Saturday, March 29, 2014

Nephew and Sister Time

On Thursday, my sister and nephew took an evening flight and arrived for a long week-end with us.  They live in the D.C. area, which has had one of the harder winters in modern memory, so they are ready for some Florida sunshine.

Yesterday, we set about to getting them just that experience.  We began the morning by the pool.  My spouse made my nephew's favorite breakfast--bacon!  He made bacon and eggs on the grill.  My sister and I drank coffee and waited for the sun to rise higher in the sky.  My nephew tried to decide when he could brave the pool.

The pool is still chilly, but he's swum in colder waters in the middle of summer.  Eventually, we all got in the pool.

In the afternoon, we walked to the beach to have pizza at the organic brewery.  We played a bit on the beach and in the surf, but it wasn't a good ocean day, with rougher surf, risk of rip currents, and the purple flags flying that means stinging creatures have been sighted.

We came back home and played Skip-Bo, a card game from the folks who created Uno; I like Skip-Bo better.  Then it was back to the pool.

We will likely have a similar day today.   Ahhhhhhhhh.  My spirit has needed this kind of time so desperately. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Poem Inspirations

This morning, I woke up with a poem in my head, a poem with such strong images that I went straight to my purple legal pad to write it down:  no coffee, no trip to the bathroom, no I went straight to the paper and pen.

Last night, I went to bed thinking that I'd write another poem inspired by Luisa Igloria's Buddha series that she's posting on Dave Bonta's blog; I particularly love what she weaves together in this one of the Buddha in high heels.  Last night I read poems the latest books by Kelli Russell Agodon and Susan Rich.  Something inspired this line:  "In the end, so little is left behind."  My grandmother's button tin floated through my brain and then submerged itself.

I went to bed thinking that I'd record what I'd written in a card to my gravely ill friend:

"When we are little old ladies rocking on the porch, we'll shake our heads at your ordeal in 2014.  Then I'll shuffle off to bake a peach cobbler while C_____ cleans up from planting hydrangea bushes.  We'll mourn the great house I once had, the house swallowed by the sea.  But we'll be grateful, because there are fresh peaches and thrilling shades of blue and purple flowers."

I thought I might turn that into a poem.  Instead, I woke up with a different set of images:  a huge tin of buttons and a bracelet of bright hair about the bone (that last one from John Donne's poem, "The Relic," which you can read here).  I woke up with the image of a woman sewing a different button onto every garment in her closet.  My grandmother cut the buttons off of every garment, once she'd patched and mended the garment and done everything to save it; she kept those buttons in a big tin and bristled when her grandchildren wanted to play with them.

The poem I wrote this morning does have hydrangea bushes. It has dark, rich soil, instead of ash and bone.  My grandmother kept her kitchen scraps in a gallon milk jug (with the top sawed off into a wider opening); when the milk jug was full, she'd dig them into a narrow strip of soil by the detached garage in the back yard.  How I wish I had some of that soil now.

But I have sand, evidence of the once and future sea bed.

Yesterday, I wrote this post where I said  "If I could make a bargain whereby I never wrote another poem good or bad again but in return my loved ones would live to a healthy old age?  I would give up my own poems."

This morning, I awake with a mostly formed poem spilling out of my brain.  I'm trying not to read too much into that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bargains, Faustian and Otherwise

My friend has to choose between chemo that will leave her with tingling in her hands and the loss of hair or chemo that will leave her with mouth sores.

I'm reminded of those ghoulish games we played as kids.  We'd ask each other impossible questions.  If you had to be deaf or blind, which would you choose?  If you had to have your mom or your dad die, which would you choose?

It also reminds me of the first stories I heard of rebels in the Sudan, back in the late 90's, who would let their victims choose long sleeves or short and chop arms off accordingly.  I never cease to be horrified at all the ways we can be inhumane to each other.

I am also horrified at the ways disease can ravage us--and by the ways that the cures for those diseases can leave us with a whole different set of problems.

I think of characters throughout literary history who have been presented with certain choices:  eternal life or knowledge of good and evil?  Ultimate power for one's mortal soul?  An aging portrait which insures a gorgeous exterior but a rotting interior?  Ah, the Faustian bargain.

What would you give to save what you love?  I don't often frame plot conflicts in those terms, but it occurs to me that I can boil down much literature to that very question.

If I could make a bargain whereby I never wrote another poem good or bad again but in return my loved ones would live to a healthy old age?  I would give up my own poems.

My inner critic sneers at me--as if my poems are worth all those human lives!  But crafting a poem brings me the kind of joy that few other activities do.  It makes me see the world differently, if only for a moment.  It makes me happy about my brain.  It gives me a way to access my past, so that I'm not dwelling or moping, but creating something new.

But I would give it all up to save a friend.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Annunciation for Writers and Other Creatives

Today is the feast day of the Annunciation.  What is that holiday?  Simply put, it celebrates the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, who would become famous as the mother of Jesus.  He gives her the vision that God has for her; she agrees.

For a theological reflection on this day, see this post on my theology blog.  For a wonderful meditation on this day and artistic response, see Beth's post from several years ago; I was taken with the wings of the angels.

When I was younger, I saw Mary as a passive vessel, and in my early feminist days, I interpreted this story through a lens of rape.  As an older believer, I see the story differently.  Mary had a choice.  She could have said no.  I've pondered a poem that has the voices of all the women that Gabriel approached before he got to Mary.

I also think this story has some relevance for us as creators.  Most of us will get all sorts of opportunities.  We have to wrestle with how to answer the call. 

Maybe we have to be quiet enough so that we can hear that call.  I have a vision of the angel Gabriel having trouble catching up with modern folks so that he can give God's message.  Many of us lead frazzled lives full of noise and distraction.  How can we ever hope to hear our opportunities calling to us?

I'm an older woman who has had visions for her creative work that haven't come to fruition yet.  No blockbuster novel that's been made into a hit movie--no, that hasn't happened yet.  I struggle to find time to create while also having time with friends and loved ones while also taking care of my day job responsibilities.

The waiting aspect of the annunciation story gives me the most hope.  God has a vision for the redemption of the world.  But that vision requires lots of waiting.  There's the waiting through the 9 months of pregnancy and then the waiting that it takes to bring a child to adulthood.

Throughout this time, it may look like nothing is happening.  But much is bubbling, sometimes far beneath the surface, sometimes more obviously.

It gives me hope, this idea that my creative life is on a trajectory that will make sense eventually.  I may not feel like I'm making progress, but as long as I show up on a regular basis to attend to my creative life, I am making progress.

So, on this feast day of the Annunciation, let us pause a minute to think about our creative lives and what calls to us.  How can we best answer that call?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Surreal Week-end

This has been one of the more surreal week-ends that I've had in quite some time.  I often find airline travel to prompt that feeling of being out of time and place, especially when I'm travelling to a different season or when I'm seeing parts of the country where I haven't been lately.

On Saturday I flew to Raleigh, N.C. to see my dear friend who has stage IV cancer.

On the way out, there was a crowded airport on one side of the trip with the security line almost back to the parking garage:  spring breakers and cruise ship folks really filled the airport.   Luckily they pulled people out of the security line as flight times approached. 

On the other side, a 6 hour flight delay, but a nice airport in which to be stuck and a travel voucher for later trips.  I had good books.  I reread Carol Anshaw's Carry the One, which was every bit as good as the first time I read it (see this post for my thoughts then). 

The Raleigh airport has a wing being built, but we had access to the old wing which isn't being used.  There were some stray benches, wide open spaces, and less-busy bathrooms.  Little kids played all sorts of games that involved running through the open spaces.  Parents walked sleeping children in strollers.  A father and son occasionally tossed the football back and forth.

