Friday, May 31, 2013

Nourishing the Impossible

Today is the Feast of the Visitation, a church festival day which has only recently become important to me.  This feast day celebrates the time that Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  Both women are pregnant in miraculous ways:  Mary hasn't had sex, and Elizabeth is beyond her fertile years.  Yet both are pregnant.  Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist, and Mary will give birth to Jesus. For a more theological consideration of this day, see this post on my theology blog.

Lately I've been interested in this story as a story of women who say yes to the improbable, the impossible.  They open their lives to all sorts of possibilities.  Lately, I've noticed how many people are used to saying "No.  Absolutely not.  Too big a risk.  The consequences of failure will be too awful.  That time of my life is over."  On and on they go, slamming doors, walking away from possibilities, saying no to every adventure.

And something inside shrivels.  The self that can hear the still, small voice stops listening because it's too painful to always face the denial.

Today is a good day to think about what we've denied.  Maybe it's time to return to it.  As long as we have breath in our bodies, it's not too late.

Yesterday I had lunch with one of my writer friends.  For years, she's been talking about moving to San Francisco.  She'll talk about it and then decide not to go.  For a time, her life swims along.  But then, the yearning to go west resurfaces.

Yesterday, I said, "You've been talking about going to San Francisco for years.  Maybe it's time to go.  Just close up the house and go to San Francisco for the summer.  See what happens."

We talked about how that could happen:  how one closes up a house for the summer, for example.  We broke it down into steps.  It's not so overwhelming.  The job that requires her to be geographically here is done for the summer.  She can take her freelance work with her.  If she discovers that she doesn't want to live in San Francisco, she can return in August--or two years from now.  Or she can move somewhere else.

I've been experiencing a similar epiphany lately.  For years, I assumed we couldn't move.  We couldn't afford it--that's my go-to dream killer.  But the truth is, we can afford it.  We'll need to prioritize, but that's a good process.

The whole process is overwhelming, so I did what I always do:  break it into steps.  Step by step, we're getting ready.

I expected disapproval, which so far, I haven't experienced.  I didn't expect that there would be some people who told me, "Oh, I could never do what you're doing."  It's disapproval, in a way, I guess.

And I'm surprised by my response:  "Oh yes you could.  You might be surprised."

In 1998, we did what I advised my writer friend to do.  We really wanted to move away from South Carolina, so we started saving money.  We fell in love with the South Florida area when my spouse had a job interview here.  He didn't get that job, but we decided to move anyway.

I had a teaching job where I could take summers off.  We decided to take a summer, to see what would happen.  We had a safety net.  I could return to that job.  But within 3 weeks of moving here, I'd been offered a 1 year, temporary, full-time position.  It was just the sign we needed.  We stayed.

I've been surprised how my actions have rippled out.  A few years after we moved, I got an e-mail from a colleague at my old school, who wanted to, as he put it, "pull a Kristin."  He had dreams of going back to school.  He took encouragement from my story.  And from what I can tell, he's been successful.

In 2007, I had a friend who dreamed of moving to be closer to family and to move away from hurricane threats.  We explored options.  We discussed job possibilities.  I encouraged her to apply for some jobs that she thought she had no chance of getting.  She got one of them, and off they went.

Yesterday, again, I told my story as a way of encouragement, a way of saying, "I moved away for the summer.  If I could do it, you can do it.  Let's explore how." 

The world tells us of all the ways that things can go terribly wrong.  We need to remember that often we take the first steps, and we get more encouragement than we expected.  God or the universe or destiny, however you think of it, meets us more than halfway.

"Leap and the net will appear."  I can't remember who originally said it, but I first became aware of this philosophy through the work of Julia Cameron.  Her works encourage people to explore their creativity, to take the first steps, to be open to what happens.  In The Vein of Gold, she says, "As a culture, we focus on results, not on the rewards of risk.  Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, but we don't tell ourselves that" (page 205)

She also encourages people to be brave as their creativity soars and takes them to unexpected places.  In her books, she gives us story after story of regular people who begin exploring their creative impulses, thus triggering all sorts of synchronicity.  These are people who said yes to their inner yearnings.

So today, on this feast day that celebrates unlikely miracles, let's practice saying yes.  For one day, let's quiet the negative voices that shout at us.   Today, let us try to remember all of the dreams we might have discarded as improbable, impossible.  Nourish all the possibilities.  Let's choose one possibility and try it on for size.  Let that dream incubate a bit.  Let it swell and grow into a full-blown alternative. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

High School Graduation: Thirty Years of Change

On this day, in 1983, I graduated from Bearden High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.  At least, I think it was this day.  I kept a journal then, but I didn't write about graduation on the actual day that it happened.  I wrote a few days later.

Here is a quote from 18 year old Kristin, as written in her journal: "I just know I will miss everyone and that I will probably never see any of these people again." 

I assumed I would keep in touch with a few people, which I did.  I assumed I would lose touch with almost everyone, which I did.  I did not foresee anything like Facebook or Google that would let us all find each other again.

I went to a fairly small high school, by South Florida standards, just several hundred students.  Our high schools down here are the populations of small cities, several thousand students.  And we wonder why they don't learn as much as we wish they would.  But that's a subject for a different day.


So much has changed since 1983.  I went back to my high school in 1992, when I was in Knoxville for the College English Association conference.  I checked in at the office, as the sign told me to do, but I could have wandered the halls for hours before anyone asked what I was up to.  I asked the secretary if I could take a quick walk through the building, and she said, "Sure."  I asked if I needed a hall pass, and she looked at me like I had lost my mind.  That was one of my first hints that I no longer looked like a high school kid.

And that was that.  No one asked further questions.  No one wondered why I was there.  No metal detectors, no background checks.  And so, I roamed the halls. 

I noticed that the huge space that had been the home-ec classroom had been changed into a room with personal computers.  If we could travel back in time to 1992, we'd probably be amazed at how much space those computers consumed.

Now, we can carry much more powerful computers in our pockets.  That technological advance is in the process of changing the world:  I predict that no other development will do more to eliminate poverty in developing nations, except perhaps, cheaper sources of water and power.  The beauty of these small computers, in the shape of a phone, is that they could be easily recharged, so even if the power supply is unstable or absent, one could still recharge the device with a charger that relies on a hand crank or solar power.

It's a development I couldn't have even imagined, even with all my youthful sci-fi reading, in the year of my graduation from high school.

These days at the Berkey-Abbott household, we're anxiously watching interest rates as we try to buy a new house before house prices rise beyond our means, as interest rates start to float up.

Last night, I tried to regain some perspective.  I thought back to our first house purchase in 1993, when we got interest rates of 7%; I declared, "We'll likely never get interest rates cheaper than this!" 

My spouse and I both remember the Carter years, when rates approached 20%.  This morning, I looked up home mortgage interest rates in 1983:  just under 14%.  If 18 year old Kristin could get her mind around the fact that she would buy a house in the future, she'd marvel at the fact that I will get an interest rate of somewhere between 3.4% and 5% (please, please let it be closer to 3.4%!).

I wish we felt fretful about the fact that so much of the house will need to be packed into boxes before too long.  I'd know what to do with that nervous energy.  I can't do much to control the Fed, the interest rates, the stock market, windstorm insurance rates, global sea level rise, all the things which wake me up in the middle of the night as I wake up worrying about a new property and all of the implications.
Yesterday, I returned to one of the ancient practices which has always soothed me.  No, not prayer, not meditation, not yoga.  No, not alcohol, not exercise, not writing.  Yesterday, it poured rain all morning, a morning when I happened to be home.  I thought about the communal meal on Friday evening, the lemon coconut cake I planned to make, the lemons in my fridge to be turned into lemon curd, the extra lemon curd I'll have, the scones that would be so tasty with that lemon curd.  And I got to work, baking and zesting lemons and enjoying yummy smells and tastes.

This morning, it was a return to another ancient practice:  poetry.  I wrote a poem this morning, just as I would have been likely to do in 1983.

If we travelled back to 1983, we'd likely arrive on a day when I was cooking.  And I'm hopeful that if we arrived in 2033, I'd still be cooking.  And hopefully, it would be a day when poetry would not be far behind.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Swimming in the Ruins

--On Sunday, I stood on a Ft. Lauderdale rooftop, surrounded by even taller buildings, talking to a friend who has an advanced degree in Meteorology.  She had just come back from a climate conference.  The news is not good.  You knew that already.

--As you might suspect, the climate conference attendees spent a lot of time talking about the milestone that we've just reached:  the level of carbon in the air has just reached 400 parts per million (for more info, see this story).  As our friends grilled meat, we stared out to the ocean, which we could see.  We talked about sea level rise.  We speculated when our landscape would be completely underwater.

