Friday, February 28, 2014

Almost Missed Opportunities: The Prayer Writing Edition

I have been asked to write prayers for Bread for the Day again this year.  In fact, the due date is today, so this week, I've returned to the project multiple times.  Before yesterday's difficult meeting, I did one last revision.  In many ways, it's the perfect way to prepare for a difficult meeting:  work on a different project that reminds me that there are other items that are important to me. 

It's also been the week when many writers head to our big conference in Seattle, the AWP.  That's an opportunity that's often hard for me to make happen. 

This intersection makes me think about how I almost missed the prayer-writing opportunity.

It was a chilly morning on a Saturday in February of 2011.  My spouse had an appointment at a church south of Miami with a Lutheridge staff person who was going to be in the area.  I had thought I would go to spin class and leave my spouse to make his own way down there, but at the last minute, I changed my mind.  We decided to have an adventure together.

Before we went, I checked my e-mail, and I noticed one from an editor for a devotional book.  Would I like to write prayers?  But it seemed the deadline had passed to say yes; I should have responded a few days earlier.  I shut down the computer and tried to console myself by thinking about the small sum of money that had been offered.  Small consolation, as I rarely get offered any money for my writing at all.  I sat in the car and watched the landscape zoom by and tried not to berate myself.

We drove through the foggy damp which sometimes turned to rain and drizzle.  We got to the church a bit early, and no one was there.  Stranger yet, the person who was cleaning up the grounds didn't know of any gathering that was planned, the one the Lutheridge staffer was coming to be part of.

Still, we waited.  When the Lutheridge staffer arrived, the groundskeeper unlocked the building.  How good to get out of the damp!

We had thought the Lutheridge staffer would want to talk to us about planned giving, but she had an even more interesting proposal for my spouse.  Would he be willing to serve on the Board?  If so, more information would be forthcoming from the Board.  He said yes, he'd be interested.

We left so that the Lutheridge staffer could set up for her presentation to the group, the group that had forgotten that they invited her.  If we had known, we might have kept her company. 

It was such a quick meeting, such a long car trip for a 10 minute meeting.  So although it was chilly and damp, we decided to explore the botanical garden that we'd seen on our way in.  We walked along the pathways and enjoyed the trees and flowers.  I kept thinking about that e-mail and my missed opportunity to write prayers.  A part of my brain wondered if it really was too late.

On our way home, we stopped at an Irish pub to warm up.  I had the best French onion soup.  We watched the drizzle turned to soaking rain while we enjoyed being inside.  It was a perfect morning and afternoon.

Later that evening, I decided to write to the devotion book editor on the off chance he still needed someone.  He might say no based on the fact that I missed the deadline and thus, seemed unreliable.  But he might still need writers and be relieved to hear from me.

So, I wrote an e-mail, explaining that I'd been offline while at the AWP conference and would he still be in need of writers?  He wrote back immediately sounding thrilled that I could do it.  And the project became one of my favorites of that year, and the years since.

I am so glad that I took the chance and responded, even though I'd missed the deadline.  I'm so glad that the editor said yes.  I'm so glad I've had the chance to write prayers, year after year.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Happy Birthday to My Sister

My sister's birthday is today.  I'm an English major, so I'm always thinking of favorite quotes to celebrate various days.  Here's one of my favorite quotes about sisters:
 
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”
 
from Christina Rossetti's wonderful poem, "Goblin Market"
 
I didn't always feel this way about my sister.  When she was born, I had chicken pox, so not only could I not go stay with the family of my friend (her brother hadn't had chicken pox and back then, there was no vaccine), I couldn't go home right away either.  I was 4 months away from turning 5, so I sort of understood, although I couldn't have fully understood the complexities of immune systems.  After all, I hadn't asked for chicken pox.


Here's a picture of us, with my cousins and my grandmother, at my grandparents' house in South  Carolina.  With those 70's hair cuts and clothes, you might not be able to tell who is who.  I'm the one hamming it up in the back.  My sister is the one on my grandma's lap.

 
 
 
 
 
Later, during our teen years, we had the typical, albeit minor, fights.  I wanted all my cosmetics on the counter, while she preferred clean countertops.  We didn't approve of the way we each dressed.  I'm glad we moved beyond those disagreement years fairly quickly.

 
We were close through her college years.  She went to the University of South Carolina as an     undergrad, while I was there as a grad student.  Those were great years; we saw each other frequently, but had our own social circles.  We even went backpacking once.  I have not yet uploaded any of those photos to the computer, so I'll go with this one, where we're in a tent that we've set up in the living room--no, not for us, but for my nephew:

 
 
 
We've remained fast friends through the years.  She's the one I can always call, the one who knows everything about me and loves me anyway.  Here we are on her sailboat last summer:
 
 
 
Here's my favorite Barbara Kingsolver quote about sisters:
 
"We had exactly one sister apiece.  We grew up knowing the simple arithmetic of scarcity:  A sister is more precious than an eye"  (p. 46 of Animal Dreams).
 