It felt a bit surreal, this ghost airport wing attached to the very bustling remaining airport wing.  I looked out on the flat, scrubby pine Carolina landscape and thought about how similar the vista was to other airports where I've been stuck.

There were moments where I wondered if maybe I was in some sort of purgatory.  I just kept reading and wishing I had brought some snacks with me.  Finally, our plane arrived, and we could depart.

Because of the delay, many passengers had gotten re-routed, so when we finally got on the plane, it wasn't full-to-bursting like it would have been.  I had no one else in my row--ahhhh.  I re-read Patti Smith's Just Kids and enjoyed it just as much as the first time.

I had a great visit with my friend, but we've always been the kind of friends who reconnect like we'd never been apart. 

We watched movies Sat. afternoon because the trip to the airport and the lunch at Chili's left my friend tired.  But we often spent our time watching movies together so it felt good.  Secretariat is a great movie, which I would not have likely watched.   We also watched Brave.

We had time for good conversation and remembering past times together.  We've been friends since 1982, so there was plenty to daydream about.  We talked about how much we hoped we'd get to be little old ladies together.  I offered my guest room for a tropical vacation whenever they come to a good travelling place in my friend's treatment.

The last time we were together was when my friend and her partner came to Key West for a vacation.  They loved the Key West atmosphere, and my house could give them some of that.  I hope we get to walk to the beach together.

I came away convinced that both my friend and her partner have a good local support system in place.  I'm relieved, because my friend's family is a bit more far-flung than most.

But it's surreal to think that I'm seeing a friend in this kind of struggle.  It had to happen some time, I suppose.  But I had these hopes that maybe we would all escape this mid-life battle with death and make it to old age together.

I remember the first time a friend got pregnant with a planned pregnancy, and I felt like I was walking through a new door, a new passage into a different part of adulthood.  Likewise, I feel like I'm walking through a new door. 

I don't like this door.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Week of Strange Good-byes

Some quick notes, since I will soon be on a plane to Raleigh to see my high school friend.  I am travelling with manuscripts for her.  I thought of buying her books to read during her chemo, and I will likely send some as she goes through the process.  But she's always liked my writing, so I got myself into gear and put together the linked story collection I've been working on for years.

There are likely still some continuity quirks to work out.  But I was pleased with it overall.

One of my biggest continuity quirks was that I had an elderly female dying in two different ways, and the story's point of view was from her adult daughter.  In one story, I was able easily to change the elderly female from the daughter's mother to mother-in-law.

I've enjoyed that feeling of sinking into characters and plots, of having my brain bubble along working on these issues and solving them while I go about my daily mundane tasks.

I'm also taking my latest poetry manuscript.  It's got a variety of poems, some of which deal with illness and death.  I hope it's not inappropriate to give it to her.  I'm glad that I'll be seeing her, that I can warn her, that I can explain how some of them came to be written.

It's been a strange week of good-byes.  Our registrar has turned in her resignation.  She's the kind of registrar who can do everything, who knows the ins and outs of our computer records system.  The modern workplace likes to declare that no one is indispensable--but it's tough to imagine who will fill her shoes.

I also said good-bye to one of our Psychology adjuncts.  I may see him again.  He may return in a year.  I wonder what all will have happened in the coming year?

I have books packed for the voyage.  I will read the latest Gail Godwin, Flora, and Carol Anshaw's Carry the One, which I read before and loved.  I will also take Patti Smith's Just Kids--I also loved this book when I read it a few years ago.

When I was at the library, I picked up Letty Cottin Pogrebin's How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick.  I gave it a quick scan and read the relevant bits last night.  I felt a profound gratitude for the generation of feminists right before me; I think of them as the Ms. magazine folks, writers who have covered all sorts of important topics.  I always seem to find their work just when I need it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Literacy for All Ages

My first reading pal transferred schools; his new school doesn't have the Reading Pals program.  So I've been working with a new-to-me first grader.  His grown-up reading pal couldn't complete her commitment.  I guess it's worked out, although I do miss my first reading pal.  He was making such improvement week to week.  I hope he can continue.  I realize that the improvement may have had nothing to do with my efforts.

I continue to be amazed at how the children continue to be enthusiastic about our weekly appointments.  Some books are more popular than others.  I'm also happy about the wide diversity of books, and how there does seem to be a book for every taste.

A few months ago, I was working with 2 children at once, when one grown-up was late.  They asked about my age.  I told them that forty years from now, maybe they'd be the one working with first graders and reading stories to them.  "You could be a reading pal some day," I said.

One of the children said, "Or maybe we could be cops!"

I love the different perspective that children have.  I have noticed that these children, like other children with whom I've worked, these children LOVE to color and draw.  I use the drawing time as a reward for reading. 

I try to work literacy into the drawing time too.  We draw flowers and I ask, "How do you spell flower?"  I hope that I'm helping first graders achieve better literacy, but I can't be sure.

Yesterday, my friend who is teaching early American literature talked about her reading/rediscovery of Frederick Douglass.  He figured out as a slave child that he needed to learn to read.  He worked on a plantation where there was plenty of food, so he'd take scraps of bread to the waterfront, and he'd trade bread for reading lessons from the children who were around the docks.  He practiced writing by using copybooks leftover from the plantation owner's sons.  He got so good that it's hard to tell the difference between their writings.

I thought about literacy, how valuable it is, how hard to teach it to students who would rather draw and color.  Along the way, I've been reminded of how strange the English language is--if you don't believe me, try explaining the word "neighbors" to a first grader.

At the end of the day, a colleague asked me if I'd heard of Flat Stanley.  I love that story!  He told me of a project that his nephew is doing, where they trace themselves and mail flat versions of themselves to relatives who will take photos of Flat children in different locations.  My colleague is having great fun planning Flat ___________'s Florida vacation.

I imagine that these kinds of projects make children more enthusiastic about literacy.  It makes me think of our college age students, a startling number of whom are still having problems with literacy.  How can we bring them up to speed?  How can we make literacy fun for them?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Trip to the Girls Club Gallery

Two weeks ago, I went with an Art Appreciation class to the Girls Club Gallery.  What a treat!

I love this space.  I love what they manage to do with this space.  It's small enough to have enough art on display, but not so big to be overwhelming.

Each year, they put together a show that stays on display for 9 months.  Often they invite a guest curator(s) to look through the works owned by the gallery owners and put something together.  It makes for an interesting approach.  Most shows include a variety of mediums.  Most shows consist of work predominantly, but not exclusively, by females.

This piece below began in a much higher place.  The balloons held the Care Bear aloft.  Through the weeks, they've lost helium and sunk:

Imagine all the things you could do with your old Barbie dolls!

 Interesting to ponder how recognizable a Barbie's eyes are!


This piece looks like it's made of lace, but it's really metal:

I wasn't sure you'd be able to see the white on white nature of this piece:

Here's a close up:

This artist (below) uses Polaroid film, the film that holds the chemicals against what will eventually become the photo.  What will she do when there's no more Polaroid film in the world?

I like the artist's use of photos and that allusion to those old types of photos and the cut outs of profiles:

I've written already about this piece in this blog post.  It continues to intrigue me:

This exhibition was the best kind:  it left me inspired and excited about art.  You can see it too; it's up until September 26.

Contact info:

Girls’ Club is located in downtown Fort Lauderdale in the 3rd Avenue Art District at 117 NE 2nd Street (between Andrews Ave. and 3rd Ave.) Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301; Regular hours: Wednesday – Friday, 1pm – 5pm; for an appointment call 954-828-9151 or email the gallery.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tuesday Tidbits: Writing of All Kinds

I've been having all kinds of writing fun this week and finding all sorts of inspiration--and it's only Tuesday!  Some highlights:

--I listened to Terry Gross interview Penelope Lively on NPR's Fresh Air's Monday show.  What a treat!  She has an interesting insight about her practice of keeping a journal: 

"I've kept a diary for, oh, goodness, about 30 years now. And it's really a working diary, and I sort of jot down what I've been doing, and also particularly, what I'd been thinking, in case this is going to help with something I might want to write later on, or in case I particularly have written when I've been traveling, in case at some point I'm going to set a story in Australia and I want some details about this.

