Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lessons in Compassion from the Library

I spent much of yesterday trying to recover from the week.  My weeks don't usually wipe me out so deeply.  Of course, I don't usually have weeks where I'm so scheduled and where I get going early (off to exercise) and get back to the house so late.  I don't usually have weeks where I need to do so many activities to buy a house.

On Friday, I realized I might be pushing a bit hard.  I got a letter from the Broward Public Library that said I had returned a DVD with a piece missing.  My first response was to wonder if I'd put the DVD in the wrong box.  I checked the boxes by the DVD player.  Nope.

My second response was to assume the library was wrong.  I marched right over.  It wasn't until the librarian showed me the box, with its DVD of special material there, and the empty spot where the movie should be, that I said to myself, "I never actually checked the DVD player."

So, after asking what happens if I can't find the DVD and what happens if I'm sure I returned it, I said, "You know, let me run home and check the DVD player."  I went back home, and sure enough, there it was.

I felt shame.  I felt a shuddering anger with myself.  Instead of saying, "Well, at least I don't have to pay $40 to replace the whole thing," I tried to calculate the overdue fees.  I kept reminding myself that a money issue is really not worth this level of upset and anger with myself.  I went back to the library.

I had only been gone about 10 minutes, because the library is very close to my house.  I came in and said, "I'm here to apologize."  One librarian smiled kindly and said, "This happens to me all the time."  He clicked in some information into the computer and said, "Now, if you return an empty box again, we'll charge you, but this time, you're cleared."

I said, "You mean, you're giving me a free pass as a first offender?"  He smiled and nodded.  I said, "I don't deserve it, but I'm grateful."

I felt tears welling up and said, "I'm gonna go and get some other books to check out."  I went to the stacks to try to get hold of myself.  I thought, what is wrong with me?

Well, each day last week I was operating on only about 4 hours of sleep.  I can do that once in awhile, but day after day is tough.  I've been worried about money on sort of a meta level as we head towards the close date on our house.  I've been worried that I've left some task undone.  All those strands rose up to grab me as I wrestled with a simple library issue.

Once again, I was impressed with the kindnesses of ordinary humans in ordinary jobs.  The librarians could have been very ugly to me.  Instead, they smiled and let me apologize.  They could have charged me for the overdue fines plus a penalty for turning in an incomplete item.  They did not.  I was also grateful that they didn't respond with alarm to my watery eyes.  They let me escape to the stacks where I could recompose myself.

I find myself living a life where I come into contact with all sorts of people, and with many of them, I have only the most fleeting and tangential relationships.  I want to remember the lesson of the library on Friday.  I want to believe that I always strive to treat people in the wonderful way that I was treated on Friday, but I know that sometimes, I fall short.

In this short work week, the week before a new school term begins, let me resolve again to treat with compassion and extreme kindness everyone who crosses my path.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Exhaustion and Energy

Tonight is the last night of Vacation Bible School.  Part of me will miss it.  Part of me is quite exhausted today, and I'm hoping for a restful Saturday before we return to church to lead worship on Sunday.  I've already written some posts about what I'm learning and remembering.  Let me write down a few more observations:

--Watercolor paints will work on air-dry clay that's had a few days to dry.  Last night I gave each child their own kit of 8 colors.  It worked well.  Last year, I had washable acrylic paint which I apportioned out on plates that I used as palettes--much messier.

--As I was setting up, I put a paper cup of water at each child's seat.  I had a moment of panic.  It's been a week of everything on the table being upended at some point.  Would we end up with water all over the place?  Happily, we did not.

--When using watercolor paints, I suspect that there will always be a child or two who is more fascinated by how the water changes than in painting.  That's fine.

--By the end of the night, it's impossible to get children to focus.  It's quite a contrast to the first group that cycles through the Arts and Crafts room.  They're attentive.  They're enthusiastic.  They have full control of their motor skills.  Are they just a more mature group than the last group?  Or is it something about the time of night?  I suspect it's the latter.

--I, too, am less focused.  With the first 2 groups, I remember to tie in the Arts and Crafts activity to the lessons that we're learning.  By the end of the night, I'm just trying not to lose track of the kids.

--The other adults and our teen helpers are also less focused at the end of the night.  We're tired, and the children are hyped up.  Too much sugar?  Exhaustion that manifests itself as manic energy?  It's an interesting dynamic.

--Did I ever express exhaustion through manic energy?  Could I learn to do that?  I'm afraid my exhaustion manifests itself as irritability and the inability to complete a sentence.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Stock Markets, Art Projects, and the Supreme Court

What a strange, tiring week it's been.  Let me reflect on the ways:

--Between paying attention to the ups and downs of the stock market and waiting for Supreme Court decisions, I've been feeling fragmented.  Luckily, it's been a relatively quiet week at work.

--I've also been feeling fragmented because I'm tired.  If you've been reading my blog, you know that it's Vacation Bible School week, and I'm leading Arts and Crafts.  That doesn't mean I just show up for the hour and a half of VBS arts and crafts.  No, I get there early, before we start serving dinner, and I leave late, after all the children have been picked up, which means I get to sleep at a much later time than usual.

--I've also been feeling fragmented because I'm a bit stressed about the home buying process.  I think I'm about to have all the tasks done.  But I worry that there's something I've overlooked or something that no one has told me to do yet.

--I've been paying attention to the ups and downs of the stock market because we need to liquidate some assets to be able to buy this other asset, our new house.  Yes, I know the folly of trying to time the market.  I've been fascinated to watch my brain in action, as my brain has acted and reacted in just the ways that Economics scholars tell us that we do. 

--I think of my grandfather who bought stocks.  My grandmother told me that when he started buying stocks, they didn't talk about it, because after the Depression, stocks were seen as something slightly shameful, like gambling.

--My grandfather was a Lutheran minister who never made much money.  Where did he find the money to buy stocks?  He kept bees and sold the honey.  With the profit, he bought stocks.

--There wasn't much profit, so he bought his stocks a few shares at a time.  He offered a powerful example of what can be accomplished in little bits at a time.

--My grandfather went to the public library each day to read the newspaper and to record in his little notebook how the stocks did on a daily basis.  It's a much more sane approach than the minute by minute information that we can access.

--My grandfather bought stock in companies that he knew and used.  He bought shares in electric companies, for example.  He bought shares of telephone companies.  I want to think that he bought Coca Cola stock, but that may have been out of his reach.  I wish I had the little notebooks that he kept.

--Electronic trading isn't the only aspect of modern life that would be a shock to my grandfather, if he could see us now.  What would he make of yesterday's Supreme Court rulings on homosexual marriage?

--I know the answer to that.  He would not have approved.

--I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with all the big Supreme Court decisions this week.  For more on my thoughts on the marriage decisions, see this post.  I like the decision on college admissions policies, but I don't have a lot more to add.  While I understand the history that made the Voting Rights legislation necessary, I agree with the Court that it's wrong to punish states for history that happened over 50 years ago and it's wrong to impose rules that only a few states must follow.

--I don't agree with liberals who see widespread voter disenfranchisement.  I voted in my first election in 1984.  I had to register WAY ahead of time, and there was only one place where I could register.  I had to get an absentee ballot from the state of Virginia, and I had to send proof that I needed one because I was in school, not because I didn't want to go to the polls.  Now I can mail in my ballot ahead of time or vote online at home, and I don't have to offer any reason for why I want to do so.  I can go to the polls early. I can vote on election day.  I can register in any number of places and fairly close to election day.

--It's been a bit surreal to talk about these political issues at work, and then go to Vacation Bible School, where I try to keep everyone on task and try to keep the mess contained.  Yesterday we worked with beads.  It was the same night that the children had trail mix with M&Ms for a snack.  I had several panicked moments where I thought children were eating beads but it was an M&M.

--Years from now, when someone moves the storage cabinets in the Fellowship Hall, they'll find all sorts of things:  beans from last year's percussion project, glow in the dark beads, crayons, glittery bits, feathers, a few fabric scraps, all sorts of refuse.  If it's the next generation moving the cabinets, I hope they remember me fondly.

--I hope they say, "Ah, yes, I remember that enthusiastic woman who let us experiment with all sorts of ill-advised art supplies and always told us that our creations were beautiful and took every opportunity to remind us of how deeply we're all loved by God and how that love should motivate us to behave likewise."

--If I'm ever asked to write a personal mission statement, perhaps that will be mine.  If it's a workplace exercise, I might offer it anyway.  It would be fun to see the reactions.