--I stared up, imagining that I was a diver looking up to the surface of the ocean as I swam amongst the ruins.  I imagined the skyscrapers of Ft. Lauderdale sunk into the sand.  I imagined swimming down between the towers and steeples and ruined condos.  Within several hundred years, this peninsula will likely (VERY likely) return to the ocean floor, as it used to be. 

--Will there be humans left to go diving?  It's hard to imagine that we'll be able to adapt to the changes barreling towards us.  We're not very good at adapting to smaller changes, after all.


--A few weeks ago, I talked to one of my friends who's been sorting through stuff.  He came across a box of personal finance magazines that he'd kept, and he could barely bring himself to look at it.  He remembered how faithfully he used to follow the principles laid out by those famous finance magazines.  If he had stayed true, would he be wealthier now?

--I pointed out that he might be even poorer.  I remember those magazines, with their recommendations that we invest in tech stocks and that we leverage everything to get better housing options.

--By the middle-end of my work day yesterday, I was so tired that I was tempted to put my head on my desk and take a nap.  But my office is such that I'd be very visible, so I resisted the urge to sleep.  Instead, I put all the poetry books back on the shelves.  Long ago, I brought most of them to the office.  I thought, I spend most of my time here; maybe I'll reach for a poem when I'm tired.

--It hasn't quite worked out that way.  I have been reaching for volumes of poems in the last half year to write essays and articles.  And they've never quite made it back to the shelves.  And when I've gotten new books, I've kept them at home until I had a chance to read them.  Again, it hasn't quite worked out that way.

--I have now filled up all the shelves reserved for poetry.  Yesterday afternoon, I said to a friend, "That's it.  I can buy no more books."

--My spouse has sorted through his Philosophy books.  We have such a good collection.  Once, those books wouldn't have been widely available.  Now, since they're in the common domain, it's fairly easy to find them online.  Do we need to keep our paper copies?  More importantly, do we need to haul them to a new location?

--Yesterday we took one of the cars to the shop.  It had a shake and a shimmy, and the two front tires have been showing wear on the edges.  My spouse took the apocalyptic view, whilst I thought we needed alignment. 

--In a way, we were both right.  The car can be redeemed.  It needed more than an alignment, but not a tie rod or an axle.  My spouse started to splutter when the mechanic called to tell us that the brakes needed to be replaced.  I said, "The last time we replaced the brakes, Susan Pawela was my boss."  That was several bosses ago, at least as long ago as 2007.  They've lasted a long time.

--Oh little car, that has pumped so much carbon into the air!

--I think of my husband's favorite car, the little Geo Metro that got 60 miles to the gallon when we first got it.

--It got that great mileage because it had no AC.  I think of my younger self, who didn't use the AC because she didn't want to contribute to global warming.

--My moral high ground will not protect me from rising seas.  We'll all be in need of high ground before too much longer, at least in geological timelines.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Perfect Memorial Day Week-end: Creativity, Friends, and Gratitude

What a great Memorial Day week-end.  I feel lucky that I had so many opportunities for creativity, along with so many opportunities for spending time with friends.

On Friday, I hosted one of my newer friends who needed a place to stay while her house was being treated for termites.  I felt slightly nervous:  she's a new friend, and we haven't spent huge swaths of time together.

I needn't have worried.  We had a great dinner (grilled salmon, salad, potatoes, and peas), great conversation, and most happily, some creative time together.

I'd told her about our experiences with alcohol inks, and since we had time, we experimented.  She's a painter and a printmaker, so she was eager to try them.  We had a huge tile, so we had a surface to go with the supplies. 

Here's what we made:


Not the best shot, but it gives you an idea.  Later in the evening, we cut paper into flame shapes for a Sunday project.  As the evening wound down, I started to cut the shapes, and she asked what I was doing.  I explained, and she asked if she could cut too; she says she finds cutting paper to be soothing.



On Saturday night, I took my poems over to an art gallery.  I wrote this blog post with more details.  It was a wonderful night.  I drove my friend home, which I didn't mind--it gave us a chance to talk.  We talked about old houses and new houses.  She pointed out that we're both in parts of the county that we love, and why should we give that up?  She also said she had a good feeling about my memoir, that it will be wildly successful.





I want to write that down so that I hold on to it. Writing of all types has taken a back seat to curriculum developing and house hunting. I will get back to it.
On Sunday, I took the flames and other supplies to church--for more on what we did and why, see this post.  We ended up with posters that look like this:




On Sunday we went to a delightful barbecue and got home in time to watch our favorite Sunday animated shows on Fox.  Alas, car racing was on instead.

But that turned out to be OK.  I had a song in my head about walking a lonesome river/valley and having to walk it by myself.  I Googled it--I found it!  I watched many variations of the song. I fell in love with Pete Seeger all over again.  Go here to see/hear my favorite version.  Watching Doc Watson and Pete Seeger, with a verse from Woody Guthrie--well, it makes me proud to be an American.

 My spouse figured out how to play it on the violin.  We had a songfest.



 
We played other songs.  I wrote a poem--finally!  I've been writing down poem ideas all week but never actually getting around to crafting a poem.

On Monday, I wrote some blog posts and then turned my attention to a report that's overdue.  Not a work report, but the final report for the Create in Me retreat.  It's a process which involves sorting through participant feedback sheets and doing lots of tabulating, lots of chart/table making, lots of selecting the best quotes.  It was wonderful to have a huge chunk of time to work on that project while my spouse worked on the lawn.

We met friends for pizza at 2:00.  We went to Anthony's, a coal fired pizza place; they make the only chicken wings I've ever liked.  We ate wings, salad, meatballs, pizza, and shared a bottle of wine.  It was lovely. 

The best part about meeting for a late lunch instead of dinner?  We got back in time to finish some chores, like laundry.

I love having a Monday off.  I love the expansive feeling that I have all week-end, just knowing that I have a week-end off.

We ended the week-end by watching the Memorial Day concert on PBS.  It was good to be reminded of why we have this holiday.  It's good to remember the people who didn't make it home to enjoy a barbecue or pizza with friends.  It's good to pay tribute to those who died so that I have the freedom to create the art I want, so that I have the freedom to go to church.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Memories

I have always had an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day. My dad served in the Air Force so we were never far away from a conversation about the sacrifices others made so that we could live in freedom. We went to memorials and statues and cemeteries. We often made our way to Washington D.C., where it's impossible not to be aware of the sacrifices made--so many and of so many kinds--for the sake of freedom.

As I got older, I wanted to be a pacifist, and so, Memorial Day became more difficult. I've read my history, though, and I realize how often war, even if held as the last resort, has been necessary.

It is impossible not to realize the cost of war. There's the money, of course, and the death of soldiers. We may forget the other costs: the families of military members, the injured veterans, the civilians damaged in so many ways, peace of all kinds shattered.

So, on this day which has become for so many of us just an excuse to have a holiday, let us pause to reflect and remember. If we're safe right now, let us pause for a moment of gratitude. Let us remember that we've still got lots of military people serving in dangerous places--and even if they're not in dangerous places, a person can be hacked to death in a peacetime city like London.

On Saturday, I drove home from spin class, and I saw Boy Scouts planting flags in a cemetery.  It wasn't a military site, but I appreciated that they took time to do it.  It made me wonder where the nearest military cemetery would be down here at the tip of America.

This morning, I'm thinking of the trip to France that I took with my parents in 2005.  We stopped at various military cemeteries, huge fields of white marble crosses, a staggering vista, mostly WWI dead.  I thought of all the times I taught the literature of World War I.  I thought of how hard it is for modern readers to understand how soul shattering it was to endure the loss of human life wrought by WWI.  We have those kind of horrors delivered to our screens on an almost daily basis if we're not careful.  Those WWI citizens had never seen anything like it.

I think of European and British women who were young at the time of WWI.  We talk about a generation of young men lost to WWI, and we often think it's hyperbole.  It is not.  I always tell my students, "Look around this class.  Imagine that in the course of a year or two, every male in this class was killed.  Imagine that you're one of the women left behind.  How does that affect you?"

It's still not as effective as a field trip to those French cemeteries would be.

I realize that this holiday is fraught with pitfalls of all sorts.  Many of us, especially those of us who don't live in places with much military presence, run the risk of forgetting the meaning of this holiday, as we fire up our grills or go to the beach or simply catch up on our laundry.  It's also a holiday that holds an opposite risk:  those of us not forgetting the holiday might go too far the other direction, with a kind of shallow patriotism.