But I find that whenever I go back to the diary to look for something specific and go to a specific time and place, what I read that I wrote down in the diary, I can't remember. I don't remember that. It's there in the diary, but I've got no memory of it, whereas, various other memories come swimming up, that have found their way into the diary. So, rather strangely, the diarist seems to have decided what was significant and put it down. But memory decides otherwise, and has preserved a whole different set of memories, and I'd love to know why that is - answers on a postcard, please."

--When asked if she'd want to be young again:  "I was asked by a magazine the other day to contribute a piece in which people had been asked to say what they thought the ideal age to be was. And I was interested: Quite a few people did say youth, but not very many, actually. And I opted for 55, the sort of tranquil shores of middle age, where all the stresses and strains of youth and aspirations are gone. You haven't yet got to the sort of rockier shores of old age."  As I am only 48, I like her answer!

--I wrote an unexpected poem this morning.  I read this poem by Luisa Igloria on Dave Bonta's blog:  in Igloria's poem, the Buddha looks for a therapist.  I was struck by these lines:

"What? You don’t think this is a plausible story? You think
the Buddha has no need to work out issues, or even that
he has any issues? This is partly the problem— all
the press he’s ever gotten has him just about perfected."

I sat with my purple legal pad, thinking I'd write a poem about Ash Wednesday and train journeys and mist on stones--but then came a poem about Jesus looking for a therapist!  I found myself incorporating the last words of Jesus on the cross--should I revise, I want to remember to do more with that.

--Tomorrow, perhaps I shall write a poem about Jesus going to yoga class.  Jesus in corpse pose--I can have fun with that!

--Yesterday I returned to my short stories.  I'm creating a manuscript to take to my high school friend with stage IV cancer.  I will take the stories that link most readily together and see how long the manuscript is right now.  It has occurred to me that I'm actually in the process of creating 2 or 3 collections of linked stories. 

--I was working on the story where one character tells his son he wants to go to Graceland, and a pilgrimage occurs.  I had forgotten many of the details of that story.  Yesterday, I found myself laughing out loud at parts and being thrilled at other parts.

--I can't remember how the following workplace scene came up, but we had a good time imagining the kind of musical we might create if we mixed Waiting for Godot and West Side Story to explore the modern workplace.  Hilarity ensued, along with some lame song writing.

--The workplace schedule for today and tomorrow includes lots and lots of meetings which I expect could provide much inspiration for such a musical, should I choose to explore these ideas further.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Celtic Christianity's Lessons for Creative Life

If you came here hoping for a more spiritual post for St. Patrick's Day, let me direct you to this post on my theology blog.

This holiday celebrates Saint Patrick, a man able to accomplish astonishingly great things, in circumstances where most of us would not have dared attempt them.  Celtic Christians headed off to awesomely tough lands and successfully built monasteries which turned into flourishing centers of education, art, and spirituality.

Last week was a tough week, with news of stage IV cancer that has afflicted my high school friend and the art show retrospective of a colleague with pancreatic cancer.  This week will be a tough week of endless meetings with people who are not sent to campus to praise us.

This, too, shall pass.  I should look to the life of St. Patrick, who suffered as a slave, but was able to overcome.  And my life as a 21st century administrator is a life of ease and comfort, compared to the Celtic slavery that Patrick endured.

In these weeks where I haven't been writing as much as I'd like, I find it easy to slip into self-loathing and despair.  I worry about the publication opportunities I haven't pursued.  I think about the fact that I don't have too many decades left to write the work that needs to be created.

In short, it's easy to feel like I'm wasting my precious life.

Here, too, the Celtic monks can bring me comfort.  I should think about St. Columba, who some might argue was a man of massive mistakes, but out of those miscalculations came a thriving outpost of Christianity in Scotland.

Many of us might felt like those Celtic monks, trying to till a stony ground.  We may feel like the publishing world has shifted into something we no longer recognize.  Those of us who are working in higher education may wonder if we're headed to a time where very few people will go to college.  Those of us still making mortgage payments on homes declining in value may feel like the rules have changed, and we don't know how to play the game anymore.

We should take courage from the example of the early Celtic church.  Being sent to Scotland would be like being sent to a harsh, wild place--maybe like being sent to a barren planet today.  But just because we're inhabiting a barren planet doesn't mean we're doomed to failure.

We might find a completely different kind of success.

Of course, what we will have to master is the trick of letting go of our preconceived notions of what success will look like, so that we'll see the success that we're creating.

Celtic Christianity is one of the strains of Christianity that's healthy and thriving--and we can't say that about most ancient religions.  Yet if those Celtic monks had allowed themselves to be circumscribed by their circumstances, they'd be another one of those dead traditions that we might not have even heard of.

So today, as you drink your green beer or eat your corned beef and cabbage, think about those early Celtic monks without whom, we would not have this holiday.  Think about your own life.  How could you turn your corner of the world into an outpost where creativity can thrive?  How can your life provide comfort and courage to other creative types?  When you're having the kind of day/month/year that makes you feel like you're living on stony, thorny ground, how can you make good soil out of those circumstances?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Embraces and Bread

Last night, I picked my husband up at the airport.  The last time I picked him up at the airport, it was the same time on a Saturday night, but back in November.  In November, there were 3 of us waiting on a flight.  Last night, there were swarms of people.

I watched young couples reunited, as if one had been kept in a POW camp.  I watched couples my age greet their college students, home one assumes for Spring Break.  I watched groups of other college kids, so many groups of college kids, moving in waves towards planes and away from planes.  There were a few sets of grandparents on hand for grandchildren, and the children who birthed those marvelous grandkids.

Usually I love being in the airport, watching these reunions.  Last night, I felt my mood tinged with a bit of melancholy.  If you've been following this blog, you know that this week has had many reminders of mortality, so it's not a surprise to me that I'd watch these reunions and think about all the people who will never have reunions with their loved ones, at least not on this side of the grave.

I tried to greet my husband as if he'd been held captive, and I'd been lucky enough to get him back.  I hope I can keep greeting him like that once a day.  I can't greet everyone with a passionate kiss, but I hope I can grace them with the kind of attention that makes them feel like they've been released from the modern prisons of isolation and loneliness.

And I want to give my writing that kind of attention too.  I plan to gather together all the scraps of Ash Wednesday thoughts that I've written in the past few weeks, along with past blog posts, and I want to weave them into a longer essay.  I will write a poem or two.  It's a week of many meetings this week, so I want to remember that I'm made for more than meetings.

It will be interesting to see how my writing changes as I go through my later years.  As I drove to the airport last night, I thought of a story I wrote years ago, a story I wrote before I watched my mother-in-law die her terrible death by medical industrial complex.  It was a story of old college friends now in their 30's, and one of them was near death.  He got better.  I haven't reread it recently, but I recall that homemade bread became a symbol and an agent of healing.

I've always had an irrational faith in the ability of homemade bread to heal what ails us.  It's a combination of being raised Christian and being a child in the 70's when everyone was baking amazing breads right in their home kitchens.