Maybe I should reread that book.  Of course, that book holds my every terror:  a father descending into Alzheimer's, people fleeing evil dictators, corporations with no regard for human life, the heartrending loss of a sister.  But it offers hope too.
 
I love a work of art that offers hope.  I love that Kingsolver's works show how we can be family, even if we're not related.
 
My wish for us all:  that we have the fierce love of sisters (regardless of blood relation or gender) in our lives.
 
And my wish for my sister:  the happiest of birthdays, now and through the years, so that we can grow old together.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Reweaving the Fabrics of Our Daily Creative Lives

Last night, I went to the Girl's Club Gallery with an Art Appreciation class.  I love going on these kinds of field trips.  I find these exhibitions to be restorative in so many ways.

Last night, the teacher of the Art Appreciation class introduced me as a fiber artist.  I find it interesting that after all these years, my first response to being introduced as any kind of artist is to say, "Oh, I'm not really an artist."  Even as I've been paid for my writing work, I tend to deflect being introduced as a poet or a writer.  Yet anyone who knows me knows that I spend much of my day writing.  I get up at an ungodly hour (in the eyes of most people) so that I have time to do my own writing.  Then I go to work where I write e-mails and documents of all sorts.  When there's time, I take breaks and work on my own writing.  If we're still allowing people to have smoking breaks, then I shall claim my poetry breaks!

I used to think of myself as a fiber artist, back when I was doing more of that kind of art.  Not only did I make quilts, but I made these assemblages out of cloth and fibers and often beads:



Once I made full-size quilts. 



Now it seems to take forever to make a baby quilt.

So, let me think about what I've done since we moved to our new house.  Could I still call myself a fiber artist?

I'm still thrilled by fibers, and I've been helping a friend as she devises cool scarves out of textured yarns, ribbons, and other threads.  But I haven't done any of that myself.

I've finished a baby quilt that I made myself, and I helped with another.  I've also made curtains for the cottage, a project which took several week-ends.  It's not exactly art, but I didn't work from a pattern, so it took a lot of plotting and planning.

In fact, it's important for me to remember that I had two big projects this fall that kept me from returning to other art forms.  I helped my spouse reconstruct the cottage.  And I learned how to teach online and then taught two classes.  Those activities consumed a lot of free time. 

Now that it looks like we'll be mandated to stay in our offices more than we once were, I wonder if there's a way to bring fiber arts into my work day.  The benefit to creating with words is that it looks like I'm working on work projects, no matter what file is open.  If I'm weaving a creation of fibers and beads, hmmm.

I'd like to do assemblage at work.  Later, I'll post more pictures from last night's field trip, but I'm fascinated by the work of Samantha Salzinger who creates small vistas and then photographs them from a very close frame.  So you might end up with this picture that looks like a volcanic explosion but it's actually a creation made of cotton and paint in a shoebox:



Could I do this at work?  Hmmm.

Speaking of work, it's time for me to get ready for spin class and then work.  I will continue to think about how to weave art projects of all sorts into the fabric of my days, regardless of where I spend those days.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tuesday Tidbits: Collaborations of All Sorts

--I've been thinking about Harold Ramis who died yesterday.  You may think you don't know who he was, but if you were alive and conscious of popular culture in the late '70's and 1980's, you probably know who he was, but you don't know you know.  He was the sidekick in many a Bill Murray movie.  For me, I remember his character in Ghostbusters most deeply; but for many of the rest of us, Groundhog Day will be his signature work.  This NPR article gives a lot of background on the actor, the movies, and the trajectory of his career.

--I love the collaborative nature of the work he did.  I love the fact that he realized that he had skills that would be useful behind the camera too.  If he was ever jealous of his friends who made themselves memorable in front of the camera, he hid it well.

--I've been thinking about collaboration in regular life too, in all the ways we help each other.  Yesterday, my spouse and I helped our artist friend take down her MFA art show.    The friend and I put all the art and podiums and materials in the cars, while my spouse dealt with repairing the walls.  It went very speedily. 

--It was strange to think of all that effort leading up to the show, and suddenly, poof, it's gone.

--Last night my spouse craved milkshakes, after seeing lots of commercials for the Sonic fast food place.  But the nearest one was 10 miles away.  So we went to our local grocery store.

--Our local Publix has a very strange vibe.  For one thing, it's the smallest Publix I've ever seen.  It's near the downtown Hollywood area, so there's an inner city vibe, but it's also near some ritzy neighborhoods and high-end condos.  Last night, it seemed the world had converged on that tiny store--many of them in their pajamas.

