, here I come!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hiking to Fitchburg

My friend and I went to a bookstore to get a book as a Christmas present for our Reading Pals.  While we were there, I had a memory of a children's book that I read long ago in the Brooklyn public library when I was visiting a friend and her toddler.

I couldn't quite remember it.  Was it based on African-American history?  I wondered because I had the piercing memory as I looked at a book based on slavery.

It was about a bear named Henry . . . oh, the memory came so slowly, and then I had it!  Henry walks to Fitchburg.  It wasn't slavery that was the inspiration, but Henry David Thoreau.  Henry doesn't walk but hikes to Fitchburg:  Henry Hikes to Fitchburg.

The book is based on part of Thoreau's journal, where he challenges a friend to get to Fitchburg.  The friend has money for a train, and Henry will walk.  The book shows their contrasting adventures.  It's not too preachy, but it makes clear that Henry has the better time.

It's a marvelous book, and I first heard about it when I was deep in reading British Literature for the classes I was teaching.  I kept on the look-out for something similar I could do.

And then I moved on to other projects, and gradually, the book and the ideas dropped from the forefront of my brain, and then dropped altogether.

I thought about my nephew:  I forgot to buy him this wonderful book, and now he's almost too old for it!  I'll probably get it anyway and a copy for my cousin's children.

I am beginning to feel that middle-aged sadness more and more often, that sense of all the projects I won't complete, all the great ideas I had that I didn't pursue.  I feel less sad about the places I may not visit or the stuff I may not have.  I don't have any regrets at all about all the humans out there with whom I will not have physical encounters.

But I do have regrets about the writing projects that are dropping by the wayside.  I do have regrets about the way the world will remain unchanged in terms of social justice even after I have walked the earth.  The death of Nelson Mandela has turned my thoughts that way too.

I think the trick is to use that knowledge not to sink into despair but to reorder the shape of my days.  I need to think about my priorities.  Some days I do a good job of keeping them in mind.  Other days I get lost in Internet wanderings, chores that expand to fill a morning, irritations of other sorts. 

Some days I need to pay attention to the work that brings in the money.  Some days it seems all consuming.  But even on those days, there are pockets of time where I could write a poem, send out a query letter, revise a bit of my memoir, start putting together my collection of linked stories.

And I want to remember the larger issues.  My creative works may help pave the way for social justice.  They may not.  I should make time each day--at least each week--to try to make the world a better place because I was here.

It seems a small thing, helping a child learn to read by way of the Reading Pals program.  But those actions can add up.  We never know which action will be the important one.  At least, usually we can't be sure.

Or maybe that's the wrong way to approach the social justice angle.  The homeless men to whom I served dinner a few years ago are likely still homeless today.  I haven't helped that problem go away.  But I've made the world a bit kinder, and that's no small thing.

Hiking to Fitchburg:  it's going to be my code to remember to think about my priorities and what I really want them to be.  And the fact that the inspiration was Thoreau, well that makes me happy too.  Maybe it's time to return to his writing.  I suspect he's got much to say to a woman at midlife.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tuesday Tidbits: Holidays, Good Books, and Other Inspirations

I don't have much time to write today.  I've got a post on St. Stephen due to my Living Lutheran editor and my online grades are due in just under 28 hours.  But let me record some impressions from the last few days.

--My brother-in-law starts a new job in Homestead, Florida this week.  Yesterday we went down to get started on house hunting.  On the way down, we lamented that we didn't bring any Christmas cds, and we tried to find a radio station with Christmas music.  On the way back, my brother-in-law tuned his smart phone to Pandora's Christmas station and held it so that we could all hear it.

--I was touched by his willingness to lean forward with his arm extended for over half an hour.  I was touched by his willingness to find the station on Pandora, even though he knew that my spouse and I would sing.

--In a week it will be Christmas Eve and then the week after that, New Year's Eve.  This morning I went to boot camp class, the last of 2013.  Why do I find that sobering?

--I've been devouring Reza Azlan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Why do I find this book so compelling?  Most of this information is not new to me; I've done a lot of reading and thinking about the historical Jesus and how we came to have the Jesus we have now.  But it's well written and interesting to hear these thoughts from a different mind/pen.

--I'm surprised by how many of Azlan's sources I've read and/or heard about.  How did I come to these sources?

--Part of it was the academic papers I wrote back in 1999-2001 about Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.  I was struck by the Christian/Pauline parallels in the novel, but I needed some scholarly sources to back up what I thought I knew about the history.  And we had a very good history of religion section of the public library.  One source led to another source and in many ways, my life was changed.  I found a Jesus I could believe in, and a variety of theologies that made sense to me.