Here I can't resist quoting from this post from The Tipsy Baker blog: "The Tassajara Bakery was the offshoot of a Zen Buddhist center and while I don't remember the bakery itself, I remember the breads -- big, rustic, rugged loaves that were sold at a famous vegetarian restaurant called Greens. If Fantasia was the impossible dream, Tassajara was the earnest, earthy reality of San Francisco in the '70s and early ‘80s. My reality.  . . .  You can see the Tassajara influence on a handful of Gordon's recipes, like her whole-grain muffins. On Saturday, I got up early and baked a batch of these because it seemed like a nutritious breakfast for Isabel, who was heading off to take the SATs. They’re full of everything considered healthy in the Aquarian Age: whole-wheat, millet, oats, honey, prunes, yogurt, eggs, mashed bananas. There's not a single ingredient on that list that is universally embraced by the dietary police of today. Not one."

Bread as agent of healing, bread as embrace . . . it's a potent symbol that I don't expect to ever leave behind.  And maybe I should bake some bread today.  The day stretches ahead of me with some unexpected emptiness:  I went to church last night, and then I worked on taxes while I waited for it to be time to pick up my spouse from the airport.  What would nourish me most as I prepare for this week of many meetings?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Perception Changes In a Week where Death Looms Large

This has been a humdinger of a week and not in a good way.  On Monday I found out about the stage IV cancer diagnosis of my best friend from high school, who was also our housemate from 1993-1997 while she earned her BA.  On Thursday, we went to the retrospective art show of our colleague who has pancreatic cancer; I was not prepared for the change in her appearance.  One of my friends said, "It's like death has her in his arms."

I have noticed some changes in my perception, and I wonder if they will last:

--As you might expect, I've felt weepy, off and on, throughout most of the week.  I try to contain my actual tears during the work day to places where I won't be seen.  I have noted before that it's not a good idea to let anyone see you cry when you're an administrator--not because I worry about seeming weak, but because if people see me crying they assume that catastrophic news is on the way.

--I've prayed more.  I wish that I could do more for my friend.  Maybe at some point I'll know what that action should be.  But for now, I can pray.

--Occasionally, I look across a group of people, and they seem glowing.  I find myself overcome with love for humanity--how fragile we are, how short are lives are, how unique we are and yet the same.

--When I see the outlines of people in this way, I think of those nuclear war movies, like Testament.  In that film, you knew that a character was dying from radiation poisoning because the film got a faded overlay or maybe the character faded--could you have that effect back in 1983?  Am I remembering that movie correctly?  Anyway, I have this sense as I look at humans that we're on our way out, but we don't know it.  Our outlines are getting blurry.  We're fading--except for the ones who are blazing bright.

--How can we blaze brightly more consistently?

--Suddenly all the work drama doesn't seem so compelling.  We are so caught up in so much idiocy that won't last very long or really have a permanent impact, at least not beyond a season or two.

--I've thought of all the shows I've watched, all the teenage characters in those shows which used to be essential watching for me.  I've thought of Angela and Rayanne in My So-Called Life.  I've wondered which of them would have which health crisis in her 40's.  I confess that I've even thought about the script for the very special TV show.

--One could have fun with all those John Hughes movies too.  Not as many female friends come to mind.  But Duckie and Andie in Pretty in Pink seem to offer dramatic possibilities.

--I'm also hearing music differently this week.  I heard this line from a Boston song:

"Now you're climbing to the top of the company ladder
Hope it doesn't take too long
Don't you see there'll come a day when it won't matter
Come a day when you'll be gone."

When I heard this song as an adolescent, I heard it as part of the gotta-go, gotta-ramble genre of rock and roll.  I heard and assumed I'd be gone because I'd have a better job in a better part of the country.  Now I'm thinking death.

--This week when I've thought about just drinking the old, bitter coffee from the day before, I've said, "Life is short--have fresh coffee."  And the rest of the day is like that.  I've cherished tastes and textures of food and drink more, because I'm aware that my friend cannot; she has esophageal cancer, and she can hardly swallow.  I've been more patient with people.  I've been more present.

--I want to continue to be more present for people.  I want to leave the screens and interact in person.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday Fragments: The Elusiveness of Time

--Yesterday at work, one of my colleagues said to another colleague, "Haven't you solved the world's problems yet?"  She said something in return, along the lines of "Oh, that I could."

I said, "I could solve the world's problems if everyone would just do what I say."

Another colleague said, "I wouldn't know where to begin."

To my surprise, I knew exactly where I would begin.  I said, "Enough food for everyone, insure good education for girls across the globe, and clean water for all.  That would go a long way."

Now, if God shows up and says, "I'm ready to give up on this idea of free will.  I've run out of time, and y'all are taking too long to help me redeem creation.  What should I do first?"--if God shows up with that question, I'm ready.

--Yesterday was one of those wearying days as an administrator--lots of spinning apart, while I tried to weave the threads back together again.  But I can only do so much:  there are only so many hours in the day, and the quarter comes rapidly crashing to a close.

--But we began the day by celebrating a friend's 50th birthday with brunch at Panera--half a century!  And we ended our work day by eating together too.

--We needed that celebration.  We had gone to our colleague's retrospective art show; she's got pancreatic cancer, so she won't be having another show.

--It's been a hectic week, but in a good way:  meals with friends, opportunities to nourish our minds, a visit from a grad school friend.  In the midst of it all, I enjoyed this interview on Fresh Air with Brigid Schulte, who wrote Overwhelmed:  Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.

--It won't surprise you to find that mothers are some of the most time-stretched of anyone in our culture:  "What really struck me was that for women, particularly in the United States, particularly now, they spend almost all of their leisure time with their children. And that led to this other crazy finding that has since really helped to alleviate a lot of my guilt: that working mothers today, even when they work full time, the time studies are showing that they spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s and '70s ... because they've given up personal leisure time and time with adults."

--Schulte's way of coping:  "I think all of the strategies for us to cram more stuff into our calendar is really not the answer; it's figuring out what's important to you and making time to do what's most important first. ... That to-do list will never go away. If you have this if-then mentality, you'll never get to 'then.' I have trashed the to-do list to help my brain. I do get it all out. I write it all down because then it gives me mental peace ... but right now I try to do one thing a day and if I can do it, that's great. ... And I also give myself permission not to do it."

--Yesterday at the art show, a woman said, "I wish I had her talent."  I said, "Fifteen minutes a day.  You'd be amazed at how much better you'd be after 15 minutes a day."  I invited her to come to my office to sketch with me--or to write a poem.

--I guess I'd better bring some art supplies to the office.

--I'm loving the idea of this project, The Poet Tarot.  I've loved Kelli's collages, and this project sounds neat.

I've captured these images from the Kickstarter site, but I'm willing to delete them if asked.  I'm guessing that the creators won't mind, especially not if it drives more traffic to their site.  So, my tens of thousands of readers, head that way!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Night with a Presidential Historian

Last night, we had a chance to hear Michael Beschloss as part of the Broward College Speakers' Series.  I would have hesitated to have afforded a ticket at the regular price, so when we had the opportunity to get free tickets, I jumped at it.

It was a lovely night.  We met our friend who got us the tickets, and we ate at a restaurant near the Broward Center, a restaurant which had an outdoor patio.  It was one of those nights where I said to myself, "This, this, is what I thought being a grown-up would be like!"

And then it was on to the main event, Michael Beschloss, who is not only a historian and PBS commentator, but a wonderful public speaker.  He gave us a wonderful window into what it's like to be a historian, and insight into various historical periods and politics in general.

Beschloss has spent his career exploring the history of presidents. He talked about the amount of time he spends immersed in the world of his subject.  He talked about going to LBJ's house and listening to the tapes. 

In fact, his talk kept coming back to tapes.  He recently edited Jackie Kennedy's interviews that she created after her husband's death.  She was worried about Kennedy's reputation; after all, he hadn't been in office very long when he was killed.  So she created these amazing interviews and stipulated that they be sealed for 100 years. 

But Caroline Kennedy felt that they didn't need to be kept from the public that long, and she approached Beschloss as the best person to edit them.  It was his dream assignment, something he never thought he'd see in his lifetime. 