--Many of the people wandered around the grocery store as if they'd never been to a grocery store before.  One staggering guy who didn't seem quite altogether-with-us looked at a girl choosing movies out of the Red Box vending machine as if it was a fascinating casino game.  Would she win?  Why were the rest of us walking by, so oblivious to the wonders of the red box?

--Tonight I go to a different struggling neighborhood--downtown Ft. Lauderdale, on a field trip to the Girl's Club gallery.

--If I had plenty of money, what kind of business would I create in a struggling neighborhood?  I'm most drawn to artsy stuff, like galleries.  But a bar would probably be my best bet at making some money back from my investment.

--I had a Facebook exchange the other day, as we dreamed of designing clothes.  From there I mentioned Thomas Hood's early Victorian poem, "The Song of the Shirt," where the seamstress is sewing a shroud as well as a shirt.  I said, "Our new company name? The Seamstress Shroud? It will appeal to some of our darker sensibilities, but perhaps not the way to sell frocks!"

--We talked about seamstresses and the birth of the modern labor movement with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  One friend fell in love with the word "Shirtwaist."

--I offered, "Seamstress and Shirtwaists: Sounds like a cool café where people also sew and have poetry readings.  Like Busboys and Poets in DC."

--Then we talked about bar names and bar drinks.  I said, "Frills and Frocks--that would be the name of our very hip bar where people dance the night away and have fruity drinks that are good for them but also deeply intoxicating."

--Then it was time to sign off.  A neighborhood friend and her daughter came over to have us help with a real-life sewing project.  The daughter has to go to school in the costume of a historic character and we were helping transform a grown-up's black skirt into one the child could wear by taking in the waistband and hemming it up.

--Soon it will be off to work, a place where happily, I have many collaborators whom I truly like.  In my poetry break today, I'm working on a pantoum about sea level rise and neighborhoods declining into high crime areas.  I'm basing it on a pantoum that I wrote years ago.  Here's the first stanza of that pantoum:

We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.
Instead we changed the chemistry of the atmosphere.
Chunks of glaciers break for freedom and sail across the sea.
Ice caps melt, and the sea swallows islands.
 
 
--I'm collaborating with myself!

--I wrote that pantoum when a friend in a different city suggested we try our hand at writing a pantoum.  Ah, collaboration of a different sort!


 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Poetry Manuscripts and Classical Music Compositions

Yesterday, after a morning with the poetry manuscript, I went to the Broward Symphony.  This concert was much more traditional than the one in December; is that the reason the audience was so much larger?

Although I don't have the understanding of classical music that my parents do, it's always a delight to get out to hear live music--or live art of any kind, for that matter.  As I watched the second half of the program, a part of the Scheherezade suite by Rimsky-Korsakov, I thought about how similar an orchestral suite is to a manuscript of poems.

At first I tried to make a metaphor wherein each instrument was a poem.  But I quickly moved to thinking about the individual chunks of the music.

Each part of the orchestral piece has to work all by itself.  But by careful repetition, they also link together.  Some orchestral pieces link together fiercely.  Maybe they're tied to an outside story, like Peter and the Wolf.  Maybe it's a story that the composer has made up, like The Nutcracker Suite.

Even with no external scaffolding, we see the same elements holding the suite together; but a composer could choose from a wide variety of possibilities.  There's repetition.  There's the type of composition.  There are all sorts of experimental directions.

I don't have the music vocabulary to continue further, so let me shift to the poetry manuscript.  I've always tried to have a variety of poems in my work.  I could put every single monastery-themed poem into one single work, but I like the way they interact with poems that have a different focus.  Still, I've kept the overarching focus the same:  how our faith in various systems (weapons, religious, medical, Capitalism, science) may doom us or redeem us.

I decided that most of my poems would be in the free verse style.  I have a whole manuscript of formalist poems, but I don't think I conform to those structures as skillfully.  I think it's important to return to the poetry of form (villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets are my favorites) as a good discipline, but I don't often leave that practice with a solid poem.

I have a sonnet in the new manuscript, but I took out the pantoum and there are no sestinas.  My next question:  was having a lone sonnet in a manuscript of free verse too weird?  I decided it was fine, like a hidden treasure.

I read the manuscript to make sure that the themes and imagery swirl around each other without collapsing with the weight of it all or slamming into each other in a destructive way.  I think I've been successful.

I don't have any submissions in mind right now, so I'll let it sit a bit longer.  Then I'll read it one more time to make sure I think it's all in good shape.  And then, once again, out into the world it goes.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

In Which I Discover My Poet Self Likes the Word Snug

I'm tired this morning, but it's a pleasant tiredness.  I spent yesterday afternoon organizing a variety of files, copying files from one computer to another so that I could print them.  In the late afternoon/early evening, we walked to our friends' house, where we enjoyed yummy appetizers and good wine.  We talked about our all-time favorite writers, and which presidential candidates seemed most like ones you'd want to have a beer with.  Although I would not want to have a beer with Nixon, I confessed my sympathy for Richard Nixon, the Richard Nixon of 1960, not the one of 1972.  I came home and crashed into sleep, where I dreamed of a huge party I was giving for strangers in our new house, but we were out of food, and the place was lit only by candles, and I was afraid of fire.