--I've also been thinking about children's books and wondering about children's books that haven't been written yet.  Could there be a market for books that explore other cultures' holidays?  My Hindu friend is dubious.  I think we should write a book.  I have a title:  "Hey, hey Shefali, Happy Diwali!"  It would be about a main character, Shefali, who takes us through the customs of the holiday.

--But before I embark on other projects, let me finish what needs to be done this week.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Apocalyptic Reading for Advent

I think I've used this title before--or maybe it was apocalyptic Advent viewing.  A few years ago, felled by flu, my spouse and I spent an Advent week-end watching the complete first season of The Walking Dead;  I wrote about it in this blog post.

Those of you who don't come from religious traditions may not think of the 4 Sundays before Christmas as Advent; you probably just see it as the last week-ends for shopping before the holiday.  Those of you who don't come from liturgical church traditions may not think of Advent as a time of apocalypse.  But we read the ancient prophets, like Isaiah, while remembering to stay alert and watch for the light.  Some years, the texts stress the rebuilding of the ruined devastations of human endeavor; some years, the focus remains on the ruins.  It's ancient apocalypse, but it's eschatology nonetheless. 

Just after Thanksgiving, I began Margaret Atwood's MaddAdddam, the 3rd in her apocalyptic trilogy.  I must confess that I didn't find this book as compelling as the first two.  Is it because it wasn't covering much new ground?  Am I tired of Atwood's world?  Did I not connect with the characters?

I did find the stories of the world just before the crash to be the most compelling part, but even those stories didn't wake me up at night and compel me to read.

I found myself interested in the whole issue of narrative, since this novel utilizes the technique of weaving stories told to a variety of audiences.  It asks how we come to know what we believe to be true.  It's got some implications for religion, which I talk about in this blog post on my theology blog.

It also has interesting implications for those of us who write.  The characters tell stories to all sorts of creatures, from regular humans to genetically engineered humans to the bees.  One character wonders why they do this:  ". . .  it was a reassuring story:  that the dead were not entirely dead but were alive in a different way; a paler way admittedly, and somewhat darker.  But still able to send messages, if only such messages could be recognized and deciphered.  People need such stories, Pilar said once, because however dark, a darkness with voices in t is better than a silent void" (p. 154).

So for those of us who feel that our creative work has no more significance than talking to the bees, perhaps that is solace.  At one point, the same character wonders, "Is that what writing amounts to?  The voice your ghost would have if you had a voice?" (p. 283)  The character is teaching one of the illiterate genetically engineered Crakers to read and write.  What she cannot anticipate is that her journals, scrawled in isolation, will later become religious texts, held in holy awe.

Speaking of that transformation, I've moved on to reading Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  It, too, has an apocalyptic tone.  I'm only halfway through it, but again and again, Aslan notes the apocalyptic times in which Jesus moved.

Aslan also talks about the culture of first century Palestine as one of a widening chasm between rich and poor, with not much of a middle class in between.  The more I read, the more this world reminds me of the one in which we now live--as does Atwood's trilogy.

When I was younger, I spent time thinking about the end of Rome and its similarities to the U.S. at the end of the 20th century.  But Aslan's case fascinates too.  If we're living in a similar time, will we see apocalyptic fury erupt?  Will we see new religious movements take hold?

How will these developments transform the world so that we're still talking about it two centuries later?

Or will the world be like the one Atwood describes, where it's difficult to imagine that a culture will emerge from the ashes?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday Snippets: Holiday Edition

--I have written a poem this morning!  It was an unexpected gift, a poem about gifts that came to me Thursday when my Hindu writer friend told me about her cat which brings her birds as a present, unlike the other cats who bring lizards.  She said, "My cat doesn't understand that I get my food at Publix."  And just like that, I had a poem in my head, a poem I wouldn't have had if she hadn't made that observations.

--It has been a month of broken things, but happily not broken bodies.  I've lost two of my favorite mugs, mugs that have traveled across many states and many life circumstances.  The vacuum cleaner stopped working.  We've discovered leaks in multiple pipes--but it could have been worse.  They were small leaks.  We didn't have a catastrophic discovery of leaking pipes.

--Our new washer and dryer is not broken, happily.  It has water temperatures that are new to us:  cool, cold, and tap cold.  What is the difference between cold and tap cold?  Surely the washer doesn't chill the water?

--This is one of the first appliances we've bought in awhile that doesn't buzz or beep at us.  When it's done with a load, it sits quietly and waits.