His talk made me want to be a historian, although that's not a practical career change for me.  But I love the fact that he spent the day at Broward College talking to young people.  I love that he's giving back in that way.

He talked about the luxury that historians have, the luxury of being able to consider events in hindsight.  He talked about items that seemed so important once that seem trivial now and vice versa.  Journalists don't have the luxury of hindsight as they cover events in real time.

He talked about the resources that are important to him--letters, tapes, journals--and speculated about future historians.  Will we find the same sort of honesty in e-mails?  He's worried we won't. 

Maybe I approach e-mail differently, but I've certainly been as emotionally vulnerable in e-mails as in letters.  I've been honest when writing friends.

I think that future historians will have to think about the public self and the private self, perhaps more than past historians, but perhaps not.  In some ways, presidents have had the kind of self-awareness that we all have now, this feeling that there is no private life, but we try to carve some out anyway.

On a down note, he talked about the toxic culture of DC.  He's lived in the town for 30 years, and he says it's never been as bad as it is now.

He talked to us as voters when he told us what we should look for in a president.  It will not surprise you to find out that he thinks it's important to have a president who knows history.  He talked about Kennedy's knowledge of history, especially WWI, and how that knowledge shaped him as he moved through the Cuban missile crisis.  He didn't want to telegraph the wrong messages.  I'm so grateful that he was successful.  That crisis could have so easily ended in a nuclear exchange.

He also said that we should look for a president who can work with people of differing beliefs.  That, too, is not a surprise.  He got applause at that idea, which heartened me.  I'm surrounded by people who are so sure that what they believe is the only way to believe, and that anyone who believes otherwise is beyond redemption. Who'd have thought that academia would hold so many of these people?

It's interesting that Beschloss has been a historian without being attached to an academic institution, although he's certainly moved through and around them as he's done his work.  It's good to remember that academia is not the only way to get this work done.

I do wish I had more time to read those big books, like those written by Barbara Tuchman and Michael Beschloss.  But in these times when I don't, it's wonderful to have a night like last night, a night when I feel my brain being nourished.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Good Writing (and Life) Advice from Ann Patchett

When I first read the introduction to Ann Patchett's collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, I worried that I wouldn't like it.  They seemed eclectic; I thought the subject matter might not appeal.  How silly I was!

I decided that I'd at least read the essays about being a writer, but I ended up reading straight through.  However, the essay "The Getaway Car," is so delightful that I have to record some quotes from it.

It tells the story of how Patchett came to be a writer, and it's full of great advice.  I think this chunk may be my favorite:  "Forgiveness.  The ability to forgive oneself.  Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.  . . . I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.  Forgiveness, therefore, is key.  I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.  Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself" (p. 29-30).

Along the way she talks about her mentors, especially her undergraduate professors, and what they taught her.  I love her picture of Grace Paley, who more often than not cancelled class when she had to go protest human rights violations in Chile, and along the way taught her students how to live authentic lives:  "She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized.  You don't step out of the stream of your life to do your work.  Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person" (p. 31-32).

She advises against going into debt for an M.F.A. program.  She also advises us to be practical when we consider shorter summer programs.  Do it to have fun, do it to learn, do it to make writer friends, but don't do it (the M.F.A., the summer program) thinking that you'll meet your agent and get a great book contract.  She's blunt about those chances:  "I imagine that every now and then a book is picked up by a prestigious New York agent and sold to a prestigious New York publisher, but it is statistically akin to finding a four-leaf clover.  On the banks of the Dead Sea.  In July" (p. 38).

She has great ideas for where to get inspiration.  She says, "If I'm really stuck, nothing helps like looking through a book of photography.  Open it up, look at a picture, make up a story" (p. 40).

She's written everything:  poems, short stories, magazine pieces, and novels.  About novel writing, she says, "Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming:  a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea.  If I thought too much about how far I'd come or the distance I still had to cover, I'd sink" (p. 45).

This last piece of advice seems to apply in many situations, not just writing:  "One more thing to think about when putting a novel together:  make it hard.  Set your sights on something that you aren't quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually.  You can also go for broke and take on all three" (p. 50).

Truth be told, I found it difficult to narrow down the quotes.  The whole essay is so wonderful--as is the rest of the book.  The essay about her grandmother's descent into Alzheimer's manages to be heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.  And her narrative about how she came to own a bookstore answers key questions for me:  it's likely not an alternative career path for me, as I don't have a partner who wants to devote all his/her waking hours to the store, and I don't have lots of disposable income or a small fortune that I can plow into the store.

This book is easily one of the best books of essays that I've read in a long time, and this book may end up being on my list of favorites that I've read in 2014.  Do yourself a favor and pick it up.  The nice thing about a book of essays is that you can always read just one--but Patchett's writing is so compelling, you'll probably devour the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Carpe Diem--today!

It's time to think about changing my password at work again.  I always try to choose a password that reminds me that there's more to life than e-mail management.  Sometimes I use a shortened form of the working title of a manuscript I'm working on.  Sometimes it's something motivational about exercise or vegetables.

Lately though, life keeps sending me reminders that life is short, and I don't really have time to waste on unnecessary drama.  And they're not joyful reminders.

Yesterday I found out that my best friend since high school has esophageal cancer.  Stage IV.  I am not yet at the point where I can write that without crying.  I doubt I will ever get to that point.  This is a rare cancer that usually strikes old men.  She's my age, 48. 

Another day, another dreadful diagnosis.

Lately I've been in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind.   I'd have been in an Ash Wednesday space even if we weren't at that part of the liturgical year.  I've had news of the death of my favorite undergraduate English professor, a colleague with pancreatic cancer, my best friend from high school with esophageal cancer, and another friend who is in the last stage of kidney failure.

I am feeling frail and mortal and afraid.  I am afraid to admit my fear, for fear that I will seem a bad Christian.  I wrote a theological response to my fear on my theology blog.  In short, I don't think really that it makes me a bad Christian if I'm afraid.  The American way of death is often full of pain and entrapment in the medical-industrial complex.

Once I assumed we'd die when we were old and in deep decline.  Now I'm hearing that winged chariot much too early.

Once I assumed that if I got a dreadful diagnosis, I'd travel, I'd eat, I'd live it up, going out in a blaze of glory.  Now I know that many cancers would make that blaze of glory scenario impossible.

I think it's time to make a list.  If I did get a dreadful diagnosis, what would I want to do with my time remaining?  I need to do that now.

My thoughts don't turn to travel or food.  I'd want to spend more time with friends and family.  I'd turn off the news.  I'd think about how to distribute my money to social justice groups.  Maybe my death could bring some wells to 3rd world countries or some business opportunities to women.  There are writing projects, of course--if I knew I would die in a year, would I worry as much about their completion?  Or would I just enjoy the process?

Happily, I am spending time each day on activities that bring me joy.  I am sharing my wealth.  I am always ready to put work (both creative and paid) aside for human relationships.

Still, I think about the time I fritter away.  Maybe it's time to work on frittering less.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sherwin Nuland's Life Lessons--and Writing Lessons

One week ago, Sherwin Nuland died.  He was such a wonderful writer.  About 12 years ago, I was on vacation with my folks, and my dad was reading How We Die.  I picked it up while they were out someplace else.  I thought I'd just read the chapter on cancer.  I couldn't put the book down.  My dad graciously let me have first dibs at the book, since he brought others to read, and he knew I'd be leaving soon.

It was a spell-binding book, and oddly comforting, which I didn't expect from a book about death. 

This week, NPR's On Being aired a repeat broadcast of their interview with Nuland.

When I was listening to the show, I was struck by the writing advice, particularly this bit:  "Do you know what I learned from writing that book, if I learned nothing else? The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are."