--I suspect that most of my office co-workers and colleagues know me well enough that they would not be shocked by such a mission statement.  Baffled, perhaps, but not shocked.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Creativity Lessons from Paper Crowns and Small Heads

Every so often, I get a lesson that reminds me that I don't always know as much as I think I do.  I'm happiest when that lesson is not the brutal kind, like the lesson I got last night.

When I was asked to lead the Arts and Crafts sessions at Vacation Bible School, the director told me that she'd already ordered paper crowns for the kids to decorate.  My first thought:  good, that takes care of one night.

But then I thought about the fact that the crowns were ready-made and mass produced.  I fretted that the activity would take all of 5 minutes.  I worried that the children would find it stupid.

Last night, at the end of the night, as I looked at a sea of paper crown on small heads, each of the decorated differently and exquisitely, I thought about my fears and how much I worry about all the wrong things.

Most of the children loved decorating the crowns.  The very youngest were more interested in drawing on their hands with markers, but happily, it mostly washed off. 

I set out a variety of decorations:  the plastic jewels that came with the crowns, all sorts of sparkly materials, feathers, stick on foam shapes, and pipe cleaners.  I put out markers and crayons.  I let everybody make their own creative decisions.

Some children wove pipe cleaners through the crowns in interesting ways.  About half the children were interested in adding glittery bits to the crowns.  I saw children making sophisticated decisions about negative space and color, although I'm sure they wouldn't word it that way.

The crowns didn't seem to want to go from flat to crown shaped.  The tab on one end didn't fit into the other side.  But it was nothing a stapler couldn't handle.  Of course, I quickly realized that I needed to be the one who did the stapling.  Very few children had that kind of manual dexterity--plus, we only had a limited number of staples, and I wanted to make sure they lasted.

I failed to learn one of the arts and crafts lessons that my nephew should have taught me:  always travel with lots of tape.

As always, I'm interested in how the children respond to these experiences.  Many of them went into that deep state that we might call "flow."  Most of them seemed pleased with their crowns.  No one asked for an additional crown or to start over.  Only one or two children seemed displeased with their efforts, but I encouraged them to keep going to see what would emerge--at the end, no one crumpled up their paper crown to throw in the trash.

As with last year, it was the teenagers who seemed most critical.  Luckily, they didn't turn their venom on the works of others, just on their own work, which is heartbreaking enough.  How do we learn to be so hateful towards our creative offspring?

I know all the answers.  I know that it's a tough culture we live in, one that constantly beams messages of unworthiness at us.

Here again is a reason why I feel that Vacation Bible School is vitally important, and it's why I participate, even though I have no children.  I want to provide an alternative voice, one who says, "What a neat creation!"

As creative types, it's one of our most important missions, to model that good behavior for generations coming up behind us.  It's vitally important that we keep creating, even though we live in a culture that tries to convince us to quit or not to try.  It's vitally important that we commit to our creativity.

And, as VBS shows, if we can find a supportive creative community, we're more likely to be able to sustain our efforts.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Report from the First Day of Vacation Bible School

I only have time for a quick note this morning.  But I wanted to make sure to record a few things from Vacation Bible School last night.

The most important thing from last night:  many of the children were there last year, when we also worked with clay, which was last night's activity.  Several talked about how much they liked working with clay.  One girl said, "I made a big chocolate chip cookie.  Do you remember?  I still have it.  It almost broke, but it didn't, and I still have it."

If I ever think that the work I do is not important, it's good to have this example in mind.  Sometimes we just don't know what affects people.  The trick is to approach every part of the day, and every interaction with each human, as if it might have some importance that will be revealed later.

You may or may not know that I'm leading arts and crafts at Vacation Bible School. Our evening is divided into 4 groups of time; our VBS is divided into 4 groups of children. The pre-K age is its own group, and the other groups are mixed. I worried a bit about that, but it went just fine. Each group had 25 minutes for Arts and Crafts. Last year the time seemed too short. Last night, I had a bit of lag time.

Last night I had the clay divided into sandwich bags, and I gave every child a lump of clay and a paper plate.  I told them they could make whatever they wanted, and I made some suggestions.  One little boy looked at me and said, "We're allowed to make anything?"

I refused to think about all the ways this could go terribly wrong, and I said, "Anything.  You're only limited by the amount of clay that you have and the fact that you've only got 20 minutes."

His eyes lit up, and he got to work.  For those of you worried that he would make something troubling, have no fear.  He made an object that was more abstract. 

Last year, the students could have worked with clay all night; I had to force them to come to a stopping point.  Last night, many of them finished with time to spare.  I should have probably had some sort of other activity.  Last night, I had the children who finished help me set up for the next group.

I love working with children in this kind of forum.  I also love working with the other adults.  I like the way that it feels like a team effort.

On the way home, my spouse (who is on hand to take the pictures that turn into a "movie" that we watch at the end of the night) and I talked about the lessons that children learn from all of this.  My spouse asked, "What will they remember about the Gospel?"
I can't really answer that, since I don't get to see all of the activities.  But I hear the songs, and I watch the puppet show, and I know that we're doing a social justice project to raise money to bring clean water to developing nations.  Even if children aren't going home with stories of Jesus ringing in their ears, they're going home with good lessons about relying on God and how much God loves them no matter what.

So, tonight, day two of VBS:  we'll be decorating paper crowns.  I'll also bring paper so that students can draw if they get done early.

(this post will appear on both my creativity blog and my theology blog, since I don't have time to write 2 posts)

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Feast Day of John the Baptist and Its Relevance for Creative Types

Today is the feast day of John the Baptist.  For more on this feast day and the prophet it celebrates, see this post that I wrote for the Living Lutheran website.  But here, on my creativity blog, let's think about the relevance of this festival day for poets, writers, and artists of all sorts.

--John the Baptist is the child of Elizabeth, who was the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Elizabeth was thought to be barren and beyond child-bearing years--until she became pregnant.  It's a good day to think about the dreams we may have forsaken, assuming that we've waited too long.  What would you yearn for, if it wasn't too late? 

--A child born to a barren woman--a miracle.  What miracles would you like to see in your life?

--We first see John the Baptist as a prophet in the wilderness, living on locusts and wild honey.  Some scholars see these actions as evidence of the seriousness of his mission and how devoted he is to it.  Are we willing to sacrifice comfort for our vision?

--Or maybe it is more accurate to say that this wilderness time is what leads to the fulfillment of the vision.  How can we carve out more time apart so that our mission becomes clear to us?

Now for some scarier questions:

--John the Baptist knew who he was, even though many others tried to make him be someone else.  He resolutely answered, "I am not the Messiah."  Who is trying to transform you into a person that you are not?  Who is trying to change your art?

--John the Baptist lost his life because he told Herod the truth about the way that Herod was living his life.  Where do we need to speak truth to power?

--Alternately, we could make the argument that we lost a powerful, prophetic voice, and Herod certainly didn't change.  What changes in behavior do we need to make so that we can be active for many more decades?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On the Eve of Vacation Bible School

For the past several weeks, I've been waking up in the middle of the night worried about all sorts of aspects of the home buying process:  inspections and money, primarily.  One night this past week, I woke up in a panic because I hadn't bought paper plates for Vacation Bible School.  I reminded myself that I still have time, and I drifted back to sleep.

This week-end, however, is the time to get all my supplies together.  I'm mostly there.  Over on my theology blog, I wrote this post that explains what we'll be doing each day.

That post also talks about why I enjoy Vacation Bible School so much.  I'm always interested at people's reactions to finding out that I'll be spending my evenings as Arts and Crafts director at VBS.  Most people are baffled.  Some people ask why I'm doing this when I don't have children, and therefore I don't have to do it.

There are all sorts of reasons.  I started doing it because I was fairly new to the church, someone asked me if I wanted to help her with Arts and Crafts at VBS, and I was flattered to be asked.  To my surprise, it was much more fun than I expected it to be.

I continue to find it fun.  It's a great group project.  I like working with all the people who come to help with VBS.  I like getting to know the children of the congregation in a different way.  And I love feeling so useful. 

When I was young, I didn't realize how much effort it takes to put on a week of VBS.  I assumed that it was like Sunday School.  I didn't think about the meals and all the different kinds of activities.

Now I'm older, and I see that VBS is an all hands on deck kind of production.  And happily, we all seem to like different aspects.  I've written before about last year's experience of being Arts and Crafts director.  I didn't volunteer for that position for weeks because I assumed that everyone would want that position, and I didn't want to greedily gobble it up.