--I wish I had that capacity, to sit silently waiting.  My religious tradition teaches me that Mary (mother of Jesus) had that capacity.  It's a very Advent mindset.  But maybe she didn't.  Maybe we've made that up because we prefer our women to be passive that way.

--I live in a house where I can't stockpile supplies.  Usually that's OK.  This morning I worried that I won't have enough flour for the Santa Lucia bread.  But I should be OK.  However, I'll need more flour before I start on cookie baking for the cookie exchange I'll attend on Wednesday.

--I plan to write another poem based on a variety of strange holiday images that might be interesting juxtaposed together:  the pod of pilot whales stranded, lights in the mango trees, big ornaments in the bougainvillea tree, a gender ambiguous person wearing a Santa hat in a convertible yelling into a cell phone.  Christmas on the tropical edge of America!

--My spouse and I continue to take evening walks through the Christmas lights.  We continue to sing.  So far we haven't been arrested for disorderly conduct.

--One of my friends who also lives in the neighborhood said, "Surely you wouldn't be arrested for singing carols!"  I said, "I've never lived in an upscale neighborhood.  I have no idea."

--Actually, one of my grad school apartments was in an upscale neighborhood.  Our current neighborhood kind of reminds me of Shandon, in Columbia, South Carolina.  There are historic homes and shabbier apartment buildings made out of those large homes.

--I used to walk through Shandon and marvel at the people who never used their grand front porches.  And now I have a lovely porch that's been mostly unused.  I do plan to get some furniture and have an additional seating/dining area--part of a long list of things I plan to do for/with this house.

--But in the short term, I have bread dough under my fingernails!  Bread dough and ink.  It's a good day already, and the sun isn't even up yet!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Restorative Thursday

Yesterday was just the restorative day I needed.  The day before was the kind of day when I just wanted to get in the car and drive north and see how long it took for anyone to look for me.  I quickly abandoned that plan for several reasons:  I was wearing sandals, I had no jacket, I had the credit card with me that doesn't give me Amazon points, I'm a good girl who reports to work when she should.

Oh, who am I kidding?  The real reason I never run away:  I'm afraid no one would come looking for me.  I'm afraid that no one would notice I was gone.

But happily, Thursday was not like Wednesday.  My Hindu writer friend picked me up at my office, and we went to buy books as Christmas presents for our Reading Pals.  Then we went to Panera with our short stories.

We reflected that we were at the first Panera we'd ever visited.  We remembered a friend who moved to Maine--but before she moved to Maine, she told us that we had to go to this new place, Panera.  We read our stories and commented.  We talked about literature we love and the movie Shakespeare in Love.  It was the kind of lunch where I reveled in the company of someone I've known for over a decade and reveled in the feeling of being known--and cherished, despite my faults.

Eventually, we had to head back to school.  Graduation awaited us.  Unlike many, I love graduation.  I love watching all the students who have overcome all the challenges and have earned a degree.  I need the reminder that often, our work is not in vain.

Before we went to graduation, I had a steady stream of students coming to see me.  I can go for days with nary a student, but when I have 45 minutes until it's time to leave for graduation, I had five students.  Happily, I was able to help them all.  Happily, my writer friend was there, so she could explain to one student how to work her phone to send an attachment.

A colleague who was working on one of the computers popped into my office to tell me how impressed he was with my customer service.  At first I thought he was kidding, but he was sincere.

After graduation, I headed home to discover that our washer/dryer all-in-one unit had arrived and that my spouse had put the laundry room back together.  We washed a load of clothes.  The appliance worked, unlike the last time we had a washer and dryer delivered.  What we ordered was what was delivered, unlike in the summer when we bought a stove.

The dryer that came with the house broke in September.  We've been using a dryer rack ever since, because my spouse was hard at work on restoring the cottage and then it was Thanksgiving.  Our kitchen is still somewhat minimal.  At times, I can't fathom how we will ever get the main house to be what we want it to be.  At times, I imagine we could live like we've been living quite happily.  After all, the kitchen we have is a better kitchen than my first grad school kitchen.

Today will be a delightful day at work.  I will work in the office in the morning before going to the Christmas luncheon.  Then I will help take down the Christmas tree, which needs to happen because the floors will be redone next week.  I'm feeling fortunate in all kinds of ways.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Santa Lucia Eve

I woke up this morning thinking about the feast day of Santa Lucia, which happens tomorrow. Some years, I'm home or have an afternoon/evening schedule, and so I can bake bread, my favorite way to celebrate this feast day. This year will not be one of those years.

I will likely bake the Santa Lucia bread on Saturday. This morning, I was astonished to realize that I haven't baked bread at all in this house.