What better mindset to read the new manuscript of poems?

I wanted to read the manuscript from beginning to end, in one sitting, and now, I have.  I like the way the poems swirl around some of the same themes and images:  nuclear stuff, the rising seas, the difficulty of modern work, monastery stuff, religious images.  I think I have it all balanced.

I need to re-think one image.  In poem after poem, people return to snug houses, snug cottages, snug condos.  Too much repetition of the word snug.  Now to determine which poem gets the word.  And should I try to develop other ways of suggesting that snugness?  Could I have a tightly tucked cottage? Hmm.  I'll let these ideas percolate.

There's also several times where things rise like incense rising in a chapel, prayers rising in a chapel, like smoke wafting to rafters.  I'm not sure that repetition leaps out the way the adjective "snug" does.

I'm startled by how many typos remain.  I really thought I had caught all of those.

And I would not have thought the word "snug" would be one that I would overuse.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Restorative Friday: A Good Book and a Seat in the Sun

Yesterday was remarkably restorative--all the more remarkable because I woke up feeling sad and slipping downward off the edge of a pit of existential despair.

We had yesterday off, as our school celebrated Presidents Day on Friday rather than Monday.  Our classes meet once a week, so if we celebrated on Monday, the classes that meet on Monday miss two classes, with MLK day and Presidents Day.  And so, unlike the rest of the nation, we celebrated on Friday.

I went to spin class, which was helpful but didn't totally lift my spirits.  I worried that my weariness from 2 weeks of work exhaustion (moving + meetings + more moving + more meetings) would sink my whole week-end, and a 3 day week-end at that.

I got some writing done, but that fact didn't cheer me, the way it usually does.  I felt more apprehensive.  I took care of some chores, like organizing the receipts to get ready to prepare taxes.  I felt even worse.  I knew that I should take the car into the shop, but I just didn't want to deal with that.

I decided to take advantage of the morning sunshine.  I grabbed the book I wanted to start, Anne Patchett's This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.  I had been so happy to find it at the library.  I opened the book and was hooked from the first page.

What a wonderful collection of essays.  I loved the ones I expected to love, the essays about writing (more on this in a later blog post), but I loved the others too.  I enjoyed sitting in the sun.  I enjoyed the feeling of a good book.  So often, I start a book and weeks go by and I can barely stand the thought of looking at the unfinished book.  It's wonderful to be absorbed.

I loved Patchett's tone too.  It was like sitting in the sun with an old, good friend.  I'd been feeling a bit of self-pity, because all my friends are busy, busy, busy, and they've got book contracts and/or editors who are interested in what they're doing--oh the downward spiral of self-loathing that can result from that line of thinking!  And Patchett's book stopped my sniveling self.

Thus, by mid-afternoon, I was back to my cheerful, optimistic self.  I did some work with my online classes.  I paid bills and looked at our budget--we're not doing as badly as I feared!  I enjoyed one of my favorite late afternoon meals:  wine, cheese, and crackers, finished with a Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar shared with my spouse.  We ended the day by watching 80's movies on some obscure, non-network channel:  Out of Bounds and St. Elmo's Fire.  Oh, how glad I am to be so many years removed from that first year out of college!

I needed the kind of day that reminded me that I do like my house.  My last 2 weeks have felt a bit like I just go to work to be able to afford to do home repairs.  On most days, I've left my house before the sun comes up and not gotten home until long after sunset--the kind of schedule that makes me think I should just move a cot into my office and be done with commuting, for all the time I get to spend away from my office.

I'm lucky, in that I only have those kind of hectic work weeks once in awhile.  I know that some people face that existence year after year.  And I'm lucky that the most effective restorative practices are cheap:  a library book and a seat in the sun.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Writing Processes from Deep Submersion to Pirate Radio Stations

Yesterday, after the morning's meeting about persistence (lots of discussion of the problem, about which we all agree--not much time on problem-solving), I took part in a meeting that was part webinar, part phone conference.  Something was wrong somewhere, which meant that the organizer had us all muted--that meant that when someone wanted to talk, we had to wait several minutes for the organizer to unmute.  Maddening.  At this rate, we will never launch the redesign of the English Composition class.

It's frustrating because I spent the late months of fall participating in a small group where we wrestled with issues and came up with a plan.  Two other teams did that too.  Now we have 3 proposals and we need to achieve some kind of synthesis.