To my knowledge, nobody wanted that job, and the planners were happy to give it to me.  And I came away with all sorts of insights.

Here's the most important one:  I crossed a dream job off my list.  I always assumed I would love being an Arts and Crafts teacher at an elementary school.  Now I'm fairly sure I would hate that job.  Not that it matters, as I am not qualified for that job, and those jobs are disappearing.

A few years ago I realized how little of these arts activities students get in school these days, especially as they get older.  I used to think that spiritual training was one of the more important aspects of VBS, but now I also see additional values.  One of the more important ones that I see is the chance to play with art supplies and musical instruments.

But in Vacation Bible School, we aren't playing with art supplies just for the sake of playing with art supplies.  I've chosen activities that could bring us closer to God or help us think about God in different ways.

That sounds so lofty.  I know that some nights, I'll be doing well to keep the chaos under control.  I won't be able to draw the larger lessons from the art supplies.

I will keep my eye on the larger goal:  arts and crafts time should be fun.  I'm part of the team who helps children love VBS.  VBS gives children all sorts of resources for their future.

Don't get me wrong:  I'm not the kind of woman who's concerned with saving souls and getting children to heaven.  But I do think that life throws us all sorts of challenges, and we'll need all the resources we can muster.  I want children to remember the joy of arts and crafts.  I want children to remember church as that cool place that gave them great summer experiences, a place where they might find strength and comfort when and where they need it.  I want them to remember that strength and comfort may include being part of a team that puts together a great VBS experience.

What's most important to me is to provide an alternative vision to the way that Christians come across in the media.  We're not all fire and brimstone judgmental types.  Some of us want to play with clay and think about spiritual formation that way.  Some of us want to return to our drama club selves.  Some of us walk labyrinths and don't talk much at all.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Inspirations from Nikky Finney

Don't miss this great interview with Nikky Finney.  She talks about winning the National Book Award and about her activities as judge this year.  She talks about returning home to South Carolina, even though many of the elements that inspired her to leave are still there, "in brighter colors than ever before," as she puts it.

When I heard that she would be joining the faculty at the University of South Carolina, I felt a turmoil of emotions.  Careful readers of this blog may know that I earned my MA and PhD at that school; I was there from 1987 to 1992.  At that time, the most prominent creative writer on staff was James Dickey.  A few other older white men comprised the creative writing faculty, and at that time, poetry was not the focus of the creative writing faculty.  How I wish I could have had the opportunity to study with a poet like Nikky Finney. 

Ah well.  I have opportunities here that I would yearn for if I lived in a different part of the country.  I must keep remembering that.  And I had the opportunity to study with wonderful feminist scholars in other disciplines when I was at USC.  I must keep hold of that knowledge.  And it's important to note that almost all of my professors were encouraging in all sorts of ways.

So while I might not have gotten the creative writing training that I might get now, I did get great lessons in being a scholar, a teacher, an activist, and a member of the community.

But I digress.  Back to Nikky Finney.

She talks about being part of a team of artists put together to celebrate the sesquicentennial of end of the Civil War.  What an intriguing opportunity; I wonder what they'll create.  What would you create?

She talks about the artists who have helped her get to where she is today:  Lucille Clifton and Toni Cade Bambara.  She talks about her need to give back to the community.  And she reads a great poem about Lucille Clifton.

Her advice to aspiring poets:  "Now, I am hopefully urging on another generation, the next generation of young, passionate, risk-taking, truth-telling writers to say, don't be afraid of this, you can do this, just have the resolve to do it, and it'll work itself out."

Good words for all of us.

And here's a great idea and a great metaphor for the artistic endeavor: 

"I have a friend Dorianne Laux - lives in North Carolina. And she's married to poet. And she tell me this great story at the Dodge Poetry Festival this year. She said they bought one of those real estate boxes that the agents put outside the house with the information about the house inside.

So they put it outside their house. Their house was not for sale but they stuffed poems inside the box. And so people would stop and they thought they were taking out, you know, information that would give them the square footage about the house. And they would unfrill the paper and it would be, you know, the square footage of the human heart instead. And they would stand at the window, she said, and watch people reading the poems slowly and how slowly the car might take off. That's what we do as poets."

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sestina for the Summer Solstice

Ah, the dawn of another summer solstice!  Here we are at one of the hinges of the year, the day when we have the most light.

If you're looking for suggestions for ways to celebrate this holiday, you might like this post I wrote last year.  You'll want to avoid an experience when I was younger.

The first year that I was out of college, a friend and I went out to have some chicken wings for dinner on the summer solstice.  We ordered the atomic wings.  I didn't want to admit they were too hot, and so I made myself eat them. 

My friend finally looked at me.  She said, "These are killing me.  They must be killing you."

True.  We left the rest.

But the damage was done.  I could trace their fiery path through my body through the whole night.

Fire:  summer heat, atomic wings, the smoldering setting sun.  Would all that imagery make a good poem?  Or would it just be gross?  I tend to recoil at poems that are too firmly rooted in our inner organs.

Happily I have other poems in my files.  Here's a sestina that I wrote in 1999 or so--hopefully the form will be preserved, but if not, here are the end words which you'll find in varying patterns at the end of each line in the stanza:  sanctuary, grace, peace, chord, burn, body. 

This poem appeared in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Solstice Sanctuary

Under Gothic arches, I sit in this sanctuary,
sing the hymns, hear the promise of God’s grace,
while trying not to let the outside noise distract me. That promise of peace,
so elusive in everyday life. I let the music soothe, the chord
progressions familiar to my fingers. The candles burn
as I accept the Host on my tongue: “This is my body.”

Alas, that Sunday calm does not hold. Children’s noise assaults my body.
I find no rest. I seek elusive sanctuary.
My body aches, my brain can’t sleep, I burn
to serve a greater purpose but can’t find the grace
of time and silence to sort out possibilities. Nothing strikes a chord
with me. All I want is a bit of peace.

I sort seeds and start a garden on a tiny piece
of land, a corner of my yard. I feel new muscles in my body
as I dig and hoe, stake the tomatoes, string a cord
for the beans to climb. My hour weeding grants me sanctuary,
a solitary silence. I catch a glimpse of grace
slipping into my day as I my skin burns.

My children are not amused. They burn
for my attention. They fight and expect me to make peace.
I want to snap their heads the way I do weeds, but my motherly grace
saves them. I set them to work, admire each body
as we reclaim the yard together. At last, family sanctuary.
To ward off grouchiness, we sing old songs, relishing each familiar chord.

Our gardening time will be short. My children already gnaw every cord
which connects them to me. Sometimes I burn
for them to leave so I can reclaim my house, restore sanctuary,
revel in the quiet, luxuriate in peace.
My children suck my bones brittle, consume every inch of my body.
Over this constant dining, they don’t even deign to say grace.

But for now, we have shared purpose, a sense of grace
and easy living, a constant harmony, no chord
of discontent. We sleep soundly, every body
in the household exhausted, all our energy consumed in a slow burn
each day. The light lasts late; a summer peace
descends with the solstice, and we find sanctuary.

God’s grace descends from strange quarters, granting sanctuary
in strange moments, a series of chords singing peace
to the body, our dissatisfactions dissolved in digging, a slow burn.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Process of Writing a Poem

For those of you who are interested in how a poem comes to be, I offer this portrait of a morning at my writing desk.

Last night, as I was trying to fall asleep during the onslaught of a thunderstorm, a line of poetry swam up:

On the eve of the mass extinction

I've spent the morning playing with that idea.  It hasn't led to the fascinating places I thought it would.  But here's the interesting thing.  I still had my poetry legal pad out when I meandered over to the NPR website.  And there I found all sorts of inspiring lines.

Go read this blog post and see if you don't agree.  That post inspired these lines:

The rock does not resist erosion.

The star does not conserve its energy.

All very well and good.  But I wasn't sure where to go from there.  I noodled around on the NPR website and read this story about children and blocks.  I pulled out this chunk as found poetry:

"That prompts the question--what makes a block a block? I asked Karen Hewitt, a toy designer who's written about the history of blocks.

'That it's three dimensional,' she offered. 'That it's nonrepresentational, it doesn't have anything until a child gives it a name or function. And usually, blocks are modular. They relate to each other in some forms in ratio of size, or shape. They're predictable, so they keep their shape, no matter the material. And blocks basically rely on balance for building.'"

I played a bit:

The block is nonrepresentational
until you name it.  It exists
in relation to other blocks.
It's predictable; the block keeps
its shape no matter what.