Once, I would have tended to bread as one of the first tasks in a new kitchen, a way to break it in, a way to feel at home. But I haven't yet. So, perhaps on Saturday.

I wrote a piece for the Living Lutheran site which is up today. Go here to read more about Santa Lucia, both the history and the more recent ways of celebrating. That post has a link to a post about the bread, in case you find yourself yearning to celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia the way the Scandinavians do, with fresh-baked bread and coffee and maybe a wreath of candles for your hair or table.

The feast day of St. Lucia--it's a great festival in Advent, a way to remember that we need light and fresh bread and a new vision (St. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and visually impaired.).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: Bleak Midwinters

I confess--my day is getting out ahead of me.  I have grading for my online classes to do, my Reading Pal to see, and a late afternoon meeting that I'm dreading.

So, I'll do what I normally do when I'm short of time.  I'll post something that's already written.  I went back through my poetry files to see if I could find a holiday themed poem that I haven't already used--and I did.

One of the delights of keeping such extensive files and keeping a blog is that I occasionally find things I've forgotten ever writing.  This poem is one of those things.

I remember the images that inspired it--years ago.  I remember taking a road trip and seeing the toys alongside the Interstate.  And I really did see shoes in such an arrangement--or maybe it was a piece of installation art that I didn't recognize as such.  Those of you from religious traditions that delve deep into the prophets this time of year might recognize the reference to John the Baptist and his taste for honey, and you may or may not remember Advent as a time when angels visit.

This poem has never been published until today--enjoy!

In the Bleak Midwinter

In another climate in a different age,
these clouds would portend snow.
Instead it’s a strange winter thunderstorm
that swoops from the south
to pelt the land with weather
more suitable for spring.

Two trucks collide to litter
the side streets with stuffed
toys. Someone arranges child-sized
shoes in pairs, ghost feet
heading off into the wilderness
in search of honey.

The nation debates the proper way to offer
seasonal greetings (“Happy holidays”
or “Merry Christmas”?), while most city dwellers
have given up all pretense
of December cheer, and cannot even muster
the everyday civility of social niceties.

The angels sing their news of good tidings
of great joy, but we cannot hear
them. We’ve forgotten to look up.
We’ve blanketed the sky with emissions,
and we can’t see the stars,
much less the rarer sight
of celestial beings who call us blessed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Weather Envy

In the light of the expected snowstorm coming their way, my sister and her family have the day off.  Ordinarily, I'd be a bit jealous.  I used to say that I'd love to have wintry weather in the month of December, and then go directly to spring.

I used to say that when I lived in South Carolina.  I whined about the lack of seasons. Then I moved to South Florida, a place that has even less in the way of seasons.  Our temperature goes between warm and hot, with an occasional whoosh of a cold front, which rarely leaves us with cold weather, just slightly cooler weather. 

Somehow, after having driven to North Carolina two weeks ago in rain and wintry mix, I no longer crave that wintry weather.  Maybe it's that drive, or maybe it's that I now have a pool in my backyard, and thus, summery weather is more appealing.

Right now, the water temperature makes it a bit cold to swim in the pool.  But we did walk to the beach last night, to the organic brewery, where you get a pizza for half price if you buy the large size beer--and they don't mind if you share the large beer.

We sat on the balcony and watched the volleyball players and the frisbee guy play frisbee with no partner but the wind.

Watching that frisbee player reminded me of our former neighbors.  For the first several years of our living at our old house, we'd watch our neighbors bring family members up from Central America.  They'd stay for months at a time.  I watched a teenage boy toss the football down the backyard and then race to try to catch it.  I felt kind of sad for him.  But maybe he was happy to be in a place where he could play football with himself.

The Christmas lights came on up and down the Broadwalk that fronts Hollywood Beach. It was a beautiful night for eating outside.  The pizza was close to perfect.  The beer was cold and refreshing--and tasty even when it wasn't as cold, which is rare for beer, I think.

And then we walked home through the Christmas lights. We even sang some carols as we walked.

I figured we'd be fairly safe walking home at 7p.m. People were out decorating their houses. It felt magical.  I thought about our old neighborhood which felt more transient, and thus, less safe for an evening walk.

I thought of how far we'd come in the past year, both in terms of our housing, and to be frank, in my husband's ability to walk.  A year ago, we were consulting a neurosurgeon.  A year ago, we were getting ready for my spouse's back surgery.

I feel fortunate in all sorts of ways.  Maybe that's why I'm not jealous about other people's weather.  I'm happy with my own corner of the country this year.