I found it rewarding to work in the small group.  I loved returning to issues of curriculum and student learning.  We've got some cool ideas, and it's frustrating to be stalled at this stage of the process.  We need to synthesize ideas and move forward with a plan.  We've had a meeting where the plans are presented; we're now trying to discuss them.  But the technology is working against discussion.  Sigh.

By the time I got to mid-afternoon, I felt frazzled in multiple ways.  I turned to blog posts to refresh me.  I came across several blog posts that talked about the writing process. 

My Hindu writing friend blogs sparingly, so it's always a treat to discover that she's posted something.  And this post mentions me!  She compares her writing process to that of others.  Her writing process submerges her completely.  She starts writing during broad daylight and looks up to realize that it's 3 a.m.

She says, "I wonder at all who write for the love of it. One of my best friends writes in the wee hours of the morning and is disciplined enough to command her pen. She, along with a lot of people whose writing habits I read about, can write for a couple of hours a day and not miss time. She can have normal appointments, meet people for lunch, attend and contribute meaningfully to meetings, and do the same thing the following day! She has amassed a formidable body of varied genres, all because she has the discipline to write a little everyday."

Yep, that's me, writing at 3 or 4 a.m. or even earlier, if I'm having trouble sleeping.  But it's often blogging or e-mailing.  I need discipline of a different sort.  This morning, I began my writing day by working on a short story.  Not surprisingly, I got more done on that short story than I do when I start off working on a blog post.  When I begin by blogging, I often have no time for other writing before it's time to get ready for work.

I envy my friend's ability to dive deep.  She envies my very different situation.  Of course, I can't write the way that she does; I've got a boss that would frown on me losing myself to my writing that way.  We do what we can with the circumstances that we have.

I also came across Kelli's blog post on her writing process, which led me to a different post on the writing process--that post describes a writing process that's like a pirate radio station:  "But when I am writing I have no special time of day to write. My writing is like a pirate radio station, always shifting time and location—from a sunny chair in my apartment, to a noisy tea shop in my city, to my desk at DePaul, to my phone while riding the El."

Yesterday I tried to shift location.  I had every intention of writing a poem before the big meeting in the morning.  I didn't get that done, but I did figure out the last stanza, how to end the poem.  At least when I get it written down, I'm more likely to have a finished poem.

I will need to be adaptable.  I've been lucky to have a very flexible schedule.  Yesterday we learned of a new rule that demands that administrators be at their desks no later than 10.

On the one hand, it's still pretty flexible.  On the other hand, it wipes out the mornings that feel like they could last forever, when my spouse is away at class and the whole morning is mine to do with what I wish.  I'm trying not to feel upset.

Kelli gives great advice:  "So my advice for other writers, is to write daily if you can, and find what creates the spark in you? Is it something you do-- light a candle, do yoga before, meditate?  Is it something you taste, drink?  A certain scent? Something you hear?"  
I will need to learn to find those sparks at work, in addition to other locations.  Here's an idea that I will try.  Just before the new year, I bought this book, a book of daily prompts that Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano created.  Of course, I have yet to use it.  I don't need that kind of inspiration when I'm at home.

So, I will take the book to work.  I will work my way through the prompts.  I will close the door and write a poem just as often as I close the door and listen to a teleconference.  If we're still allowed to take a smoking break, and we are, I will take a poetry break!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Prayers in Pottery; Perspective in Poetry

Today is a day of meetings, some of which may be ugly and filled with bad news.  Our morning meeting is about the numbers, which are not where the people in charge would like them to be.  The afternoon meeting is about the redesign of the English Composition class.  Maybe there will be contentious disagreement about how to do it. Or maybe not.

In any case, it seems a good day to post this picture.  I took it at Mepkin Abbey.  It's a sign made of pottery.  Or should I say a pottery prayer?




You might be asking, haven't you already had these kinds of meetings?  Yes, yes we have.  In fact, I was remembering a post that I wrote; imagine my surprise to see the date of 2010.  This post has a prayer that I wrote for meetings that I faced that day.  I'll be praying it again today.

And maybe it's a good day for a poem, a poem that takes place on another day of bad news.  I'm not sure it works as a poem, but it helps me keep perspective.  It's a true story; on the day that the DOW tumbled into the 7000-8000 range back in 2008, we went downtown with our suburban church to serve dinner to the homeless at the urban church.  I was struck by all the contrasts of the day.  What is wealth?  How much is enough?

I suspect I'll be thinking about some of the same questions today.  I suspect today will be a day when I think about social justice in ways that others might not be.

In any case, here's the poem.


In the Soup

 
While we drove to the downtown church,
the DOW closes
at its lowest
since 2002 or 1987
or some year during
The Great Depression;
who can keep track
of this bad news?