I then returned to the previous lines from a different story and came up with these stanzas:

The rock does not resist erosion.
It does not continually uproot
itself, looking for a safer spot,
a place where it will flourish.
The rock submits to the elements.

The star burns through its fuel
source with no concern for the future.
It does not move cautiously,
hoping to conserve its energy
for an additional year in which to burn.

And then I thought of all the ways that humans are different.  I thought of those of us who could learn a lesson from these inanimate objects:

But you, you twist yourself
into all sorts of pretzel
shapes to please the ones
you love.  You allow them to imprint
you with their dreams and hopes.
You hide your light so as not to hurt
the feelings of the dimly burning wicks.

You have learned the lesson of the rock
too well.  You submit to the abrasion.
You wake to find your edges sanded
to sameness, your essence worn away.

It's not where I thought the poem would go.  I thought I admired the rock and its commitment to place.  I thought the star was foolish for not thinking about the future.  Yes, I realize I'm talking about inanimate objects which don't think or commit.

Or do they? I sense a different poem simmering below the surface.

Everything above is a rough draft, written just as it came out of my head.  I'm seeing too many uses of the to be verb, for one thing.  Is it worth revising?  I think it may be.

It's been a good poetry morning, one I've sorely needed in a week of house buying tasks and work tasks that included going to a phone training session, only to find out at the end of it that I'd be undergoing the training 2 more times, in 2 more meetings of which I will be attending.  Sigh.  It's really not that complicated--it's a phone, not a spaceship.

I like that line too:  it's a phone, not a spaceship.

Now it's time to get ready for the day's task.  First up, breakfast.  I haven't been nourishing myself quite as well as I should in these last few weeks.  It's time to return to the basics:  the joy of poetry creation, the bedrock of a good breakfast, the ability to keep everything in perspective.

I think of my 7 year old nephew, who had an intense fear of lawnmowers when he was a toddler.  I wonder which of my fears will seem that groundless when I'm older and have more distance? 

But that's a poem for another day . . . an inspiration/prompt recorded here as a hedge against a writing dry spell.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Where You Live on the Monopoly Board

Yesterday we got good news:  the appraisal on our new house came back where we need it to be.  So, I think we've cleared most of the hurdles in terms of securing financing.  I'm hesitant, still, to write too much about the house buying process at this point, but later I plan to write some reflective posts.

Last night my sister called to congratulate us.  As we were coming to the close of the phone conversation, she warned us that my 7 year old nephew has discovered the game of Monopoly and that he'd want to play the next time we see him.

Last year it was Uno, this year Monopoly.  I've written before about childhood games and the life lessons they impart; this post is my favorite on the topic.

My sister said that they planned a Monopoly tournament later in the evening.  I said, "Remember the basics.  Buy cheap properties.  Avoid Boardwalk."  And then I laughed.  I said, "I don't know that we're following that rule in our current house purchase."

My spouse said, "We're not buying Boardwalk.  Maybe Atlantic Avenue--one of those yellow properties."

We haven't bought property since 1999.  Maybe that's why it feels like we're making a leap onto the priciest side of the Monopoly board.  I remind myself that if we bought our current house, it would be for more than we paid in 1999. 

As I've said before, our first 2 houses were bought through the VA Repo program (probably not its official name).  House #1 cost $33,000 in 1993, and House #2 cost $30,000 in the same year.  So now, in my head, I think that a house should cost somewhere in that price range.

I'll wait a minute while you finish laughing.  I'll also note that I paid $9 for my first concert ticket back in the early 80's, and thus current ticket prices seem astronomical to me.

So, yes, although our mortgage-to-be will feel like we've moved to the properties you find just before you pass Go, we could have gone much, much higher.  Well, we could have gone much, much higher if we could subsist on air alone, if our cars could be fueled by air.

I'm trying not to think about the properties we could have gotten for much cheaper, just a few years ago, if we had had the resources during the great real estate crash.  But we didn't.  We were involved in our own real estate debacle, the condo that we couldn't sell, the microcosm of the national real estate market, as I wrote about in this blog post.

I'm trying hard not to worry about the future.  We've run the numbers, we've calibrated possible budgets, we've looked at various investments and thought about what makes the most sense.  But the last decade has taught us that we can only control so much.

The other day I was noticing that when I was younger, I didn't suffer such angst and introspection when we bought houses.  I assumed that our prospects would be ever brighter.  I didn't worry that we'd be careening towards bankruptcy if our circumstances changed.  It never occurred to me that they could change for the disastrous.

I had bought the American narrative, that a house secures one's future.  For many of us, it continues to be true.

My spouse once worked with a blue collar guy as they installed fish tanks.  But the working class guy had begun to carve out a different future as he bought properties to rent to others.  He said, "People will always need a place to live."  That approach still makes sense to me.

I still think it's wise to buy a house if one is committed to living in the area for awhile.  I still think it's wise to buy a house in a neighborhood that looks like it will grow in value, even if it's not wise to stake your entire financial future on that appreciation.

And now, it's time to think about getting ready for work.  While part of me wants to start packing, I know it's still too early.  No need to take vacation time for those tasks yet.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

To Infinity and Beyond!

--On this day in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to space.  How well I remember that day.  It seemed like we were on a threshold, like women could do anything.

--In some ways, you could argue that women have continued to shatter barriers.  We've had women secretaries of state, after all.  It's conceivable that a woman could become president in my lifetime.

--But we still have so far to go.  If you want to read more stories that document this depressing reality, go here to see why women leave Philosophy soon after the Intro courses that they take and here to read about women in academic careers of all sorts and the limits that they face.

--Still, on this day 30 years after Sally Ride took her historic flight, let's stop to reflect how far we have come.  When I packed my bags and went to undergraduate school two months later, the Norton anthologies had very few women writers.  I wonder if the newer editions have achieved parity yet?

--When I went to undergraduate school, female students were still subject to sexual harassment by professors, and they often had very little recourse.   Now a sexual predator can lose his/her job.

--Of course, we still have lots of work to do to keep students safe from sexual predators who are fellow students.  Lots of educating to do about alcohol and safety.

--But overall, female students should be finding fewer doors closed to them.  If a student wants to be an astrophysicist, her gender shouldn't hold her back.

--It's important to note that other elements may hold her back, specifically this country's abysmal record of doing adequate educating of students of all genders in science and math subjects before they get to college.

--Could we develop programs for 19 year olds who suddenly decide they'd like to be an astrophysicists?  Could we bring them up to speed with an intensive program?

--How about people at midlife and beyond?

--Keep Alzheimer's at bay!  Become an astrophysicist!

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Blumesday of a Different Sort

Today is a different kind of Blumesday:  it celebrates the famed author Judy Blume.

I didn't know about this holiday before I heard this story on NPR, which tells how it came about:  "Blumesday creators Joanna Miller and Heather Larimer are writers — and they're pretty well-read. But they were never huge fans of Ulysses. 'We sort of self-deprecatingly said, 'Well, the only way we could participate in Bloomsday was if were Judy Blumesday.' And then the joke turned into, 'Wait, why aren't we doing this?' Miller explains.

'We realized that there is a whole community around this writer that feels just as impassioned about her work as people feel about the work of James Joyce,' Larimer adds."

I have Judy Blume on the brain for other reasons.  Yesterday, I watched the movie version of The Hunger Games (which I've also read), which led me to think about the books I read as a young adult and The Hunger Games.

I know that there are some people who think that The Hunger Games is too violent for younger children.  I'm not sure I agree.  I read a variety of dystopian novels as a child and young adult, and I feel I was none the worse for wear.

I also read Judy Blume, and I found those books to be an enormous comfort.  I think it's good for readers of all ages to have all kinds of books to enjoy and to help explain the world.

I didn't think that the movie did as good a job as the book at exploring the inner world of the characters, and frankly, I don't know how it would have done this.  Much of the movie shows Katniss alone or with sick or dying characters, which makes it tough to know what she's thinking and strategizing when it comes to allegiances.

Still, it was a pleasant way to pass a Sunday:  making homemade pizza and watching a movie.  And then I turned to my current favorite apocalyptic book:  Annalee Newitz's Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.  So far, I've read through her interesting history of past mass extinctions.  I look forward to seeing where she goes with this idea.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bloomsday/Father's Day

Today is Father's Day.  In an intriguing twist of holiday fate, it's also Bloomsday.

What is Bloomsday?  It's the day documented in great detail in James Joyce's Ulysses.  Across the world, there will be a variety of celebrations, from literary readings to pub crawls.  I've written about this holiday before; my favorite post about Bloomsday is here.