Sure, it's easy to fly the flag, or to wear a patriotic pin or scarf or hat.  But how many of us are really prepared to put our lives on the line for something as abstract as honor?  How many of us would defend our country?

Sure, we say we would, and if we had war ships off our coast, I have no doubt that we would.  But based on all the badmouthing of our country that I often hear, I'm not willing to say that there's deep support for the military.  If a young person told you that he/she was joining the military, would you celebrate or mourn?

We could do so much more that engage in the shallow patriotism of wearing red, white, and blue. We could prepare a care package. We could put a flower on a military grave. We could write a card. We could give money to organizations that care for active service people and/or veterans.


We could read Wilfred Owen (go here) and think about the price that has been paid so that we have these choices, to celebrate or not to celebrate, how to spend our days. We could resolve to move through our days with the sense that our opportunities don't come to us for free, to move with gratitude that we have opportunities that those dying in the mud did not live to see.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Poetry, Fairy Tales, Tattoos, and Other Art Forms

Last night, my friend and I read poems at an art gallery opening.  The theme of the latest show is Twisted Fairy Tales, and my friend was invited because she teaches a Fairy Tales class at our school.  In fact, the name of the gallery comes from inspiration that comes from her class:  Into the Woods Fine Art Gallery and Body Art Studio.  My friend invited me because she's kind and because it's easier to be brave with a friend by your side.

I've written before that we weren't sure what to expect.  Would there be body art going on?  Would there be interest in poems?  How many people would come?

There were tons--TONS--of people.  I would estimate easily 100, perhaps many hundreds.  Some came for a quick look at the art.  Some stayed all night.  Some had amazing tattoos.  Some were not marked at all.  There were a few children.  A few people came in costume--and some people were wearing clothes that the outside world would define as costumes, but they probably wouldn't.

Throughout the night, we took poetry breaks.  It had some challenges.  Next time, the curator says we'll have a microphone.

I thought one of the challenges might be that people came for the art, not for the poetry.  But everyone seemed good natured.  My friend and I read our poems with fairy tale themes.  The crowd clapped enthusiastically.  And then it was back to looking at the interesting art that had the same themes.

The crowd was an interesting blend:  mainly students and former students.  I saw a couple who had been a newer couple long ago when they took my English class--and they're still together.  I saw a student who had been in a less balanced frame of mind when she took my class--and now she's graduated and gotten a job in her field.  I spend so much time talking to/about students in trouble that it's good to remember that the majority of our students are going to be OK.

The event reminded me once again that poets can't ever be sure who will respond to their work.  As I stood in line for a drink, I spoke to a man with so much body art that even his face was painted.  He talked with great enthusiasm about my Cinderella poem.

Now if I had seen this man at the grocery store, I'd have assumed that poetry would not be his thing.  And, to be fair, it might not be.  Maybe he just liked the theme.  He liked my poem because it imagined life after happily ever after.  But never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that poetry would take me to a gallery that's part tattoo parlor where I would discuss figurative language.

And if poetry isn't his thing, maybe poetry like mine will help him be open to poetry in the future.  My conversation with him has helped me be less afraid of people who have made different body art choices than I have.

I watched a young man, heavily inked, holding his daughter, who was wearing fairy wings and a ruffled dress. The purples, pinks, and greens in her dress matched his arms. It's interesting to me to think about parents and children and how our lives don't really change. Students grow up and have children who will grow up and have children.


Or maybe I'm just in this kind of mood because it occurred to me that 30 years ago on Memorial Day week-end, I'd have been graduating from high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. And now, here I am, a thousand miles to the south, reading poems to the next generation, with my Hindu friend who says that she must have done something good in her past life to have had a friend like me. I said, "In my Lutheran way, I feel the same way!"

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Buying a House after Burst Bubbles and Other Sorts of Terrorism

Lately, as the home buying process has consumed more and more of my time and mental energy, I've been thinking about how much has changed since I last bought a house, back in 1998.  Since this blog more and more takes the place of my paper journal, thus serving as a historical record of sorts, let me record some of the ways.

Future historians, no need to thank me.  I'm sure these observations have already been recorded in analytical texts.  But for what they meant to people here on the ground, read on!

--Once, we could buy a house with very little money down.  You simply bought additional insurance to protect the mortgage company, and then when you had enough equity, or when the value of your house rose, you cancelled the insurance.  Our mortgage guy writer told us that new policies are about to go into effect which will require paying that insurance for the life of the loan.

--Once, we pored over real estate sections in the newspaper to find out what was for sale.  Maybe we cruised neighborhoods, looking for signs.  Now, there may be no "for sale" sign.  Now, I have spent countless hours cruising the Internet.  I have looked at pictures online.  I have often wondered why people didn't clean up the clutter on kitchen counter or bathroom surfaces before snapping pictures.

--Long ago, we had to guess what the seller had paid for the property.  Now, we can find the original price.  We can't tell whether or not the homeowner has refinanced, at least I have yet to find the information.  But there's all sorts of helpful information online to help a seller try to figure out what to offer.

--In my city, it's also easy to tell what work has been done under permit.  I'm not sure how much that matters to me, but I know it may be important to some people. 

--Now, if you move money around between accounts, so that you have the huge sum required for closing costs and down payments, you need to have proof that you came by that money legitimately.  In 1998, no one would have wondered if that chunk of money came from terrorism or money laundering.

--Of course, in 1998, I didn't need such huge sums of money.  I'm rather shocked by how much housing costs have increased, even with a bubble and a burst.  I'm fairly certain that most middle class earnings haven't risen in the same proportion.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Grooves We Etch

I can't write about what's most on my mind, at least not in specifics.  Here at the Berkey-Abbott household, we continue to think about moving to different neighborhoods and the old houses in those neighborhoods.  Do we want a house that's so historic that it's listed on the historic registry?  How much do we want to spend?  We've talked about downsizing, but could we, really?  How did we end up with all this furniture?

So here are some Friday fragments.  For those of you who read both of my blogs faithfully, I apologize.  Some of these fragments were part of yesterday's post on my theology blog.

--If you're still wanting more on The Doors, today NPR's Fresh Air is rerunning the interview that they had with Ray Manzarek back in 1998.  I'll post a link when there is one.

Update:  to listen, go here.  You can also get a transcript, but really, you want to hear Manzarek play.

--One of my friends has written of his intention to be more careful with e-mail:  "I'm going to resolve to speak directly to people, if at all possible, rather than emailing, when it involves difficult conversations. And I want to try not to speak ill of anyone in email communications. I hope I can follow through on that."

--I love his last sentence with its acknowledgement of the difficulty of the task.  E-mail has created certain habits.  They're not all beneficial.

--I used to think that e-mails were better--everyone could compose their thoughts.  But let me admit that it's possible--too possible--for events to escalate in a way that they wouldn't have if we could read body language and/or soften what we're saying with a smile or a shrug.

--What would happen if I made the same resolution at work?  Could I resolve not to write e-mails about/instead of difficult conversations?

--This has been a tough quarter at school.  It seems a lot more people are unravelling than usual.

--My job--to try to help with the reassembling, while remembering that people have a certain responsibility for keeping themselves knitted together too.

--I do wonder if there's something atmospheric or cyclical going on.  I'm hearing from people across different fields that they're getting more cries for help than usual.


--Lately, I've been thinking that I need to make more room for happiness in my life--not contentment, but happiness and joy. I get contentment from a tasty supper at home. I get happiness from having people over for dinner. I'm going to start doing that more often, even if it means that people will see how I really live, with unswept floors and a smidge of toothpaste in the sink.


--In this post, Rachel Barenblat explores happiness. This paragraph resonated with me: "I find myself thinking about a lot of these ideas in terms of what kinds of grooves I want to be carving on my heart and in my mind. We're all creatures of habit. I try to cultivate the habit of seeing myself, and seeing everyone around me, through generous eyes. I try to be kind to myself to and to everyone around me. I try to say thank-you to God, at least every morning and every night, for the many blessings in my life. This sounds a little bit corny, I know! But I've found that when I make a practice of saying thank you, when I make a practice of trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, when I stop to notice what's beautiful in my life and in the world, I am calmer and kinder as a result. I am a better person, a better mom, a better rabbi, a better spouse. And the more I do those things, the more well-worn that path becomes in my mind and heart, the easier it is to keep doing those things."

--This image of grooves seems to be popping up a lot in my reading this week. In The Prosperous Heart: Creating a Life of 'Enough,' Julia Cameron relates a story of a wealthy woman who can't stop fretting: "She is habituated to worry, and worry about money is the most deeply grooved worry of all" (page 4).