He talks about how he came to write his best-selling, award winning, How We Die:

"What actually happened was that the phone rang one day and a man on the other end said that he was a literary agent and there was a book that he thought needed to be written and  he had been looking around for someone to write it. And several editors in New York mentioned my name because I had written some stuff. And the book he said was to be called How We Die.  . . .   He presented the idea, presented the title, he said do realize you know no one really knows what happens when we die? And I said that’s silly, it must be in medical textbooks. Well, to shorten this story as much as I can, no, it wasn’t in any textbook. And here are families and here are dying people living through this 'terra incognita' and I could even spell terra T-E-R-R-O-R- because it is indeed a terrifying terra. Not knowing what to expect the next day and thinking everything is out of control as the body deteriorates, as the mind deteriorates, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if people really understood what to expect and knew that as bad as things were this is the way you die, of cancer, or of heart disease, or of stroke, this is — if we can use that word in that sense — it’s normal. And I though that would be very reassuring to people because my experience in medicine had been that if I told a surgical patient just what to expect, he could tolerate pain much better, he could tolerate drainage and discomforts and diarrhea because he knew that was supposed to happen and that was okay. So why shouldn’t that be true of the months and weeks before death. And that seemed like a noble cause when he suggested that I write such a book. So I agreed to do it and both he and I were surprised at the book that was written."

I was struck by the accidental nature of how he came to write the book.  I'm taking away from Nuland's experience that we should always be open to possibilities, even if they weren't the ones we were expecting.

The interview is also full of all sorts of science facts that trigger my sense of  awe and wonder:  "Here we are with our 75 trillion cells. It's been estimated there are about 4 million cell divisions every single second. You're working so hard while you're sitting here. And when cells divide, of course it's impossible for the DNA to replicate perfectly each time, so little mistakes are made. You know, this is how mutations arise. The DNA repair enzyme is a molecule. It's a complex molecule. It travels like a little motorboat up and down the DNA molecule. It finds errors, snips them out, corrects them, and puts the right thing back in there. This is the ultimate wisdom of the body."

He concludes in this hopeful way:

"Well, I like to think that if people really understand the way their brains work, they would be as overwhelmed with wonder as some of us are, and would have a completely different sense of the human organism and its potentialities and would try to live up to its greatest potentialities."

It may be time to return to his books.  I haven't read them in over a decade.  Maybe I'll pick them up again.  He's a masterful thinker and writer, and I sense he has much to teach us, both about our bodies and about how to put together a spell-binding book.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Being a Tourist in our Own Town

I am here to tell you, we're having one of the best tourist seasons in years.  I've been fairly sure of that as I've watched rush hour levels of traffic even early in the afternoon or late in the morning.  I've seen giant crowds of people walking down 17th Street.  I've sat in traffic jams caused by back-ups at the Port.

Yesterday we attempted to go to a variety of places with my grad school friend.  We thought we might go to the new Perez Art Museum.  We couldn't get near the place.  Was it because it was the monthly free Saturday or because of tourists?  I'm not sure, but I'm glad that so many are interested in the art museum--sad that we couldn't go.

So we continued south.  My friend thought she might like to see the Coral Castle.  I've never seen more than a car or two in the parking lot.  Yesterday, there were at least 15.  We could have gotten in, but even from the outside, my friend could see it wasn't what she was expecting.  Why spend the $15 entry fee?

Why have a $15 entry fee?  They'd probably get more people if they lowered the price to $5.

Since we were that far south, we decided to go to Robert is Here, one of the oldest farmer's markets in the area, maybe buy some tropical fruit milkshakes and some veggies.  I have never seen so many people in line for a milkshake--and it's not like they rode in on a tour bus--nope, these were individuals.  Sigh.  We decided to keep going.

We came home and relaxed with a glass of wine.  We tried not to think about how we could have just relaxed at the house and enjoyed wine all afternoon.  We spent the better part of the afternoon sitting in traffic.  We did have a lovely lunch at a middle eastern market, The Daily Bread.  But we could have had a lovely lunch at home.

Ah hindsight!

Today we'll walk to downtown Hollywood to see the St. Patrick's Day festival.  We'll see UV, which is a U2 cover band; we've spent some time trying to figure out the band's name.  Is it a subtle pun?

The nice thing about today's agenda:  if we're not having fun, we can go home.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Saturday Snippets

--Yesterday afternoon, I got out of my car and opened the trunk.  I was about to walk up the path to the house, when a gust of wind made me look up.  I saw the palm frond sway out and come crashing down--right where I was just about to walk.

--I say palm frond and you probably think of something light, something you'd use to fan yourself or distract the cat.  But the ones that come falling down out of the trees are long and heavy. You wouldn't want them falling on your head.

--It's the second time I've been at my car, heard a crack, and watched a palm frond come smashing down to where I'd have been if I'd been walking two minutes faster.  I'm hoping that whatever awareness it is that senses the danger of falling foliage keeps working.

--Yesterday's post on the positive elements of Facebook got some attention amongst my Facebook friends and their friends.  I know that some people are giving up Facebook for Lent; I know others who go on Facebook fasts.  I love this blog post that explains why we shouldn't give up Facebook for Lent.

--I love this quote, which originally comes from Meredith Gould's Social Media Gospel:

Christ has no online presence but yours, No blog, no Facebook page but yours, Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world, Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared, Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed. Christ has no online presence but yours, No blog, no Facebook page but yours.

--I am loving this book, A God in the House:  Poets Talk about Faith.  I suppose I am the perfect reader for the book.  But it's really well done, with poets talking honestly, near as I can tell, about the ways that their faith has both sustained and disappointed them, as well as talking about how it has changed through the years.

--It's one of those books that I ordered and promptly forgot about as I devoured the other books that came with the order--and then the Christmas season was fully upon us.  The other night, I needed something to soothe me into sleep, and I remembered it, and I could remember where I'd put it.  It was so good that I wanted to stay up reading, yet it did the trick of quieting my anxious mind.

--Happily, this week-end won't be a time for anxiety.  One of my grad school friends is staying with us for the week-end.  We've already walked to the beach to enjoy beer at the organic brewery and the pizza that's half price Monday-Friday.  What other treats are in store?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Facebook as Funeral Home

On Tuesday, I got a Facebook message asking if I knew about the death of our favorite English professor and if I knew what had happened.  Then I got another message that directed me to the professor's Facebook page, where I learned that it looked like our professor had a stroke just as she was taking her dog out before turning in for the night.

There was some memorializing happening on our professor's page.  Yesterday, I wrote a post in tribute to our professor.  I posted a link on my Facebook page, and I tagged most of my undergraduate friends.

I was amazed at how many of them wrote tributes of their own--and only one was a fellow English major.  Friends talked about how she inspired their love of reading that continues to this day.  One of my female friends remembered this professor as being the first to tell her that she was smart.

And like I said, most of them weren't English majors.  But they were profoundly impacted and some thirty years later, they could bring up specific memories.

I don't have as much time to write today, but I wanted to note this phenomenon for all of us who teach.  Most of us who major in English (and other disciplines in the Humanities) will go on to teach primarily non-majors.  We may wonder if we're making a difference.  We may feel like we've wandered far away from what we intended to do.  Perhaps this feeling is one that's common to any of us who are thinking, feeling adults.

But in any given day, we have an impact on at least a dozen people, if not a hundred or more.  It may not be a lasting impact--but it might.  We can smile more and turn the day around for many folks.  We can be kind.  We can treat the passions of other people with respect.  We can choose to respond without rancor to those angry people we encounter--and if we're spiritual people, we can pray or send healing light their way.

We can think about our Facebook posts.  How could we provide hope to others?  How can we be a light, and not a source of snarkiness?  How can we maintain our connections?