If I was closer to my grad school self, I might write a post about the types of fathers in Joyce.  We might think of them as being drunk, abusive, absent--and yet, there were some good fathers too.  Leopold Bloom functions as a father figure throughout much for the book.

I think about my own generation, so full of absent fathers and abusive fathers.  So many of us experienced divorce done badly, oh so badly, in the 1970's.  I was lucky that my own father was different.

In fact, my father seemed more like the fathers we see these days.  He could pack our lunches and brush our hair into acceptable ponytails and teach us how to be long-distance runners.  He helped us with science fair projects and took the family on camping trips and in general, he was very involved in our lives.  I haven't met many other people of my generation who were as lucky.

I'm glad that we've become a society of people, at least some of us have, who can be our best parents to children, whether we're fathers, mothers, or part of the village raising the children.  We still have a long way to go before our culture is where I'd like us to be in terms of work/family balance.  But that's a topic for a different blog post.

So today, in the waning hours of Father's Day/Bloomsday, let us celebrate fathers of all sorts.  Let us celebrate the dads in fiction and movies that taught us how to be good fathers.  Let us celebrate the aspects of our own father, grandfathers, uncles, and older cousins that are praiseworthy.  Let us forgive what we can.  Let us resolve to be good to the generations coming up behind us.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


--I left a comment on a blog and my words presented for me to type to prove I'm real:  yurgic allusion.  I started thinking about the different types of allusions and what a yurgic one might be.  One could have real fun with this.

--That got me thinking about ghosts in the machine and the idea that maybe mechanical things have a consciousness too.  I thought about an interview I heard over a decade ago, about Daniel Dennett hypothesizing that computers are using us to help them evolve.  He made a compelling case.

--I remember him talking about the future of the planet moving from carbon based life forms to silicon based.  My brain did the switch that it sometimes did, and I had a vision of millions of silicone breast implants plotting world domination.

--When I first heard that interview, it wasn't possible to get an Internet connection through a cell phone.  The longer I live, the more I think of Dennett as a modern prophet.

--I have old-fashioned prophets on the brain this week too, as I've been writing a piece about John the Baptist for the Living Lutheran site.  I have a sense of how ancient people believed that God talked to them.  Occasionally, I wonder if God is talking to us through our machines.

--Is there a poem there?  Could God be sending messages through word verification experiments? 

--It's certainly not as clear as shrubbery bursting into flame but not burning or wild-eyed men with their locusts and honey.  Or maybe it's every bit as clear.

--These thoughts put me in mind of a poem that I wrote years ago, which I'll post below.  I'm surprised at the male gender of God in this poem.

--I've spent much of my adult life arguing for gender neutrality as much as possible, especially when it comes to the gender of God.  It's hard to escape my childhood vision of God, which seems to be the default of my brain.  My child brain envisioned God as a longer-bearded version of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

--But before I get too far away from the topic which made me want to post this poem, let me post it.  It was first published in the online journal Referential.

Rendered Mute

His angels return, abject in failure.
Lately, an angel makes an appearance,
and the human makes an appointment
with the doctor. Anti-psychotic
medications render his angels mute.

He used to be able to appear in visions,
back in the days when humans remembered
their dreams and dissected them over breakfast.
But his humans, ever more efficient, have banished
sleep from their daily to-do lists. They drop
into dreamless heaps and sleepwalk through the day.

Even the night skies defeat
his purposes. His industrious
humans, so smart, have lit
the planet with electricity and cloaked
the skies with smog. No one can see
the celestial signs he sends.

He even tries the personal touch, the old tried and true,
but decides to leave the shrubbery
alone after that woman yelled
at him. “I just planted that bush.
I don’t think Home Depot will take it back
in this condition. Have you priced plants lately?”

He considers withdrawal, the passive-
aggressive game of pretending not to care,
pretending there’s no pain.

He decides to mute his majesty.
From now on, he will not be the first
to speak. Instead, he decides to create spectacular
sunsets, and new colors, and a new species here or there.
He attends to the routine miracles: tumors that shrink,
lucidity repaired, relationships resurrected.
He sketches recipes for miracle drugs
in the laboratory dust of the pharmaceutical companies
and moves the iron clad hearts
of dictators who free the jailed opposition leaders.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Creative Collaborations

I don't have as much time to write this morning, so I thought I'd recommend this story on NPR's Fresh Air.  Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg talk about their long friendship and their creative collaborations. 

Even if you don't like their movies, the interview is worth your time.  I loved hearing about the projects they worked on during their high school years, and earlier.  They started the script for Superbad when they were 13, continued to work on it in high school, worked on it long distance as they went off to do different things, and finally, 10 years later, made the movie.

I've always been lucky to have creative communities wherever I've been.  Well, maybe not lucky:  I've taken an active role in creating them, after all.  This interview reminded me of how much further we all go when we've got a community to anchor us, to help us, to console us, and to encourage us.

If you like hearing about creative collaborations, this interview, also from Fresh Air, is a great one.  Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke talk about making Before Midnight, along with the earlier movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.  I found their creative process fascinating.

Unlike Rogan and Goldberg, they aren't in close proximity when they're not making a movie.  Often, they're not even thinking about the next installment.  But when they get together, the next movie emerges naturally.

I wonder if they'll keep making these films.  I love the idea of following these characters through to old age.  Linda Holmes wrote a great blog piece about seeing them age in real time: "It's not that there's never been a story told about the maturation of a relationship over years, but there is something about the way they executed these films, in real time, that cannot be duplicated with makeup. People age unpredictably — if you tried to dress up as You In 20 Years, you would fail, because there's a mystery to whether faces get craggier or softer or fuller, and to how women's hips change when they have kids."

It's also interesting to watch their relationship age, as Holmes points out:  "And now that we know what was coming, nine years later and then nine years later, Sunrise is like a six-sided die turning into a 20-sided die. Those kids, that floppy-haired boy and that willowy girl, would be so glad if they knew what was coming, and so sad, and so scared, and so relieved."

Of course, one reason I'm so interested in this story line is that these characters are close to my age.  I first watched Before Sunrise in 1995, when I was weighed down with 2 houses, housemates, a job that felt draining, a marriage that felt prematurely old.  I longed to be young and unattached and on a train in Europe.

I needed change, and while I didn't shuck it all and go to Europe, I did devise a way for my unhappy spouse to go back to grad school which set us on a path that has gotten us here, to South Florida, a dream come true in many ways. 

I am sure that the Before Midnight will warn me that happy endings lead to all sorts of other complications.  I already knew that.

Last night was graduation, and I always love seeing these graduates who have completed one dream and must now head off towards another.  I love seeing that many of our students do find this kind of success.  And I love NPR for bringing me these kinds of stories too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Clouds of Optimism

I am on an advisory board for a local for-profit college which is part of a national chain.  It's one of the sister schools to my employer, which is also a for-profit college.  Many of the people who come to the advisory board meetings are potential employers for the students, so I often spend part of the meetings feeling like I have nothing of value to add.

How short-sighted of me!  Yesterday's meeting proved that there's more to college than employability at the end.  Of course, many of us already knew that.

We spent a lot of time talking about what would make a community centered college.  We talked about volunteering and other ways to make the college and its students more rooted in the community.

I mentioned how odd it was that we were at a for-profit school talking about how to make that school a deeper part of the community, while just down the road, the community college seems to be trying to make itself more like a university.  I talked briefly about the way it used to be, when the community college was a place to get training to be a refrigerator repair person or an electrician or transfer credits or any other number of outcomes.  Part of the mission of community colleges was short-term training for jobs that needed immediate filling.

Now we see a shift.  Some for-profit schools, with their medical training especially, are taking the role that used to be served by community colleges.

I didn't have the nerve to bring up the price of tuition.  A college that wanted to be rooted in the community might think about ways to keep the cost of the education more affordable--deeply affordable, by which I mean $1000 a term (not a class, a term) or less.

Then we talked about soft skills, skills that can be as simple as showing up when you're scheduled to work.  We talked about how to impart those skills.

I brought up the class that we've recently launched, the Psychology of Personal Effectiveness, a class designed to teach some of those soft skills:  getting along with people, conflict resolution, time management, setting and meeting goals.

Some of you might be shaking your head and saying, "You can get college credit for that?"

Yes, you can.  And you'd be amazed at how many students arrive at college without these basic skills, without the discipline that it will take to be successful.  There are days I'm still shocked.  I understand a lack of math skills, but not turning in work and still wondering why your grade is low?  The two are actually tied together:  students often don't understand how a zero will drive their grade downward far faster than a 65 or a 55, the grade they'd get for substandard work.