--I wrestle with anxiety more than I want to admit. Most of it is low grade. Is any of it justified? The anxious part of me says of course--what if we make the wrong choice and run out of money? My serene self says that none of this matters in the long run or the short run.

--I also have anxieties on my brain because we're in the process of thinking about moving to a new house. We will be moving to a new house, unless housing prices zoom out ahead of what we can afford in the next month or two. It's more of a mortgage than I would have ever thought we could afford.


--Of course, our first house was a VA repo which we bought for $35,000 back in 1993. Now I think that every house should cost $40,000-$50,000. Yes, only 4 zeroes in that number. And yes, I realize how unrealistic my anxiety brain can be.

--I have a vision that our new neighborhood will bring me more happiness and joy. But I know I'll need to cultivate that happiness and joy.

--To quiet my anxieties in the coming days as we move through this process, I'll start planning dinner parties! I will keep my brain from driving off into ditches of anxiety by reading books like Cameron's that remind me that I have all I need already.

--And I'll try to treat people more gently.  I always try to treat people gently, but I'll try to up the level of that care--maybe by sending fewer e-mails.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Housing Choices

I have the issue of housing running round and round in my brain. Let's untangle the strands:

--One reason I have housing on the brain is because of the Oklahoma tornado.  A colleague at work did a lot of clucking about houses that didn't even have a basement or a storm shelter, even though most structures were built on land that wouldn't support a cellar.  I've heard other people talk about shoddy construction.  But honestly, most structures don't stand a chance against an F5 tornado.  And do you really want to spend that kind of money to protect against something that won't likely happen?

--Another reason I have housing on the brain is that we're looking to move to a different neighborhood.  We need a chunk of cash, which means liquidating some assets to transfer them into real estate.

--Those of you living in other parts of the country may think we've lost our minds.  But the housing market here is heating up. Not my neighborhood, alas.  But the neighborhood where we want to live?  Well, here's an example.

--I've been perusing real estate online, and I recognized one house as one I had seen months ago.  I assumed it had been sold.  Yet here it was again.  It seemed offered at a much higher price to me.  I did some investigating and sure enough.  Earlier in the year it had been listed at $375,000.  Now it's listed at $425,000.  You could argue that the sellers are stupid--they couldn't get $375,000, and now they're looking for $50,000 more?  But to me, it shows people's expectations.

--Like I said, I've been considering assets.  I can't imagine ever getting a better interest rate than I can get right now.  We're trying to figure how far we should stretch.

--Part of me wonders if we should stretch further.  I still dream of land in the country, something communal, in the not-too-distant future.  Now would be the time to buy.  Actually, 4 years ago would have been the time to buy, but my finances were less secure then.  Me and the rest of the nation.  I think about communal choices as I grow older, as my friends grow older.

--I'm not the only one.  I listened to this story yesterday on NPR, about aging Baby Boomer women who have decided to live together.  It made me miss my own communal days.  They may come again.  The story concludes this way:  "So if you're a boomer and you liked that group house you shared in college or just after, good for you. The United States is one of the few developed nations that have no organized public policy for providing long-term care — so group living may be in your future as well as your past."

--I was listening to this story as I drove in flooded streets in the neighborhood in which we'd like to live.  Some streets were high and dry; some were impassable.  I'm not sure what accounts for that, but it's good to know.

--I think of my parents who moved around a lot.  Their housing search was much easier in some ways.  They went on a house hunting trip and looked at the 4-8 houses available in the school district in which they wanted to live.  They chose the one which seemed best.

--I think my hesitation around housing is rooted in their experiences.  Some purchases seemed disastrously wrong in hindsight.  Like the house on a steep hill in Charlottesville:  wonderful in the summer, difficult in ice and snow.

--And so I drive the streets, looking for something to let me know that a house should be marked off the list or that it's a fabulous choice.  I forget the basic message of housing:  every choice has charms, and every choice contains some element that will drive me barking mad.  I can love the neighbors, but they could move away. 

--All we can do is make the choice which seems best right now.  And if we need to make different choices in the coming years, we will.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Collaborations: Spin Class, Rock, Poetry

Today at spin class, our spin instructor had put together a tribute to The Doors ride--what fun!  In some ways sobering, thinking about Ray Manzarek's death on Monday and Jim Morrison's death decades ago.  But it was great to hear that music, lots of it, song after song.

It was not the mind altering experience that my younger self might have expected, even as we spun in the near darkness under the purple glow of the black lights.  But I did come away with a poem idea--hurrah!

I thought about Jim Morrison who began life as a poet before he met Manzarek on that beach in Venice.  I thought about the book of Morrison's poems that my dad gave me one year for Christmas.  I liked his lyrics better, but it occurs to me that I might have simply been more familiar with them.

As I listened to the lyrics today, I was struck by how much I liked them.  I love "Soul Kitchen" for many reasons, and today I realized that Morrison had rhymed minaret with alphabet!

"I got home and looked up the lyrics.  Here's that verse:
Well, your fingers weave quick minarets

Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget, learn to forget
Learn to forget, learn to forget"

How many other poets went on to become rock heroes?  I'm thinking of the lead singer for Rage Against the Machine.  I can't come up with many others.  Folkie singer-songwriter types, yes.  But not many folks who create powerful rock with great lyrics.  I'd give you U2 in that count, although in a way I'd have to leave them out, since I don't think any of the members was a poet first (but I could be wrong).

I'll continue to be intrigued by artistic collaborations, like amongst musicians and poets.  This Saturday, I'm part of an event at Into the Woods Gallery and Body Art Studio (138 N. Federal Highway in Dania Beach).  They're launching a show with the theme of Twisted Fairy Tales.  So, I've been asked to come read some of my fairy tale poems.  I'm not sure what to expect.  I'm fairly sure it will be different from most poetry readings I've done.

Now it's off to write my poem. My brain swirls with images of dark and swimming to the moon. I have a vision of a woman who watches comets in her youth but now can't see much in her light polluted sky and doesn't drive through the night anymore anyway--one of the prices of having a house, after all.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cleansing the Doors of Perception

When I'm not thinking about the horrifying tornado in Oklahoma, I'm thinking about The Doors, what with the announcement of the death of Ray Manzarek.  Cue the appropriate music, maybe "Riders on the Storm," "Strange Days," or "The End."

In my brain, those 60's artists are perpetually in their 30's.  How strange to hear that Ray Manzarek was the same age as my mom and dad!

I heard Ray Manzarek interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air, long ago, at the beginning of this century.  I can't find the interview archived at this point.  Maybe Fresh Air will rerun part of it on Friday.  They often do that with the death of famous artists.

It was a great interview.  Manzarek comes across as such a normal guy.  And why wouldn't he be?  If Jim Morrison had survived another 30 years, he might have seemed fairly calm in an interview.

I was impressed with Manzarek's wide ranging knowledge of music and his skill at the keyboard, as well as other instruments.

The piano was my first instrument.  I wish I had stuck with it longer.  Perhaps I'll return to the piano in the fall.  I have a 5 octave keyboard which would serve my purposes well.

I'm also thinking of The Doors and their influence on me as a poet.  There are worse influences.  Morrison had poetry interests, Rimbaud and folks like that, which don't embarrass me, but which I no longer share.  I loved the surreal settings, the sense of both forboding and longing, the symbols of all sorts, from the desert to the swamp.

I'll never be the kind of person who experiments with heavy drugs--I've seen too many people with their brains burned out by those kind of experiments.  But zoning out, listening to The Doors, writing poems late at night--that seems to be a special kind of mind-altering experiment/experience of its own sort. 

I remember one night doing my radio show in college, listening to "The Wasp" with its lines about Texas radio and the big beat and something swampy and humid and writing a poem about a Central American refugee.  I felt like I was channeling something that I couldn't quite control.

My inner apocalypse gal also loved The Doors.  Their music was perfect for the end of the 60's, but it was also a good soundtrack for the end days of the Cold War.  Of course, we didn't know it was the end, in the way that it was.  I expected mushroom clouds, not the crumbling of the Soviet empire.  Choose your favorite song by The Doors--chances are good it will fit an apocalyptic mood.

When I got to grad school, I had a Romantics professor tell us that The Doors took their band name from William Blake.  Oh, William Blake, what would you make of our current time?  So many doors of perception, waiting to be cleansed!

It's an interesting question, what can best do that cleansing, and different generations and people have given different answers:  drugs, sex, exercise, alcohol, poetry, staying up late, poetry, good food . . .