 We prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,
and I think of you and long
car trips, PBJs and a thermos of hot coffee
driving through the darkness
with only our singing voices to light the way.

We dish out soup and sliced
bread.  I think of my shrinking retirement fund.
I watch the men with shaking hands slather
margarine on the bread:  cheap calories.

After dinner, we gather in the chapel.
The pastor collects our prayers.
I think about poems and promotions,
while a homeless man mutters,
“May we find food tomorrow.”

 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Inspirational E-Mails: One of My Recent Projects

I thought I'd share one of my latest projects with you today.  Two weeks ago, when I returned from Mepkin Abbey, I had an idea for a way to inspire myself and my friends, and to keep us remembering our retreat mindset, even when the days of our retreat were far behind us.  I've decided to put out a weekly inspirational e-mail, with photos from Mepkin, and as I go along, to collect these into one Word document, in case I want to turn it into more of a manuscript or eBook.

So, here's what I wrote upon my return.  Does it work as inspiration?  Would you want a whole book of these or would they be tiresome?  Would you want writing/art/creativity prompts too?


Inspirational e-mail #1


Maintaining Mepkin Mind

Feb. 4, 2014

As we return to regular life, it's good to ponder the question of how to maintain our Mepkin mindset, so that our flames continue to burn brightly.




 

I've been thinking about the oil lamp in the Father Francis Kline Memorial Chapel.  It takes such a little bit of oil, yet the flame burns steadily.  I'm hoping that we can continue to burn, even during the weeks when we're running low on oil.  Hopefully we can remember this lamp and be heartened from the fact that it doesn't take much oil.

 



 

I know that some weeks, we'll only be able to get a glimpse of that bright flame, a glimpse through a slit in a wall.  Again, the flame is there.  The flame waits faithfully.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Trip to the Rubell

A week from today, I'll be going on a field trip with an Art Appreciation class.  A week ago, I was going on a field trip with an English class.  It occurs to me that I never posted pictures.  Let me do that today.

You may remember that we went to the Rubell Family Collection.  We saw a show that featured contemporary Chinese artists.

I have written a post  with several pictures that's partly about this tube made of rice paper that was crumpled and draped over bamboo rods:



That same artist did interesting paintings too.  Are they more like paintings or sculpture?  These photos don't capture how thick the paint is on the canvas.




In fact, the very paint may ultimately destroy the canvas, as it pulls the material downward.  Ah, the slow process of gravity!



I love this tower made of scavenged door frames around Beijing.


A view from the top:





I had seen this work before.  It looks like pen or paint or charcoal, but the medium will surprise you:  ash from various Buddhist temples.



There was an interesting project done with Coke bottles.  Here's a standard approach, a collection of bottles, labels in different languages:



And the non-standard approach, which involved melting down the bottles into a gooey mess and creating a sculpture:



And this looks like a traditional painting, but it's Coke, not ink or paint.  It must be a curator's nightmare; what happens to this medium as it ages?



The project below intrigues me.  The artist approached temporary workers and asked them if he could buy everything they had on them, and he'd buy them new clothes (which also provided them a place to change clothes).



Then he arranged the clothes and the possessions.  Is this art or sociology research?  Performance piece?




I found an interesting spiritual dimension.  Are we the sum of our possessions?  What will be left behind when we die?  And there's the rapture element.  It looks like these people who inhabited these clothes just vanished, as if taken up into Heaven.




I also love this bamboo sculpture, how it rises and falls as one piece; yes, it's all one piece of sculpture!




Many of these artists use traditional materials in unusual ways, or as in the case of the classical-looking ink that's actually Coke, untraditional mediums in traditional ways.

You've still got a chance to see this amazing exhibit in this wonderful space; it's up until August 1.  Here's the contact information:

95 NW 29th Street, Miami, FL 33127
T: +1(305) 573-6090
Hours:  TUE—SAT, 10am—6pm

Monday, February 17, 2014

Calico Thoughts for Your Monday

--It was a delightful week-end, in a way, for me, but not for my sick spouse.  It's amazing how much I can get done on writing projects when I'm staying put and when my spouse is sleeping a lot.

--My spouse spent Saturday watching a variety of Westerns.  I expect to write a poem soon with the words calico and bonnet in it.

--Is there a word more delightful than calico?  And I have loved many a calico fabric too.  And calico cats have their own charms.

--Interesting to have the Westerns on in the background, with at least one show revolving around making do when the doctor can't come.  And my spouse is sick, and even with our high tech medicine, there's nothing much more to do on a Saturday than to monitor him and hope that his fever doesn't spike.

--If his fever does spike, the cure is similar to that of 150 years ago:  keep the body submerged in cool water until the fever comes down.