At it's best, Facebook is a place of solace and sanctuary.  This week I've been thinking of Facebook as a funeral home, but in the best sense of that word.  Facebook is the place where we can gather to be reminded of our best selves and to remember those who have helped shape us in that direction.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

On the Passing of My Beloved English Professor

On the day before Ash Wednesday, I found out that my favorite undergraduate English professor, Dr. Gayle Swanson, had died.  She was buried on Feb. 27, so it was sometime last week, I'm thinking that she died.  The details are sparse, but the thinking is that she had a stroke as she was taking her dog out before turning in for the night.

I feel strange in all sorts of ways.  There's the realization that we're all dust, and we'll be returning to dust in short order.   Plus, both Dr. Swanson and my mother had gone to Newberry College years earlier than I did.  My mother was about 4 years ahead of Dr. Swanson.  So there's the terror of realizing that if Dr. Swanson could be felled by a sudden stroke, so could my mother.

So could any of us, I know.  But most days, I don't dwell on that fact too much.  I try to dwell on what brings joy, not terror.  I try to live in gratitude for all the good gifts raining down on my head.  So let me remember all the ways Dr. Swanson shaped me.

I can approach a piece of literature from any variety of ways, using any number of lenses.  Dr. Swanson showed me the practice of New Criticism.  We didn't spend much time on an author's biography.  We thought briefly about the historical time period in which the work was written.  But we spent weeks, working through a poem or a short story, line by line, sentence by sentence.  By the end of my undergraduate days, there were works, primarily great poems of the Romantic and Victorian age, that I knew inside out.  Her training formed a great base for grad school.

She was the first who encouraged me to go to grad school to get an advanced degree in English.  We didn't spend any time talking about what I'd do with a degree--those were different days.  She saw that I had a talent for analysis.  She saw that I loved to read.  She saw my dedication, even when the literature demanded more of us.  She told me that I simply must go to grad school.  I did.

I wanted the life that she modeled, at least the part of it that I saw.  I could imagine nothing more thrilling than training young minds in how to read great works of literature.  Of course, I didn't imagine reading all those essays in the first year class.  I imagined one semester immersed in the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Keats, followed by the next semester diving into Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold.

It still sounds wonderful to me.

During my first year at Newberry, Dr. Swanson and the English department brought some South Carolina poets to the campus for a reading, a mini-festival.  I'd been writing poems for years, but that reading was the first time that I saw living poets reading their work and talking about it.  That community, too, became one I yearned to join.

Dr. Swanson encouraged that ambition.  Along the way, she introduced me to the woman who was in charge of the public relations department for the school--that woman hired me.  I wrote articles about students, and she sent them to the students' hometown newspapers.  Those newspapers were happy for the copy, and I was thrilled to see my work in print--and I was paid for it!  Ah, for the days of dozens of small, hometown papers with column space to fill.

Along the way, I learned to write a variety of ways, and I learned to do it quickly and efficiently when necessary.  I learned the value of being on time.  I got many an assignment because the PR head knew I could be counted on to deliver.

When my second chapbook was coming out, Dr. Swanson's name and address was on my publicity list.  She called me to tell me how proud she was of me.  I felt like I should have done more by that point in my career--at least one or two books with spines.  She, on the other hand, was thrilled to realize that I was still following my first passions, the ones she had ignited.

Yesterday, I spent some time with T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday."  I played with some lines of poetry, Eliot's and mine.  This morning, I read parts of some books of theology and wrote a poem that works on interesting levels.  In so many ways, I'm still on the same road that I first walked beside Dr. Swanson.

And then I wrote to some of my online students, even though we're on Spring Break.  Like Dr. Swanson, I pointed out the strong parts of their writing, while giving them suggestions on how to approach the weak parts.

It's been a long apprenticeship/discipleship in the same direction, to use a variation on a title of a book by Eugene H. Peterson (his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:  Discipleship in an Instant Society, is a delightful and approachable book of theology).  I am so grateful for the early mentorship and later friendship of Dr. Swanson.  I can only hope that I am offering something similar to as many fellow travelers as possible through the years.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rust, Ash, Dust, Smash

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

I'm not always in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind, but this year, I've been sinking into Ash Wednesday for weeks, what with bad health news from colleagues, and just yesterday, the news that my favorite, undergraduate English professor died last week.  I'll write more about her in a later post.

It's the time when I feel my creative self shifting.  Once, I told myself I had plenty of time.  I could write whatever I wanted.  Now, I find myself asking, "If you can only write one book and have it published, what should that book be?"  I'll still work on a variety of projects, but my aging affects what I'm thinking about in terms of pursuing publication.  And of course, technology affects my thoughts of publication too.

Today I was looking at the texts to which I often return during parts of the liturgical year:  Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner and Things Seen and Unseen by Nora Gallagher.  Both women have gone on to write books that explore their doubts, their maturing faith, their faith falling away.  I wonder if it's painful for them to see these books, these testimonies to faith communities of which they are no longer part.

I am wrestling with profound sadness this year, a sadness which is both part of the human condition (everything we love will be lost!) and unique to me (colleagues gone, teachers gone, houses and offices gone, writing projects slipped away, lonely, lost, lonely, lonely, lonely).

In his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says, "But death is the central truth of our existence--the sadness at our core. Everything we love will vanish. We can't hold on to anything. It is this tragedy that accounts as well for the beauty and nobility of our lives because in the face of this knowledge, we go right on loving, trying to hold on to what we cherish, defying death with hubris and with faith" (page 61).

As always, Ash Wednesday provides powerful impetus to poetry.  I've been writing a series of Ash Wednesday poems, many of which I've posted on this blog.  Here's one I haven't posted here, although I have given a link.  It was first published in Hobble Creek Review.

Ash Wednesday in MiamiBury me in a Southern field,
free of coffin, free of clothes.
Let me meld into the mulch,
turning the red clay into rich dirt.

Do not let me rot beside this Southernmost
sea that grows more acidic
by the day.  I do not want
to fertilize the asphalt and the concrete.
I do not want to wait
for rising seas to consume
my final resting place.

No, bury me in the humid
swamp of a sunny, Southern day.
Let me fertilize the corn and squash.
Remember me when you salt
that perfect tomato sandwich,
sweet with Duke’s mayonnaise
and memories of me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mardi Gras Meditation on Bread Baking, Past and Present

Today is Mardi Gras.  When I've asked my students about the historical roots of Mardi Gras, they've given me a blank look.  So, good teacher that I am, I explain:  in medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and treats and the drinking.  For more on the history of Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, and Lent, see this blog post on my theology blog.

I've been thinking about how much I don't bake anymore.  Sure, I make a coffee cake once in a while, a batch of cookies when I have an event to attend, but I'm baking just a few times a month.  I used to bake on a daily basis.  I was that person who brought goodies to work, but not because I wanted them out of the house.  No, I brought them because I'd gone a little overboard with the baking and needed to clear out the cookie jars.

In some ways, my lack of baking is a good thing.  Less baking means fewer cookies, cakes, and scones that I'm eating.

But in an essential way, I miss my breadbaking self.  I've written about my history with bread baking many times before in this blog; this post gives a bit of history about how I came to be a bread baker.

I started thinking back to my earlier bread baking days when I read this article by Adam Gopnik.  It begins by Gopnik's discovery of his wife's brief breadbaking days, which catapults him into a breadbaking journey of his own.  It's a hilarious article, but also full of details that make me want to bake. 

And it's full of details that make me think about bread in a different way:  "The tasty bits of your morning toast, I realized, are all the tombs of tiny dead creatures--the Ozymandias phenomenon on a miniature scale.  Look on my works, you mighty, and eat them with apricot jam" (p. 69).