I've spent the morning listening to interviews, reading the memories of others, listening to music.  But now it's time to head off to the office, where there are many cloudy doors of perception. 

For a great interview with Greil Marcus, a music philospher who wrote a book about the Doors, go here.  I may stream this interview this afternoon.  It makes me feel my poetry self stirring.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sunday Sorting

After my nap yesterday, I spent much of the afternoon doing tasks I wouldn't have had to do if I had just stayed on top of them from the beginning.  So, on the one hand, I feel like I accomplished a lot.  On the other, it's difficult to keep from saying, "If you had just shredded these retirement account documents when they first came in 2008, you wouldn't have to do that now."

Let you think I had a huge pile of those kinds of documents, I didn't:  just a stray envelope that somehow made it to the top of my desk where it sat for years.

I sorted, shredded, filed, tossed into the recycling bin, and at the end of the night, I had a straighter desk.  It felt both satisfying and exasperating.

I've also been sorting through bookcases, which means sorting books, but also dealing with the stuff that makes its way to the tops of the bookcases.

Long ago, when my local fabric store had cheaper fabrics, I planned to assemble sewing kits for Lutheran World Relief.  I picked up fabrics on sale, and the other items that were supposed to go in the kits:  thread, needles, and buttons.  Yesterday, I found the unmailed box with unassembled kits.

Since I started collecting, the requirements have changed.  Now instead of 3 yards of fabric, we need 2 pieces of 3 yards of fabric in each piece.  No buttons, no needles, but two spools of thread.

So, yesterday afternoon when I needed a diversion, I headed to the fabric store and bought an additional piece of fabric.  I assembled two kits and put them in a box,, which I sealed and addressed (a step that often goes undone for weeks--or more).  Now they're ready to mail.

Again, it feels like I accomplished something, but it also feels like I should have done it years ago.

Was I just procrastinating on writing projects by doing this cleaning and sorting yesterday?  Or was I getting a jump start on tasks that will have to happen when we move?

The answer to both questions:  "Yes."

Tomorrow, I shall write a poem!  Today, I'll be on the lookout for threads that could be woven into a satisfying cloth.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fallow Times and Pentecost Periods

I can't remember when I last wrote a poem, although I could easily look it up.  It's probably not as long as I think.

But more importantly, I can't remember when I last felt like a poet.  When did I last make interesting connections of unusual links that would make a good poem?

I've been feeling swamped by many things, all of them good:  a curriculum project that will pay money, trying to think about a different house, visits from family, and some trips.  Like I said, they're all good, but they have pulled me away from creative work, nonetheless.

At these times, it's easy for me to sink into despair.  It's easy for me to slip into self-recriminations.  At times like these, it's important to remember that these fallow times are important.  I may not yet sense the seeds that have been planted, but they have been planted.

Bookgirl has written a great post where she considers the time between Easter and Ascension.  It's the time where Jesus has risen from the dead and reconnects with his followers.  It's a low-key time, in many ways:  "As I thought about the omission [of post-Easter, pre-Ascension stories], I realized how important these resurrection appearances are in my faith. Calling Mary by name in the garden, inviting Thomas to see his hands, offering breakfast on the shore and reinstating Peter, breaking bread with Cleopas and his companion after walking along the road to Emmaus, giving the great commission to the apostles, each of these is personal and specific. They are immediate and urgent and tender. They are all moments that resonate deeply with me, that help me process the rest of it, that guide me in knowing who Jesus is, that are a great part of the substance of my faith."

She uses the word tender.  I would like to be tender with my creative self.

My creative self is feeling a bit scared right now.  She's looking at financial documents and wondering why a bank would agree to loan us so much money so soon after the housing crash.  My creative self is worried that she'll have to work multiple jobs, even though my budgetary self has shown her that it can work out with the current income numbers.

My creative self is wondering if she'll ever write a poem again.  My creative self wants to get back to the memoir.  My creative self worries that the new house won't be as fruitful a space as old houses have been.

I need to cook my creative self a picnic breakfast on the beach.  Metaphorically, I'm saying that I need more poetry to read.  I need to reassure my creative self that after fallow times can come Pentecost times.

What better time than today? 

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


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

Today I think about those disciples who had been living in a post-Easter time unsure of what will come next.  They needed time to learn to live in a post-Resurrection time, time to find the signposts in the new world.  They needed time to trust the promises that had been revealed.

 I think of Pentecost, a day that shows that fallow times can burst into fertility very quickly.

I am ready for a Pentecost time when it comes to my creativity.  Heck, I'm ready for a Pentecost time in many areas.  I've been waiting patiently (I have been patient, haven't I?).  I'm ready for fruition!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Photos from the Hemingway House in Key West

My descriptions of Hemingway's house may have left you wishing for pictures.  Wish no more!

Here's Hemingway's writing studio, from the outside:





Here's his writing table with typewriter:



The tropical view as I imagine it would be from the window (I took the shot from the platform where you stand at the top of the stairs to see inside Hemingway's studio):


The porch outside the bedroom:


The front of the house, complete with tourists (none of them me or my family):





We don't see many signs that designate National Historic Landmarks down here in South Florida.  So much has been bulldozed to make room for development.

I'm happy that we live in a country that sees the house of a writer as a site worthy of preservation.  We may not support living artists and writers in ways that I'd like, but I like being able to visit these sites.  I come away feeling inspired in all sorts of ways.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Haunted by Hemingway and His House

Longtime readers of this blog know that Hemingway is not one of my favorite writers, although in this post, I acknowledge the ways in which he changed writing.

On Sunday, we went to the Hemingway house in Key West.  I had been once before, and I remember hearing a lot about life in Key West when Hemingway lived there and hearing a lot about the furniture, but not as much about Hemingway's writing life when he lived in the house.

On Sunday, we heard more about Hemingway the writer.  He lived in the house with his second wife.  I thought of poor Hadley, the first wife, who didn't get much mention on Sunday.  I've written about her in this post after reading The Paris Wife.  Hemingway left her for Pauline, the wife whose fortune made it possible for Hemingway to live in a beautiful Key West location.

While he lived with Pauline, he enjoyed the most prolific writing time of his life.  He had a daily schedule.  He got up and went over to his writing studio which was like a room on top of a detached garage.  He wrote for 3-5 hours a day, and then he went fishing and drinking and amusing himself in all sorts of ways.

His life with Pauline was tempestuous, as she liked to spend money, and he didn't always like what she bought.  As World War II approached, he began an affair with a female journalist he met in a bar.  Because they worked in the same field, and they were competitive, the marriage was rocky and lasted 3 years.

He would have one more marriage and live in Havana.  As he and his wife fled the Castro regime, they left behind art and manuscripts.  I thought of the story in The Paris Wife, about Hadley losing the suitcase that had all of Hemingway's Paris manuscripts.

Our Hemingway house guide claimed that Hemingway would never write as much and as easily as he wrote in Key West, and I suspect that's true.  He was still early in his writing life then, still working to prove himself as a writer of fiction, while getting some acclaim.  As the years went on, he had more obligations and more pressure, even as he had more money.  He also had more health issues, both from the drinking, and the depressions, and the fact that he'd had 9 concussions in his early decades, and I suspect that his brain was suffering from those scars too.

Why does this story haunt me so much?  After all, I think one of the lessons of this time of Hemingway's life is that developing a routine that supports the creative work and sticking to it is perhaps one of the most important things we can do as creative types.  And Hemingway's time in Key West gives weight to this theory.  I've always practiced what I'm preaching in this area, so it's not the issue of developing a routine that nags at me.

I'm struck by the people who supported his writing--but he seems to have been surrounded by those all of his life.  I'm fortunate there too.

I'm also haunted by the house itself.  Was there something about that house that made it possible to write the way that he did?

I know that it's the house that tugs at me most because we've been house hunting.  I worry about what we're setting into motion, what we might gain and what we might lose.  But I've managed to write steadily in every house and apartment I've ever had.  I often look back on situations that seemed shabby at the time and think about how much I miss the tree that was right outside the window or how cozy the space that seemed too small really was.

Maybe I'm also haunted by that house because Hemingway's writing studio would be so perfect for me--well, if we could get it retrofitted with AC it would be.  I'd write, then swim some laps in the pool, then write again, and then spend the afternoon on my sailboat--because if I could afford that house, I could afford a sailboat!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

And Then We Came to the End--Or Do We?