--Of course, we have aspirin and penicillin now.  Aspirin was helpful this past week-end.  We didn't try the penicillin; it's not something we keep on hand in the family medicine cabinet.  And on Sunday, my spouse's temperature had returned to normal, and so, it appears we will not be needing antibiotics.

--And now, it's time to head back to the disorder of the office.  Actually, only one office is in disarray.  The one that the Corporate folks will see during their visit on Wed. and Thursday is in good shape.

--Do you need a writing or discussion topic?  Think about this.  On this day in 1913, the first comprehensive show of modern art opened in the U.S.  Here's what The Writer's Almanac site says about the origin of the show:  "At the time, American art was dominated by the ultra-conservative National Academy of Design, which had no interest in nonrepresentational or experimental work. In 1912, a group of artists had gotten together and formed the Association for American Painters and Sculptors. One of these artists was the painter Walt Kuhn, who wrote to his wife: 'My idea about the new society is this: a big broad liberal organization embracing every kind of art, even those which I do not like, one that will interest the public ... the thing must be started so that it can grow and be as big or bigger than the academy within two or three years.'"  And so, the group brought artists to their show, and these artists are household names today:  Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Gogh--hard to believe these artists were once considered too radical to be part of an exhibition.

--What art/expression would be banned by a National Academy of Design today?  Would it be something we'd find on social media?

--I've been thinking about this essay by Hannah Stephenson.  She talks about artists and social media, but her guidelines are good for us all.  I particularly like this one: "Social media is a tool for communication (both sharing and listening). It is not a replacement for human connection. It is another way to speak to other humans."  And this one:  "The purpose is not to sell work, to shout like the loudest infomercials about ourselves. We would not behave this way in public; thus, it behooves us to be mindful about our presence online. Online = in public. The point is never about getting numbers, sales, or recognition."  Oh, who am I kidding?  I love the whole piece.

--I wonder what our students would say--what instructions would they add?

--I've also been thinking about this piece and this piece that alerted me of the move amongst some to read 14 books by 14 women in 2014.  How am I doing so far?   I've read these books by women:  Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, part of The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, Blowout by Denise Duhamel, Paula Huston's A Season of Mystery Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor, Flannery O'Connor's A Prayer Journal, which almost feels like it shouldn't count because it's so fragmentary and short.  And that's just the list of what I'm remembering.  Clearly, reading 14 books written by women will not be a problem, unless I lose consciousness for the better part of a year.

--Interesting that I once would have read primarily fiction, and now there's only one piece of fiction on the list.  It's not because I'm reading lots of books of fiction by males.  I'm just not reading much fiction these days.

--It's interesting that when I have a low-key week-end at home, I write.  When I have a low-key week-end away, I read.  I only recently started using my laptop.  I wonder if that will change as I get in the habit of taking my laptop everywhere.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Week-end at the House of Pestilence

It's been a strange week-end here, very different from what we expected.  My sister and nephew were supposed to visit from Thursday night until Monday morning.  But on Thursday, my sister called to say that they had snow above the tires of the cars (they live in Maryland), with another foot expected.  And so, she rescheduled for late March.

We've all been disappointed, but I've been less disappointed than I expected to be.  My spouse is sick with something that resembles flu.  We never get flu down here, at least not in our house.  But Friday night, he felt so hot that I dug out a thermometer, just to make sure he wasn't at risk.

We only have a thermometer because a decade ago, my spouse had reconstructive surgery on a finger that had had an ugly encounter with a table saw.  The doctor told us we needed to monitor his temperature, which would serve as an early warning if infection set in.  Happily, he never had a fever, and the thermometer has been gathering dust--until Friday night.

Sure enough, my spouse has a fever in the 102 range.  I tried to remember what I know about fevers and at what point they're dangerous.  I remember nothing.  But if his fever starts to spike, we'll have him soak in our backyard pool, which is quite chilly these days.  It won't be pleasant, but it will likely do the trick. 

In the meantime, he's taking fluids and aspirin.  And I'm having a pleasant week-end, nesting at home.  I've roasted chicken and made chicken and dumplings.  I've done laundry.  I've worked on writing projects and my online classes.

I won't go to church this morning.  I had told people I wouldn't be coming because my sister and nephew would be here.  And now, even though they're not, I don't want to expose people to whatever my spouse has.  Is he contagious?  Am I a carrier?  I don't know.

Tomorrow, while the rest of the nation celebrates President's Day, I'll be at work.  We celebrate on Friday.  Our classes meet once a week, and for years, Monday classes got seriously short-changed in Winter quarter.  Now that problem has been fixed, but we're out of sync with the nation.  I'll take a 3 day week-end whenever I can get one, although I do prefer having Mondays off instead of Fridays.

Today will be another day of laying low at the house.  I'll make a pot roast.  I'll keep working on writing projects.  Let me record an idea, in case it slips away from me.