The meeting went long because we all had so much to say.  One thing that fascinated me was how many employers talked about their need for people who can write grants.  I must remember this fact for the future.  I know several people who have had some success with grants writing; should they need work, I want to remember this suggestion.

It was also great to be there in an advisory capacity.  I could make suggestions and leave it to others to figure out implementation.  Usually I'm the one receiving the laundry list of problems and the expectation that I can fix them all.

It was also good to be with such a diversity of people, all of whom seemed to want the best for graduates.  The morale was good.  If anyone was feeling dispirited, they didn't talk about it.  I liked being surrounded by optimism.

Now if I can just corral that optimism, a cloud to surround me throughout the day and the weeks to come!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Zen and the Art of Home Repair

--Once, I saw many a book with variations of this blog post's title.  There's the most famous, of course, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I once had a book called Zen and the Art of Archery, which wasn't really about archery, just as Pirsig's book is only partly about motorcycle maintenance.  My spouse had a book about Zen and martial arts.

--Has anyone written a Zen and the Art of Home Repair?  Or The Spirituality of Home Repair?  If not, someone should.

--Yes, perhaps it should be me.  I have so many possible projects to write.  I will need to live to be 120, with every year a productive writing year, to write the books that I can already picture in my head.  That's if I have no more ideas between now and then.

--So, if you want to steal my idea, feel free.  You'd likely write a different book than mine anyway.

--My book would wrestle with the existential questions prompted by a trip to Home Depot--or by numerous trips.  Why do plumbing parts so rarely work with the first attempt?  Why are there so many different finishes in faucets--except for the one you need?  If so many other tools and pieces of equipment can be made in a cordless version, why not a cordless vacuum?

--Once my spouse and I did more home repair projects together.  We bought our first 2 houses through the VA repo program.   Those houses needed work.  One of them needed serious work--although it did have a new roof.

--In our younger years, we did not work well together.  I blame PBS.  Shows like Hometime and This Old House make it look so easy.  No one loses their patience on those shows.  You never see the wasted materials that have been cut wrong or that haven't worked like they should.  The equipment and tools always work perfectly on those shows.

--Now that we are older, it's oddly easier in some ways.  If we're not communicating clearly, we realize it more quickly.  We sigh with exasperation and frame the question or request in a different way.  We apologize more speedily.

--Love means always having to say you're sorry.  So does home repair.

--Now we need reading glasses to see the measurements, to read the instructions, to see the way the parts are connecting or aren't.  I've gotten used to needing reading glasses for household tasks like reading or paying bills.  But home repair?  Really?

--I am stronger than I was as a young woman.  Would our earlier adventures in home repair have gone any more easily if I had had more strength?  No matter.  The past is the past.

--But those of us in long-term relationships know that the past is never really passed (was it Faulkner who said a variation of that sentence?).  My book on home repair and spirituality would include a chapter on how home repair teaches us forgiveness.

--Yes, I should start making notes.  I'm kind of liking this idea.  I see several chapters already:  adjusting expectations and accepting people/houses/materials where they are, why the quest for the perfect paint color will ultimately leave you empty and thirsting for something else, why the work is never really finished, how it helps to have a team of friends, on and on I could go.  Maybe I will . . .

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Majesties Muted and Unmuted

I always thought that if I could be conscious of my thoughts and emotions, I could be better at controlling them.  I'm quite conscious of my emotional landscape, but I'm not good at forcing my brain to the Zen-like acceptance of the situation at hand.

Some days, I feel serene and confident about the direction of my life.  I have no doubts about the house we've chosen.  I feel sure that even with declining student numbers, we have an academic future.  I feel good about my health.

Other days, I've let the minutiae of daily life swamp my good feelings.  Lately the requirements of home buying have often been a challenge to my good mood. I've gotten hung up on quarter point moves of the interest rate, instead of marvelling at the idea that I'm getting a rate well below 5%. I'm worried about all the steps happening as quickly as they need to. I'm fretful about money.  And then there's global sea level rise and the elevation of South Florida . . .

I try to keep my thoughts in perspective by reminding myself that, with the exception of global sea level rise, these are good problems to have. I remember all the people wrestling with issues that are much larger:  health issues of all sorts, job loss issues, issues with parents and children.

It's important to remember the larger picture, the fact that our very existence is an improbability in this universe.

These thoughts remind me of a poem I wrote years ago, which was just published in Clackamas Literary Review. I was teaching Composition down the hallway from an Astronomy class, and the evening happened just as the poem describes:

Majesty Muted

The poet teaches first year Composition
down the hall from an Astronomy
class. Her students struggle
to turn basic sentences into coherent
paragraphs. Language strips its potential
for majesty as they get back to basics:
subject, verb, direct object.

Over the students' bent heads, the poet hears
whisps of Cosmology from down the hall,
hints of a big bang and dancing around Darwin.
She thinks of that teacher who has seen glimmers
of the mysteries of the universe
and must now use language that lacks
enough words to explain tough concepts to bored students.

The astronomer and the poet, modern mystics, cracked
open by cosmic glories unglimpsed
by most. They return
from the mountaintops
with great news of glad tidings.
They're greeted with the sighs
of those who prefer to have majesty muted.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Week-end Wrap Up

Before we launch into the work week, let me record some delights from the week-end:

--It was a week-end of meals with friends.  On Friday, I went to dinner at the Chef's Palette, our student run restaurant, with one group of friends, and then I spent Saturday with a different group. 

--Friday night's meal was amazing.  I had an salad with heirloom tomatoes, green beans, hearts of palm, and an amazing egg that had been poached and then fried.  I had short ribs on a bed of whipped parsnips and potatoes.  By the time we got to the molten chocolate cake, I could only eat 2 bites.

--I'm not used to eating such rich food in the evening.  I had some trouble sleeping.  But that turned out to be a good thing.  I got up and got a lot of work done on the blog post that's due to Living Lutheran by Friday.

--Saturday was wonderful:  a chance to see old friends who I don't see on a daily basis anymore, a time to take a break from all the chores that buying a new house requires.  For the most part, I was able to put those stresses out of my mind.  It was a welcome respite.

--Throughout the week-end I took care of some of the immense amount of paperwork that's now required to get a mortgage.  I made PDF files and retrieved some financial documents online.  You wouldn't think these tasks would take so much time, but they do.  Plus, every website is different, so it takes some time to find what I needed.  But I did.

--On Sunday we took care of some of the tasks that will make this week's chores easier:  a Target run, a Home Depot run, a load of laundry, and yard work.

--We've had flooding rains, especially on Friday.  On Saturday some of the streets around our new house remained flooded, but our new street was fine.  Our current street never floods, although the surrounding streets do.  It continued to rain off and on all week-end.  But by Sunday, it had dried out enough to mow the lawn.

--In the midst of it all, I did some sewing.  What a treat to return to brightly colored fabric and the soothing rhythm of sewing straight lines by hand.

I won't have much time for sewing in the week to come with its meetings and home buying work to be done and graduation on Thursday.  But I'll take refuge in the memory of this week-end's good times, and the promise of more to come.

Friday, June 7, 2013

When No Answer Means Not Yet

This week I got a great piece of writing news:  I've been invited to write  intercessory prayers for Sundays and Seasons, an Augsburg Fortress worship resource. For more on the difference between types of prayers, see this piece on my theology blog.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I've already written prayers for Augsburg Fortress.  I've written before, in numerous places, about my experience over the past few years writing prayers for Bread for the Day, which is a book of devotions. I was given the reading for the day and asked to create a prayer. It was a wonderful experience.  I've done it several years and found it rewarding.

So I said yes to the invitation to write intercessory prayers.  It's similar to what I've done, yet different. 

When I told my spouse about this invitation, he said, "Cool! That's my favorite kind of prayer!"

I had no idea that intercessory prayer was my spouse's favorite kind of prayer. I've known this man for 30 years, and I didn't know that fact. There's still so much to discover.

But I digress. 

Getting this invitation made me not only think about how much I like writing prayers, but how I came to write them in the first place.  Back in 2007, I had been writing meditations on the weekly Gospel lesson.  I'd been doing this for several years, and I thought a series of them compiled together might make a good book of devotions.  I prepared a query letter and a writing sample and sent it off to Augsburg Fortress.

I didn't get a reply, which I took for a rejection.  And in a way, it was.