I've written before about the world of work as depicted on television.  In this post, I said, "I'm struck by how the shows of my childhood and adolescence show people working in real jobs, jobs that I might grow up to have. Shows these days on network T.V. show people competing to get the kind of jobs most of us will never have (chef at a celebrity restaurant, pop singer, pursuer of supernatural creatures). Even the police procedurals, the CSI shows and the Law and Order shows, depict the kind of law enforcement that is not the ordinary realm of regular police folks."

In many ways, The Office is also one of those shows, and it comes to an end tonight.  The TV critic at The Washington Post, Hank Stuever, has written a great appreciation of the show, even of its last 2 years, when it seemed to go astray:

"My own contrarian streak runs so deep that I might be the only TV critic on the planet who put the first post-Carell season (when James Spader’s Robert California character briefly helmed Dunder Mifflin) on my top 10 list of 2011.


So sue me. The overall narrative epic of the lives of the Scranton branch employees began to drift, and yet I always believed that the show’s writers should have done exactly this, concentrating on the tale of a rudderless ship. That felt precisely like what happens in an office when one idiosyncratic boss leaves and is replaced by a steadily declining parade of micromanaging weirdos. That felt more real."

He concludes this way: 

"My last impression of “The Office” was the miracle suggested all along by its basic plot: that there was a paper company that hadn’t been subsumed by Staples or OfficeMax, and that it had a branch office in which the white-collar division worked alongside the blue-collar warehouse. That the Oscars and the Kevins and the Phyllises and the Merediths and the Creeds — played by a superb comedy troupe that formed the real backbone of the show — all had full-time work in this mythical paper supplier as employees rather than contractors; that they came in at 9 and left at 5, collecting a salary and benefits; that they were never downsized, right-sized or otherwise laid off; and that they toiled in relative peace for nine years and counting.


It’s the sort of American Dream job — and job security — many people stopped believing in eons ago. That’s why we loved “The Office” and hated the office. It was meant to look real, but it was pure escapism all along."

I came late to this show, but I'll miss it.  I want scripted TV, not reality shows with foul-mouthed contestants who have to be bleeped.  I wouldn't spend an hour of my non-TV life with those reality show people, so why should I watch these shows?  The world of scripted TV gets smaller and smaller, especially for those of us who don't want to pay for cable.

I used to say that I couldn't watch The Office because it reminded me too much of life at the office, which I was living, so why would I want to watch it on TV?  But then, somehow, my view changed, and I found it a comfort.

Last night, I spent an hour on the phone with an old friend; we tried to interpret the actions of her department chair.  Is the department chair tormenting my friend with her plans for teaching improvement and such?  Or is the chair just one of those First Year English true believers?  Is my friend's job in trouble?

For the life of me, I had trouble coming up with a word that described the actions I wanted my friend to avoid.  Of course, 10 minutes after I hung up the phone, I came up with it.  I wrote this e-mail:

"Insubordination--that's the word that wouldn't come to me.


Just don't do anything that could be construed as being insubordinate, and you'll be fine. Administrators hate insubordination. Ineptness? Not as bad, and in fact, possibly endearing. Trying hard and not quite getting there? Definitely sweet.

But undercutting and undermining--no, nothing that could be painted as insubordinate.

If I had world enough and time, I'd write a book in this vein. But since I don't . . . just remember, this too shall pass, and some day, we'll look back on it and smile at the things we thought were critical. We'll say, 'Man, back then, I could climb stairs, I never lost control of my bladder, and I had all my teeth--why was I complaining again?'"

My friend periodically consults me, as someone who has gone over to the management side, to help her see from the point of view of the boss and how she should respond.  Could I develop those ideas into a book?

I've written before, in this blog post, about my idea of writing a management book that's partly serious, partly comedic, and most of all, just a recombining of what's come before.  This morning, it occurs to me that I could write the same book from the other side of the management desk.  I've been a boss and I've been an underling.  I could write the same book, just change the perspective!

We're all just looking for our cheese, after all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Radicals of the Nuclear and Nun Variety

Two weeks ago, as I was driving home from work, I heard a story about 3 people who broke into an Oak Ridge facility that deals with depleted uranium.  It was surprisingly easy--but it shouldn't have been, since the facility was supposed to be one of the most secure in the country.

When I heard the story on the radio, it focused on the 82 year old nun, who, if convicted, is likely to die in prison.  It may not surprise you to find out that she's completely at peace with that possibility.

I thought about the radicals I used to know, and I wondered what makes some of us follow paths that might be called terrorism, while some of us go into academia, while others settle into suburban lives of contentment or quiet desperation or both.

I didn't think about the other people in the story until I read this article in The Washington Post.  Part of the piece focuses on the security guard who has had his life upended.  He should have shot first and asked questions later.  But because he has a long history at nuclear sites and he understands the approach of these kind of protesters, he determined that they weren't dangerous.

He's the only one who has faced such the severe penalty of job loss.  His superiors have been disciplined.  I suspect that various authorities were mortified by how easy it was for a group of 3 ordinary people to break into the facility, and they needed scapegoats.

When I was in undergraduate school in the 1980's, I met more radicals than I do now.  I knew people who would have been willing to do anything--anything--to stop the nuclear-industrial complex.  I wonder what's become of them.  Are they still protesting nuclear weapons?  Have they moved on to something else?

I used to feel the future of the world hung in the balance and was held captive by these weapons and policies.  Now I'm far more worried about global warming and sea level rise.  It's hard for me to imagine the kinds of protest I might once have thought about but been too cowardly to carry out.  What object shall we splash blood (fake blood, of course) upon? 

Once I didn't use the AC during the summer--I didn't want to contribute to global warming.  I was young and principled once.  Now I am older, and I use the AC.  I give money to groups who work in peaceful, non-confrontational ways to bring about a more just world.  I write letters.  I do some networking.

I know that I could do more, and when I hear about nuns breaking into nuclear facilities, I immediately feel inadequate.  It's good to remember that there are other ways to work for justice. 

The group of radicals didn't succeed in their goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.   It's not even clear that they built much sympathy for their cause.  And my brain can't move far away from that poor security guard who spared them but then sacrificed so much.

Still, as I move into comfortable middle age, it's also good to be reminded that I could be doing more, even if I don't want to turn off the AC.  I don't have to turn off the AC, but I can take other steps towards a more peaceful future.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Courage, Daunted and Undaunted

On this day in 1804, Lewis and Clark began their voyage west.  In 1998, when we first moved down here, our local PBS station was running the Ken Burns' documentary, Undaunted Courage, based on the book by Stephen Ambrose.  I was hooked.

Longtime readers of this blog will point out that I was just the viewer PBS probably had in mind, what with my love of Laura Ingalls Wilder and my love of stories of people stranded in various landscapes who must make their way out.

I remember being fascinated by all the upsets they faced along the way, and I remember reflecting that we never learned these details in school.  In my elementary school history lessons, the explorers leave, they have success, they return.  I don't remember spending any time on explorers at all in high school.  We zipped from one war to the next to the next.

This morning, I was fascinated again by the false starts that happened before the final trip.  The Writer's Almanac post for today explains:  "Jefferson wanted to send Ledyard to explore out West, and they worked out an intricate plan for him to get to the West Coast via Russia. But the trip was a disaster — Ledyard walked 1,200 miles through Scandinavia and the Artic Circle, and managed to travel through most of Russia before an angry Catherine the Great had him captured and deported, so he took off for Africa, where he soon died."

Jefferson with an unsuccessful plan?  Another item we never learned in history classes.  But he continued to plot and plan for the next time:  it's a lesson for us all.

And how interesting that we call Ledyard's trip a disaster, when he walked 1200 miles!

Finally, Jefferson would find success with Lewis and Clark.  Consider the supplies that they took:  "They had a long supply list, which included 25 hatchets, 10.5 pounds of fishing hooks and fishing lines, 12 pounds of soap, three bushels of salt, 45 flannel shirts, 15 pairs of wool overalls, 176 pounds of gunpowder, 130 rolls of tobacco and 4,600 sewing needles (the tobacco and needles were gifts for Native people they would encounter), a microscope, a telescope, two sextants, 15 .54-caliber rifles, and 50 dozen Dr. Rush's patented 'Rush's Thunderclapper' pills — a laxative whose two main ingredients were mercury and jalapeƱos. They fit all this and much more into three boats: one was a 55-foot Keelboat, a riverboat that could be sailed, rowed, or poled; and two were pirogues, smaller flat-bottomed boats that were similar to big canoes, one painted red and one white."

I feel like there's a poem lurking in that list.  Or maybe I want to think about my own habit of overpacking.  I noticed that when we packed for our day trip to Key West, which might have turned into an overnight trip, we looked like we were moving in for a season.