A few weeks ago, when we had one of our brief cold snaps, I thought about baking bread, but it seemed so time consuming.  I really wanted a Christmas bread, but it seems time to put those recipes away and move towards Spring.  I thought about pumpkin bread or the orange-cranberry bread that's amazing, but even the thought of a quick bread made me tired.

Then I remembered one of my Christmas presents.  My parents had done all their shopping in Colonial Williamsburg, and amongst my wonderful gifts were some packages of mixes that would lead to baked goods.  I quickly whipped up a batch of sweet potato muffins.

Along the way, I thought, this is why people use these mixes.  It was quick; five minutes and muffins were in the oven.  It was easy, and even though I forgot to add the egg, it turned out OK.  I recognized all of the ingredients.  Maybe it's an expensive way to buy flour and leavening, but I see why people do it.

I have a tiny kitchen, so I don't have room to stockpile mixes.  But it's been good to have a window into new possibilities.

In past years, I might have made a special Mardi Gras bread today.  I might have made pancakes, in tribute to the Shrove Tuesday feasts of my childhood churches.  I'd have felt sad, eating pancakes alone on Shrove Tuesday.

I've had a few weeks now, of eating with abandon, especially last week.  We ate massive burgers on Monday, a Chinese food feast on Thursday, with fried foods at both restaurants.  Last week, I ate an orange scone at Panera not once, but twice--and you may shrug, but each scone has over 500 calories.  There were yummy salads from the Publix deli, and I don't mean green, leafy salads.

Yes, last week was a Carnivale week of eating to be sure.  Time for the soberness of Lent.

But if you're not ready for penitence yet, I've discovered an easy yeasted bread.  See this blog post for directions and pictures.

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.  May you have a nourishing, creative day.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Working in a 12 x 12 Structure

On Thursday night, I went to a reception for the 12 x 12 show at ArtServe.  It's a cool show for artists:  the regulations stipulate that every work must be 12 x 12, but that's the only major limitation.

So, a maker of jewelry could create something and affix it to a canvas or a shadowbox.  Below, in the upper right, you'll see just such an approach:

We saw several interesting pieces carved out of wood:

And there were interesting assemblages made out of all sorts of castaway stuff:

Most of the entries were paintings, along with some photography:

I don't have a picture of the fiber piece that made me say, "Oh good heavens, I could do better than this."  But that response made me think seriously about taking up that challenge.

What would happen if I made a 12 x 12 creation each month?  At the end of a year, I could choose the best and enter the competition.  You get to enter 3 works for $60.  Each work is priced at $200, and the artist keeps $150 of that.  Obviously, the risk is that no one would buy the work.  But you'd only have to sell one piece to pay for the fee and the materials and make some money.

It makes me feel inspired.  It makes me want to break out my art supplies, diminished as they are.  Let me see what emerges in the coming year.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Six Million Dollar Men, Six Million Dollar Cell Phones, and Other Transfigurations

--Today is Transfiguration Sunday in some Protestant churches--Catholics and other Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast Day on August 6.  In Protestant churches, Transfiguration Sunday is the Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  For more on this Sunday, see this post on my theology blog.  It has a poem for your Transfiguration Sunday.

--I have been thinking about transfigurations and transformations of all sorts.  I loved this post at the Lofty Ambitions blog about the old TV show from the 1970's, The Six Million Dollar Man.  It's a fascinating piece about the ways that show stayed true to NASA.

--I've also been listening to this wonderful Fresh Air interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is our modern equivalent of Carl Sagan, as he launches a new version of Cosmos.  He talks about the ways that space exploration has transformed our society.

--He says, "And so I've joked about let's go around and remove everything overnight from your home that was brought about or inspired by space exploration and have you wake up in the absence of it. So you'd wake up with poor vision, among other things...and you wouldn't have all your miniaturized electronics, and you can just go on down the list. And it's - even simple things, by the way. Do you know there are grooves in the curved exit ramps of many freeways? And that, of course, improves traction when the road is wet. You say, oh, that's a great idea. That came from NASA. It doesn't have to be high-tech to be a great idea. Why did it come from NASA? Because someone was more interested in the space shuttle landing and maintaining its course because it's not - a spaceship shuttle is not powered when it's landing. It's a glider. And you want that thing to sort of not skid off the runway coming in for a landing. So they came up with this grooved idea, which keeps the tires aligned. It channels out the water. And someone thought it up because they were inspired by NASA, not because they're inspired by cars on exit ramps from freeways. So, high-tech and low-tech creativity are stimulated by this kind of activity."

--And I also just finished listening to this interview with Bobby McFerrin on NPR's On Being.  He talks about the transformative power of singing. 

--He also talks about trusting his voice and the artistic process:  "There use to be a point where I would be afraid of making mistakes. I'm no longer afraid of making mistakes. I make them every night during a performance. Something happens: I meant for my voice to go right and it went left instead. I meant for my voice to go up and it goes down, you know. Wherever my voice goes, wherever it takes me I just follow it. I just watch it. It leads me to whatever, you know. I trust it."

--I'm expanding on his idea and trusting my creative spirit to take me to where I need to go.   I love the short story I've just written, but some part of me worries about the poems I didn't write this week because I was working on the story.  What would happen if I just did the project that poked me awake in the morning?  If I followed that daily passion, even knowing it would change?

--My fear is that I would never finish any project.  But maybe I would finish more.

--Tomorrow:  more on the project that's been prodding me all week-end.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Highlights from a Creative Friday

Yesterday was a wonderful creative day, in between various work tasks and meetings that were delightful not horrible.

I had trouble sleeping because I had a writing project due.  So, I got up and typed the rough drafts of all the prayers for the month of April for the devotion book Bread for the Day.  I e-mailed them to myself and printed a copy.

I also finished the short story I'd been working on.  I wasn't sure how I was going to get my characters to the end, but it came easily.  Then I wasn't sure how to end the story, but inspiration bubbled up too.

Then I went to work.  Mid-morning, I went to the fiction meet-up with writer friends at work.  My writer friends really got my story.  They offered good suggestions.  I felt bad for my Hindu writer friend; we had trouble with her story and ran out of time.  Were we having trouble because we're not familiar with the Hindu story upon which her story is based?  The characters changed gender, which is an interesting challenge in terms of pronouns--but she handled the physical change with masterful description.  Were we having trouble because our friend has to make revisions based on what her editor wants?  That's unclear.

Then we were off to our delightful lunch meeting.  Instead of meeting in the conference room, our friend who lives nearby suggested that we come to her house.  We had a great selection of food from the Publix deli:  chicken salad, wheat berry salad, sesame noodle salad, fruit salad--plus amazing bread and dessert from Gran Forno bakery.  Yum.  We talked about technology and teaching.

We also talked about a colleague who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  What will happen to her body of artistic work?  Will her husband promote her paintings after she's gone?  And then, thoughts of mortality for us all--what happens to our stuff, artistic and otherwise, when say our final good-byes?

After lunch, it was back to campus to deal with some work-related e-mails and transcript evaluations and strategizing.

In the late afternoon, I returned to my prayer manuscript.  I did final word counts, one last read-aloud, one last proofreading and correcting, and then I sent it off.

This morning, I'm full of gratitude.  I'm aware of the gift of time.  I'm also aware of having an editor who isn't difficult.  I got an e-mail that says that everything looks to be in order with my prayers.  Hurrah!  I have friends who are not so encouraged by their editors.  Of course, they are working on book-length manuscripts, and the editorial feedback should lead to a stronger work--or will it be a work completely different from what they wanted to create?

But more than that, I'm aware of the gift of friends.  It's been a difficult work week, with the bad health news of colleagues sinking in, with strange e-mails and difficult meetings.  But woven throughout the week, with the highpoint being yesterday, I've been aware again and again, that I'm working with good people who have compassionate hearts and bright intellects.