Except that years later, in 2010, I got an offer to be part of a different project.  And it's because I sent that query, and the editor put my name in a file of potential writers.  It took years before a project came along, but the seed was planted.  I didn't know it was planted, but it was.

We are told again and again that it's important to send the work out, even when we get rejected, even when we get no answer.  We just don't know what's going to take root.

Sure, I'm like everyone else.  I'd like a book contract to fall in my lap out of the clear, blue sky; if I'm being completely honest, I'd like that contract to be accompanied by a hefty book advance.  So perhaps I should ask myself, what seeds am I planting now to make that happen in a few years?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

All Our Useless Currencies

My poem "Currencies" is the featured poem for the day at the website of Rattle.  Go here to read it--and you can hear me read it, if you're so inclined.

Those of you who are familiar with me and/or my writing will say, "Yes, I recognize these apocalyptic themes."

I'm trying to remember the specifics of how I came to write this poem.  I had watched Hotel Rwanda again, and I'm always thinking about apocalypse in some form or another.  I thought about how we watch traditional apocalyptic movies with the assumption that it cannot happen here.

In the case of zombie take-over, that's probably a safe assumption.  But with other types of mass disaster, it's not so safe.  Hotel Rwanda shows us how quickly society can collapse, and the body-choked rivers run red with blood.

I had been thinking about how we try to hedge against disaster.  We get additional degrees, and we stock up supplies.  Some of us have something in reserve, like the family jewels.  And so much of it will be ineffective against what we might eventually face.

We can't prepare for every disaster, of course.  But it's staggering to realize how self-supporting skills have vanished from the culture.  So few people know how to cook, let alone preserve food.  Could you mend a shoe?  Most people say, "Why should I know how to mend a shoe?  I can replace it cheap."

But that supply line might get cut off for so many reasons.  What if the shoes on your feet were the last shoes you'd ever have?

I live in hurricane country, and it's clear that should there be a big storm, we'll be on our own for awhile.  It's easy to stockpile food.  It's not so easy to stockpile water.

We can see a storm coming; we'll have days to prepare.  But what if the water supply was disrupted with no warning?  I used to keep a bathtub full of filled water jugs.  That supply, used sparingly, would only last for a few days.

Eventually, during one day of our dry season, we poured the stockpiled water on the seedlings.  If something happens to suddenly disrupt the water supply, we'll hope that it's not a nation-wide problem.

As I've watched/read various apocalyptic narratives, I've been struck by how many of them depict survivors wandering the countryside, as my poem's character is about to do.  As a woman, I've decided it will be wiser to shelter in place. 

It would go against my grain.  Even during flush times, I'm always wondering if life would be better elsewhere.  If there had been a disaster, that trait would be even more pronounced.  But apocalyptic narrative after narrative shows how much risk comes with travel, especially for women.

Would I have disaster on the brain, even if this poem hadn't appeared today?  Perhaps.  We're under a tornado watch here, until 11 a.m., as the first named storm of the season swirls in the Gulf of Mexico.  It's still a tropical storm, and I'm not expecting much beyond a lot of rain--of course, a lot of rain can do more damage than wind, as the soil gets saturated, and drenched trees fall right over.

We'll likely be fine here.  I'll keep the rest of the Eastern seaboard in my thoughts and prayers today.  And I'll keep a nervous eye on Syria and that region which seems closer to meltdown than ever.

And I'll write a poem--my hedge against catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Are You Willing to Suspend Your Disbelief?

Yesterday was full of those moments where I thought, if I saw/read this scene in a movie/book, I wouldn't believe it--no willing suspension of disbelief, to use the famous phrase of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Since real estate transactions require much in the way of paperwork, phone calls, and money, I found myself headed to a lawyer's office yesterday.  The lawyer's office is right at the edge of Wilton Manors, which is famous for its huge concentration of gay men.  So, in between regular businesses, like the Dairy Queen, are businesses targeted to gay men.  There are bars and some of the best thrift stores in the county.  But there's also the furniture store that advertises that it's always the 50's, 60's, and 70's inside the store.  There's the plumbing supply store, which seems to be an old-fashioned plumbing parts store--just several blocks away from a huge Home Depot.  There's a sign for LeatherWerks--not sure of what this business offers, in specifics, but I'm fairly clear about the people it hopes to attract.

I'm aware of the smirking possibilities in the stores that have no gay theme, the Dairy Queen, the plumbing store, and the fact that the signs have no sense of irony at all.  You wouldn't see that in a movie.

The lawyer had a landmark, for which I was grateful, but disbelieving when told to look for it:  a cream and orange colored rocket.  I couldn't quite imagine.  But yep, there it was, a rocket in creamsicle colors.

My spouse had looked up this lawyer before writing the checks that will serve as our earnest money.  He's legitimate.  The inside of his office looks fairly normal--except for the stuffed alligator, which sits right next to the stuffed bears.  The bears are toys, the alligator the work of a taxidermist.

I drove home, feeling delighted that I live in such a place, that I'm about to make an even larger investment in living here.

At the end of the day, I came into the living room to find my spouse watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, a show we both have hated.  That might seem strange enough--but he was watching it in Spanish.

If that had been a scene in a book or a movie, it would have been a portent--but of what?  Last night it symbolized only boredom

The show doesn't improve in a different language.  I've never been able to relate to a show about a family with members who treat each other in that way.

This morning I feel gratitude that I can't relate to that show.  I feel gratitude that a show about a family who verbally abuses fails the test of my willing suspension of disbelief

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Keeping the Flame Alive

I've noticed how many lives seem to be unravelling right now.  What happened to the easy living of summer time?

In case that's you, here's a photo to inspire you:

It's one of the many things made at the Create in Me retreat back in April.  If you're thinking, I'd love to have more photos to help my brain focus, go to this post on my theology blog.  There are photos of a variation of a Zen sand garden to inspire tranquil calm and photos of whimsical garden figures to inspire a smile.

I've had a good morning.  I began by doing some simple revisions with my memoir manuscript.  Let me define what I mean by that.

You may remember that I began this process by going back through my blogs looking for any post that would fit into the idea I had for a memoir:  a Kathleen Norris like collection of essays that are tied together by the theme of trying to create an integrated life in a workplace that doesn't particularly support a healthy spirituality or creative work.  My workplace isn't usually outright hostile, but it's not supportive either.  I had Nora Gallagher's Things Seen and Unseen as a model, and I organized the manuscript around the calendar year.  So, blog posts that are clearly about Advent, for example, go in the December section.  At the end of the manuscript, I put the essays that seem relevant but not particularly tied to the calendar; I'll weave those through later.

So, the easy task is to dive into the manuscript and find a blog post that's fairly close to essay form already.  I change the things that need to be changed to make it more like an essay and less like a blog post.  I change the type font, so that I'll know it's been done.  

There are other revisions tasks that aren't so easy.  I don't tackle them on a morning like this one when I don't have as much time and I've been feeling frazzled.

You might say, "What kind of revision tasks aren't so easy?"  Here's an example:  I have multiple essays on Vacation Bible School.  Do I blend them into one essay or keep them separate?  If I keep them separate, then they become easy tasks again.  If I decide to blend them, I need to figure out the best way to do that.

And then there will be the task of integrating the bulk of blog posts at the end of the manuscript, the ones that don't clearly fit in one section or the other, throughout the book.  Do I put all the blog posts about music in one place or weave them throughout?  I face lots of questions like that one.  They're not particularly tough, but they do require some analysis, which will require some concentration.

As I reflect, I realize how often I divide jobs of all sorts into these two camps.  At work, I have some tasks that are easy and quick.  There are other tasks which I tackle only when I have a stretch of time, when I can close the door and focus.  I divide housework chores similarly:  for example, getting laundry done is easier than doing the mending.  Any number of creative projects have both easy parts and parts that need a different part of my brain. 

I think we often doom ourselves creatively by insisting that we must have huge chunks of time where we know we won't be disturbed with anything else.  For most of us, we could wait a whole lifetime and never have the ideal conditions in which to get our best creative work done.

The good news:  the small tasks are important too, and they must also be done.  So on a day when you feel like you can't possibly make progress, try choosing a smaller goal.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Journeys to the Land of Sickness

I have stayed up half the night reading Nora Gallagher's Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic.  I read a bit before I went to sleep, and then I woke up 45 minutes later and read some more.  I slept a restless sleep for about 5 hours, and then I couldn't fall back asleep.  I thought I might get up, read a bit, feel sleepy, and go back to bed.  But I never really felt sleepy, so I kept reading.