Still, even with all those supplies, they likely would have perished without the crucial help that they received along the way from Native Americans.  It is not lost on me that the help they gave led to their ultimate decimation of their tribes.

I remember the episode of Undaunted Courage that talked about the return of the expedition.  Jefferson had assumed that they had died.

This morning, I am also thinking about Dr. Joyce Brothers, who died yesterday.  Her column was one of my favorite aspects of my mother's Good Housekeeping magazine.  I don't much of a memory of her as a TV presence; we weren't allowed to watch much TV during my childhood in the 1970's.  But I loved her columns, which dealt with people's problems with a kindness and a very no-nonsense manner, like Dr. Phil, but with less yelling.

Did I see her as a feminist pioneer?  Was she one of women who convinced me that I could do anything?  I don't remember her that way, but study after study has shown the importance of seeing people who look like oneself in the careers that one is considering.

This morning, as I was considering the poems I've written that have been inspired by Lewis and Clark, I came across this one, written at least 10 years ago, part of my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.  It combines history and psychology in interesting ways.



Daunted Courage


Again, I sail into this landlocked sea,
a pool of despair ringed by mountains
of misery. I search for Northwest Passage,
a quicker way to chart my path
through this depressing landscape.

Lewis and Clark forged their way across
a continent. Why can’t I do the same?
Where are my native guides? Why do they hide
in the landscape, an ominous screen of hooded eyes?
Why can’t I lift my hand in a friendly
gesture, simply ask for help?

I am no fearless explorer of my emotional
terrain. Instead, a runaway slave, I feel my way
through unfamiliar territory with no map
and only a rough understanding of the language.
I keep an eye on the North Star
and inch forward under cover of darkness.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mother's Day in Key West

Yesterday, we got up very early, loaded up the car, and drove down to Key West, 4 hours away.  My brother-in-law really wanted to see Key West.  We took overnight bags, in case we were having so much fun that we wanted to stay.  But it was 3:30 yesterday afternoon, and it was clear that no one had a burning desire to do anything else.  So we came back.

It's not as bad as it sounds.  Even though much of the trip is on a 2 lane highway, it's a gorgeous trip.  They call it the Overseas Highway, after all.  The scenery is so different that my eyes and brain rejoice the whole way down.

I was more aware of the fact that it was Mother's Day in the days leading up to Mother's Day than yesterday.  Of course, we were eating at off times, so maybe I'd have been more aware if we had tried to get a table at noon.

On Friday, I went to lunch with 4 other colleague friends from work.  The server wished us a Happy Mother's Day week-end, and we looked at the only woman with children.  What are the odds of that?

When I was picking up a prescription from CVS, the young female pharmacist asked me, "Do you have children yet?"  My brain went to that word "yet."  I turn 48 this summer.  Children made from an egg of mine are not in my future.  Still, I was thrilled that I looked young enough that she would ask the question.

But back to our Key West trip.  Here are some impressions from our trip.  In the coming week, I may post pictures--and I'll definitely say more about Ernest Hemingway.

--I'm sipping Baby's Coffee.  Baby's Coffee used to be the southernmost coffee roaster.  Now the building is for sale--not the business, the building.  The coffee roasting business was shipped to Louisiana years ago.

--There's lots of property for sale throughout the Keys.  What does it mean?  That the market is finally creeping back up enough that people can envision making a sale?  That people are worried about sea level rise and want to get out now? 

--And it's a wide variety of property:  buildings that need repair, as well as new construction, as well as any kind of house you might want.

--As we walked to Hemingway's house, I spotted an old church.  I could see through the windows that it wasn't being used as a church.  We walked along the side of it.  When we got to the front, I saw the For Sale sign.

--I didn't take down the information.  I'm pretty sure I can't afford an old church in Key West, and it's a long commute from my current job.  We did have fun imagining the kind of businesses we could run from the church:  Monastery Brewery and Bakery was my favorite.

--As you drive across bridges and look at the land, you can envision that the Keys won't be with us long when the planet gets serious about sea level rise. 

--The Hemingway House is at a high point in the Keys:  17 feet about sea level.  Could the guide have been right about that?  I expected him to say 7 inches.

--I would happily move right into the Hemingway house.  What a gorgeous place.

--My spouse has read a lot about Henry Flagler and the railroad, ever since someone gave him Les Standiford's book, Last Train to Paradise for Christmas one year.  It's fun to ride to the Keys with him and get a history lesson. 

--My spouse has the kind of brain that retains the information in the very few books he reads.  I read a lot and retain almost nothing specific.

--My brain and eyes rejoice on the way down.  They rejoice part of the way back.  But by the time we're at the Turnpike, I am so ready for the trip to be done.  But it's still an hour to the house.

--At the end of the day, it's good to collapse in my own bed, dreaming of an old church in Key West.  A retreat center in the heart of Key West--would people pay for a bit of respite in their partying vacations?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Out of Focus Saturday

I am feeling a bit out of focus this morning, which means I'm not feeling as run over as I would be if I said I was frazzled, but I'm also not refreshed the way I sometimes am on a Saturday morning.

I've been fighting off a minor cold.  I don't usually get sick twice in one year, but I'm trying not to read too much into this baby cold.  Lots of sinus stuff, which is only slightly unpleasant and controlled by nasal spray.  But then I go to bed and wake up hours later unable to breathe.  Again, easily fixed, but disruptive.

It's better than the cold I had in March, which is the first cold I had which couldn't be controlled with over the counter meds.  But still two colds over the course of several months--it's strange.

I've also been hard at work on an online curriculum project.  It's been interesting, but more work than I anticipated.  I'll get paid, but more than that, should everything fall apart in my current job, I've got something new to add to my CV.

Still, when I look back at my submission notebook, it's clear what projects have been put on the back burner to get this project done.

Since my poems pay in contributor copies and this curriculum project pays in dollars, it's worth it.  But still, I want to write it down, so that I remember in future years when I'm beating myself up for poems which haven't appeared.

As I've created the curriculum, I've become fond of the course.  I'd like to teach it.  It's unclear whether or not I'm qualified, despite creating the curriculum, because it's a Humanities class, and my credentials are all in English.  We'll see.

Again, I'd like to teach it not only because I want to see how the curriculum ends up working, but also because it's an online course, and I've never done it before.

As with much of my professional life, it's unclear to me what I should be doing to prepare myself for future job searches, should they become necessary.  Will anyone care whether or not I've taught online?  Will job search committees be impressed with my paid blogging at Living Lutheran or will they wrinkle their noses?  The few papers I've been presenting at conferences, will they matter?

Or should I be getting a different degree?  Where will we all go, when the higher ed bubble pops?

So far, my professional life has worked out, although I'm sure some of my graduate professors would be shaking their heads over the zig-zaggy ways I've trod.  So I'll carry on, doing projects here and there which interest me, working hard in my primary job, and I'll see how it all turns out.

Today my brother-in-law and his wife arrive.  I've said it before:  I love it when we have houseguests, because we get out there and remember all the reasons that we love living here.  Still, that's another reason for my lack of focus.  I'm wondering if I should have done a bit more housecleaning or shopping.  Are we ready?

If not, we'll go to the grocery store!

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Great Book for Mother's Day--or Any Day

I am late to make this Mother's Day gift suggestion, but I suspect many people out there will wake up today and say, "I completely forgot that Mother's Day is on Sunday.  What should I get?"

Why not get your mother a book of poems for Mother's Day?  Rachel Barenblat's latest collection, Waiting to Unfold, was written during her first year of motherhood, and the book is wonderful.  You can go here to order it in several ways; I recommend ordering directly from the publisher, Phoenicia Publishing, so that more of the proceeds stays with the small publisher and author.  While you're at it, order a copy for yourself.

You may be saying, "But it won't get here in time for Mother's Day."  That's OK.  Revert back to your childhood and make a certificate; that way she'll know that her present is on its way.  My mom is the kind of person who loves stretching out holidays; she'll often save a Christmas present to open Christmas night.  She'd love having a gift certificate that lets her know that a book is coming and then she'd love the anticipation and then she'd love the eventual book.

I'm not a mother, but I know a lot of mothers, and I imagine that this book reminds them of both the joys and the terrors of that first year of motherhood.  But even if we haven't experienced those emotions first hand, the book can speak to us too.

I enjoyed it immensely, probably because it was honest in its exploration of that first year.  Too many chronicles of the first year seem determined to refuse to admit that it's anything but glorious.  Barenblat's poems are rooted in the every day, which includes the not-so-glorious, like a child who doesn't want to sleep, a child who explores the world in a terrifying, head-on, exhilarating way.

It's Barenblat's care given to the depiction of the every day that keeps the poems working so well:  the walk with the stroller that ends in Whole Foods ("Mother Psalm 8"), the box of castaway clothes that are too big and will soon be too small ("Hand-Me-Downs") and the first Thanksgiving, with its memories of other Thanksgivings ("Thanksgiving").

I'm also impressed with Barenblat's abilities as a poet.  She offers poems written in form, like "Newborn Sestina."  Most poems are written in stanzas of the same number of lines, but there is a prose poem here and there.  A series of "Mother Psalms" winds its way throughout the book.

Rachel Barenblat is a Jewish rabbi, so her poems are rooted in her religious practice and religious texts.  But don't let that worry you.  There are plenty of poems that will appeal, even if the reader can't stand any whiff of spirituality.

I found the spiritual undergirding to be one of the best parts of the book, but I am wired that way.  I loved the references to the Biblical Psalms, like this one:  "Your tired tears may endure for the night / But breakfast comes in the morning" ("Mother Psalm 7") which references Psalm 30 ("weeping may stay the night, but joy comes in the morning").  I loved the references to Jewish practices, and even though they're unfamiliar to me, I didn't find the reference to them to be a stumbling block.

Some books about motherhood make me wince and say, "Well, I'm glad I decided not to follow that path."  Some make me second guess my choices.  Barenblat's book gives me a window into that first year in a way that doesn't feel manipulative at all.  But I don't read it dispassionately. 

Barenblat's Velveteen Rabbi blog is one of my favorites, so I don't come to Waiting to Unfold as a person completely unfamiliar with the poet or her baby.  But even if I was completely unfamiliar with Barenblat, I'd still feel like I was reading the poems of a real person, with all the joys and sorrows contained.  I like this book because it doesn't idealize motherhood, the way our culture is inclined to do.  However, it's also not too mired in the messiness of it all.  It's a nice balance of poems.

It's a collection that makes me return to my own life with a sense of wonder.  After all, we've all been children, and most of us have been around children.  I love poems like "Taste," poems that remind us of all the delights in store as we move from thin gruel to other, richer treats.  The book is full of reminders of how much each day has to offer, if we can just slow down to savor them.

So order this book--order several copies.  You probably know multiple people who would enjoy a book like this one.  After all, a poem could be a daily treat--and these poems, which remind us of all the other delights of dailiness, have much to offer.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Earthly Fears on the Feast Day of the Ascension

Last week I wrote this post about moves of all sorts, including one that we're in the process of making, to another house in a better neighborhood in our same town:  "When we first moved down here, I was enchanted by the historic neighborhoods, but it was fairly clear we couldn't afford one of those houses. Now, because of the housing collapse and because it's fifteen years later and we have more resources, we can. A commitment to place can make some dreams come true."

That paragraph makes me sound so calm, so determined, so unafraid.  Truth be told, I vacillate.  I'm terrified of the debt load.  But then I look at the listings of some of the houses that we've seen, and I'm terrified we'll miss this chance.  I drive through the neighborhood where we hope to migrate, and I fall in love again, and I'm excited, and I can hardly wait.

When I was younger, if you had told me that I'd be afraid of moving, I'd have laughed at you.  Why, my family moved every several years, and my spouse and I moved every other year, if not every year, in the first years of our marriage.  I could box up my belongings in one afternoon in a minimum number of boxes.

Now I have considerably more belongings.

I remember when we moved to this house, I felt afraid of the mortgage we were taking on.  I had a friend who said, "The bank wouldn't loan you this amount of money if they didn't think you could handle it."

That was back in 1998.  In between then and now, we've missed the incredibly lax years, when banks didn't even require documentation of jobs or income.  Now we're back to needing lots of documentation.

When I'm not running numbers, I'm thinking of other risks.  I was trying to get to FEMA flood maps the other day, but I went to a different website with maps that show which property will be underwater given sea level rise that is expected with global warming.

I called my sister and said, "If you're looking at a property that has a 1 in 6 chance of being underwater given 1 foot of sea level rise from global warming, and there's a 20-50% chance of this happening as the years go from 20 years to 50 years, would you take the risk?"

She helped me untangle the statement and finally said, "1 in 6?  I'd take those odds.  After all, you can't be sure there will be sea level rise.  I'd be more worried about hurricanes."

Indeed.  I've had some friends ask why we'd move closer to the beach.  But I do remember some hurricanes when people in the western part of the county fared worse than those of us to the east.  So much depends on wind speed and quadrants and rain amounts and rain in the weeks before that makes the earth so soggy that trees fall over.  I'll pay the exorbitant insurance costs and hope for the best.

I think back to my fears when I was much younger.  I was worried about nuclear war and being separated from those whom I love in the aftermath.  Long before terrorists made us all aware that we needed an emergency plan, I'd tell my boyfriend (who then became my husband) that in the event of a nuclear war, we'd make our way back to campus and figure out what to do from there, how to make our way in an apocalyptic landscape.

I can't decide if I think that's unbearably sweet or incredibly naive or if, knowing what we know about the state of the world's nuclear powers, I was simply being prepared.

In fact, I thought about hanging on to my '74 Monte Carlo because it had an ignition that could survive a nuclear blast--it wouldn't be wiped out with an electromagnetic pulse that would come with a nuclear detonation.  My spouse pointed out that we'd soon be unable to get gas for the car, so it probably wasn't worth holding on to.

I have carted many an increasingly useless object across the country from move to move, but happily, I've been able to let go of some of the bigger items, like cars.  I had trouble getting rid of our '67 VW Bug too, but I forced myself.

I'm the kind of person who keeps multiple calendars in my head, and I'm aware that today is the Feast of the Ascension, the day that celebrates Jesus being taken up into Heaven.  If you were hoping for a poem for the day, or for a serious meditation, see this post on my theology blog.  I'm aware that my fears are quite earthly, and that I've been waiting for decades to evolve into the fearless woman that I catch glimpses of occasionally.

Of course, I hope to have several decades left on this earth yet.  Maybe by the time I'm 80, I'll have become the brave woman I know I can be.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Anchoress and Lessons for the Modern Office Worker

May 8 is the feast day of Julian of Norwich in the Anglican and the Lutheran church; in the Catholic church, it's May 13.


Ah, Julian of Norwich! What an amazing woman she was. She was a 14th century anchoress, a woman who lived in a small cell attached to a cathedral, in almost complete isolation, spending her time in contemplation. She had a series of visions, which she wrote down, and spent her life elaborating upon. She is likely the first woman to write a book-length work in English.

And what a book it is, what visions she had. She wrote about Christ as a mother--what a bold move! After all, Christ is the only one of the Trinity with a definite gender. She also stressed God is both mother and father. Her visions showed her that God is love and compassion, an important message during the time of the Black Death.

She is probably most famous for this quote, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," which she claimed that God said to her. It certainly sounds like the God that I know too.

Although she was a medival mystic, her work seems fresh and current, even these many centuries later. How many writers can make such a claim?

I find myself thinking of her more and more frequently these days. In my 20’s, I saw her as bizarre and strange. Who would willingly shut herself away in a small cell?

Now I find the idea attractive: a small room in complete stillness with meals slid through a slot in the door, very little in the way of human interaction. My yearning probably speaks to the chaotic nature of life in my own cell.

My office is likely not much bigger than Julian’s cell, but it’s much more chaotic, people coming and going with a wide variety of problems, humans reacting to stress in a variety of agonizing ways. My office is certainly not connected to a cathedral, which would lend a sense of peace, especially these days when cathedrals aren’t community centers, the way they would have been in medieval times.

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

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

I think of Julian of Norwich’s most famous quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Would Julian of Norwich be pleased that so many of us derive comfort by repeating those words? Or would she shake her head and be annoyed that we have missed what she considered to be the most important ideas?

I remind myself that she would have such a different outlook than I do. She was a medieval woman who served God; she likely would not even view her ideas as her own, but as visitations from the Divine. If I could adopt more of that kind of attitude, it could serve me well on some of my more stressful days at work when divesting situations of my ego could be the most helpful thing that I could do.

And maybe I could do that by adopting more of the habits of the anchoress in my own modern cell. I can’t keep people from coming to my office, but when I don’t have people there, I could pray. Even when I do have people in my office, I could pray.

I don’t have cathedral bells nearby, but I could use the tools of the modern office to remind me to pray. I could use my calendar dings to remind me. I could even insert reminders into my electronic calendars to call me back to prayer and my better self.