It's a good book.  It tells the story of Gallagher's journey through an illness.  She begins losing her peripheral vision, and her doctors can't find the cause.  As they do more exploring, they find more cause for concern.

I did something I rarely do, which was to read the last 20 pages before I got very far along in the front of the book.  I couldn't take the anxiety.

When I was young, illness narratives didn't disturb me, except for the rare book I'd read about a young mother with cancer--and then, I didn't identify with the mother so much as with the child who would be left motherless.

Now, as I move through midlife, I find myself terrified at the ways that illness cuts us down.  Once I assumed I wouldn't face much illness until the last 8-10 years of my life.  Now I know it's only the lucky ones who escape that long.

Gallagher paints a vivid picture of how lonely it is to fall through this rabbit hole.  She makes me think of all the ways I've failed friends facing similar crises:  the one whose house burned, the one who had her hip replaced, all the friends who faced the loss of those they loved.  I have tried to be present in the face of tragedy, but it's not a skill that I feel I'm good at it.

And yes, I know that I've thought of becoming a hospice chaplain, and that the skill of being present in the face of tragedy is very necessary.

Obviously the book is compelling, and yet, it left me wanting more.  She talks about losing part of her faith, and she gives the outlines of that part of her journey, but I wanted more.  Maybe that will come with her next book--but it's such a long wait between books!

Even though I couldn't put it down, it's not a book I can imagine returning to again and again, like I do with her previous memoirs.  Would it give me a kind of comfort if I find myself in the land of illness?  Or would it be unbearable?  I do not know.

I think of the poems I wrote in a time that feels very long ago, poems where I take on the persona of a sick person.  My undergraduate self would have declared that we shouldn't create a black narrator if we were white, that men couldn't tell the stories of women.  My undergraduate self would have hurled accusations of appropriating stories.  Did I do the same thing with the poem below?

I wrote it about 15 years ago, when I was young and didn't really know anyone, except for my mother's cousin, who had suffered breast cancer.  Now I know far too many people who have been afflicted.

This poem first appeared in the journal Lynx Eye.

Radiation Sicknesses

All through adolescence, I longed to be lean.
I tried every diet, existing on a concentration
camp allotment of calories, trying to ignore
my fierce cravings, waking up with covers in my mouth
or sleepwalking to the refrigerator.

Now a skeleton stares back from my mirror,
eyes I’ve only seen in photos of Hiroshima victims.
I have achieved thinness, successfully svelte
beyond my wildest imaginings. I crave
no nourishment, cannot force food on myself.
Radiation treatments and chemo work miracles
my teenage mind could not create.

I spent my younger years dreaming of thinness, dreading
nuclear holocaust. I scanned the horizon for the flash
and mushroom cloud that never came.
I expected to lose my hair and vomit away my adult
life. I just didn’t expect to expose myself intentionally.

Bomb my breast with radiation.
The only thing missing:
the wail of air raid sirens.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Snippets from a Saturday

My attention feels increasingly fragmented as we get further and further into the house-buying process.  Right now I don't want to blog too much about the house-buying process--I have irrational fears of jinxing it all.  So, let me connect some snippets from my Saturday here, the snippets that didn't involve discussions with the seller, discussions with the loan officer, the downloading of documents, the fretting about interest rates, the terror that comes with big financial purchases, and the dread that comes from the juxtaposition of the start of hurricane season and Oklahoma tornado footage.

--My favorite part of Saturday:  I returned to my memoir!  I decided that much the blog post that I assembled for Friday's meditation on the Feast of the Visitation was better than what I had put in the memoir manuscript, so in the morning, I put the chunks of Friday's blog post into the manuscript, and I kept part of what was there, and got rid of some of it.  Then in the afternoon, I did a bit more revision on a few other essays.

--This kind of revision is good for times of fragmented attention.  I'm not reorganizing the whole manuscript or doing those kind of tasks that would take sustained attention.  With revising blog posts into essays for a memoir, I can dip in and out and make quick decisions and do the formatting that is required.

--We sorted more stuff.  We haven't moved since 1998.  A lot of stuff has come into our house since then.  We are aggressive in our quest to make sure that only the stuff that we really want to keep comes with us to the new house.

--Despite the stormy looking skies, we did some grilling.  I had a head of cauliflower that I bought because it was on sale.  I want to like cauliflower:  I know it's a nutritional powerhouse of a vegetable.  But even when I have it on hand, I often don't want it (I feel the same about salad greens).  But I also don't want perfectly good produce to rot in the refrigerator.  So, I cut up the head of cauliflower and made up foil packets.  I drizzled olive oil over the packet, sealed it up, and put it on the grill.  After the grilling, I sprinkled fresh-grated parmesan cheese over the cauliflower--wow!  I ate the whole thing!!  I now have a new favorite way of cooking cauliflower.   

--I wrote an old-fashioned letter.  One of my favorite undergraduate professors is not online, so I use old-fashioned ways of keeping in touch.

--My favorite memory of that professor is when we went to a small college several towns away to hear Helen Caldicott give an anti-nuke speech.  I think there was a whole conference, but I mainly remember the Caldicott speech.  Caldicott was a famous crusader in my circles, so the chance to see her in real life in rural South Carolina was too good a chance to pass up.

--But let me confess what I really remember:  we went to the conference in my professor's VW bus.  I returned and said, "I GOT TO RIDE IN THE VW BUS!"  And I had friends who understood.

--My small, liberal arts college barely survived a financial crisis in the 1980's.  To help survive, faculty were let go (my, how familiar).  My favorite professor took her severance package and went on a pilgrimage.  Perhaps the seeds of my fascination with monasticism were planted then.

--Back to my Saturday.  Once the stormy looking skies delivered real storms, I turned off the electronics and took a nap.  Ah, the joys of a nap!

--We finished our Saturday with a quick trip to Target, which was delightfully empty.  There's a joy to getting this chore done.  It's not the same joy as a nap.  Perhaps more of a contentment.

What joys will come today?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Christian Wiman on Poetry, Faith, and Practices

Many of us poet folks know Christian Wiman as the editor of Poety magazine--although I try not to think of him as the one who personally rejects my poems. Some of us may know that he's had a fight with a rare form of blood cancer. Perhaps fewer of us see him as a theological thinker, but his interview on the NPR show On Being proves otherwise.

On this week's episode of On Being, he talks with Krista Tippett about issues of faith, practice, illness, and poetry. Even if you normally avoid anything with a whiff of spirituality, this interview is worth your time.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

--"Well, you know, I've been sick lately and I actually had a bone marrow transplant and was in the hospital for quite a long time. And one of the things, poetry died for me for a while. I found that it just wasn't speaking to me. I think I had certain expectations that took me a while to realize were false expectations. I think we often talk about poetry getting us beyond the world and taking us to the very edge of experience and then getting us into the ineffable. I have to say, when I was, you know, faced with the actual ineffable, I didn't want poetry that gave me more of the ineffable. What I wanted was some way of apprehending the world that was right in front of me that was slipping away.

I wanted the world, you know, in front of my eyes, and the poems that I found useful were absolutely concrete, sometimes not at all about religious things and not at all about spiritual things, but simply reality, and reality rendered in such a way that you could see it again."

--"You know, I think we have these experiences and they are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But I don't know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences and then religion comes after that.

Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it's whatever practice we have, whether it's going to church, whether it's how we integrate sacred text into our lives. Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you're not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I've had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me. And the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people."

--"Doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can't be separated. I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might all me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all of this energy that's going on, all of this what we've talked about, these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief, I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms."

--"So the title is "Every Riven Thing," and riven is kind of an Old Testament word meaning broken, sundered, torn apart. This was actually the first poem that I wrote after years of silence, all those years I mentioned. I had gone I think it was three years without having written a poem. And in the middle of all those dramatic things happening to me, this was one of them. I sat down one day and found myself writing again and this poem came to me all of a sudden. It was quite a shock to write a poem and quite a shock to write a poem especially like this one.

'God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made / sing his being simply by being / the thing it is: / stone and tree and sky, / man who sees and sings and wonders why / God goes. Belonging to every riven thing he's made, / means a storm of peace. / Think of the atoms inside the stone. / Think of the man who sits alone / trying to will himself into a stillness where / God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made / there is given one shade / shaped exactly to the thing itself: / under the tree a darker tree; / under the man the only man to see / God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made / the things that bring him near, / made the mind that makes him go. / A part of what man knows, / a part from what man knows, / God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.'"