As I've come back from Mepkin Abbey each year, I've written "What the monks can teach us about __________."  I've filled in the blanks with a lot of words:  creativity, worship, food.  I wondered if I had enough for a book.  I put every blog post that was remotely related into a document.  I don't think there's enough for a book.

Yesterday at spin class, I thought, hey, I have a similar series of posts with spin class and exercise.  Maybe I could create a book with sections.  But I'd need one more section.

This morning, I remembered that I think I've done something similar when I've spent time with my little nephew, as he's passed through toddlerhood and the following years. 

Maybe I'll spend some time this afternoon collecting those essays.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Weeks When the Universe Reminds You of Who You Are

This has been a tough week for mostly less-than-bloggable reasons.  In case your heart stops in your chest when you read those words, let me say that at the end of the week, I'm still employed and almost everyone I love is still alive and all of my belongings that I want to keep are still with me and as far as I know, all my friends are still my friends.

In short, it could have been a far worse week.

But it's been moving week at work, and it was only announced as moving week on Monday.  So my ideal moving process suddenly got extremely compressed.

Once I determined that we would still have access to our old offices after the move, I decided to focus on getting the big, heavy stuff ready.  I packed boxes of books and got all the files into the file cabinet that was moved.  I emptied the bookcase that I wanted taken over to the new office across the street.

And Thursday, the moving guys showed up (not as burly as I expected, and without basic equipment like a 2 wheel cart) and got everything moved.  The bookcase fits just as I measured and expected it to do.  There's not a lot of room between the desk and the bookcase, but I'd rather have books than room to twirl around.  There's not a lot of space in my new office anyway.

I unloaded all my poetry books and the undergrad/grad school books I'm keeping.  Seeing them on my shelves makes me so happy.  It's always been my approach to moving:  unload the old friends first.  Ah, books, the fastest friends!

Yesterday, as I sorted some of the office stuff left behind, I found an old legal pad from back in 2009, when I thought I'd try to write poems at work.  There's some good stuff in there!  Maybe I should go back to that, writing poems at work.

Moving week meant that I spent many extra hours at work before Friday, so I headed home early Friday afternoon.  Because it was a gorgeous afternoon, we had burgers and wine by the pool, after we took the car to the shop.  My spouse is sick, so he slept on the sofa while I worked on the laptop.

My Amazon order came in the late afternoon:  2 poetry books!  I'm looking forward to spending time with Kelli Russell Agodon's Hourglass Museum and Susan Rich's Cloud Pharmacy.  And yes, I feel some guilt about not ordering directly from the poets or from the publisher, but I had Amazon points and no cash, and so, I commit to buying an additional copy of each at some later point--hopefully, at a poetry reading!

When my spouse woke up, we decided to walk to the beach to watch the moon rise.  We shared a beer and a pretzel at the organic brewery on the beach as the full moon emerged from the clouds on the horizon.  It was a simple, cheap way to celebrate Valentine's Day, but I loved it.

As I think about the week in review, I think about how many reminders I've had that I'm a poet and a Brit Lit person and a Lutheran monastic--all those things first and foremost before the other identities the world would want to foist upon me (and for the sake of brevity, I'm leaving aside identities as wife, friend, daughter, sister).  I had a conversation with a woman who was trying to place the origin for the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief; her MFA professors had no idea.  I immediately knew:  "It's Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  I'd loan you the book, but it's in a box right now."

As people got more and more stressed, I tried to be my best hospice chaplain self.  I listened to their grief as I prayed silently for them.  And when I needed renewal, I slipped away to the stairwells where a solitary person can sing.  The notes vibrate off the concrete and rise far above my head.  I sang the lines I learned at Mepkin Abbey:  "Oh God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me."  I sang the first verse of "Oh come, oh come Emmanuel."  My spirits immediately lifted, along with the notes.  I love the way it sounds like I'm singing in a cathedral when I sing in the stairwells.

Most of all, I kept bumping into reminders that I'm a poet, and that the poet identity is important to me.  I wrote a poem and worked on the revised manuscript.  I rejoiced in the fact that so many publishers are still putting out books of poems.  I took solace in the older volumes.  I continued to hold onto my vision of my book with a spine making its way in the world.

Could it happen by this time next year?  Probably not a book on paper, but maybe an acceptance.  That would be a dream come true.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ways for Artists, Writers, and Other Creative Types to Celebrate Valentine's Day

Sure we could make Valentines out of construction paper and lacy doilies.  We could bake cupcakes.  We could write a sonnet. 

But we've been doing those things for years.  Let's think about some different ways to use this holiday for inspiration:

--Make a list of everyone you've ever loved.  Reflect on which of those people would make good characters for a narrative.  What conflicts could they generate?  Write that scene, short story, novel, or script/play.

--Use a traditional Valentine's Day image (the heart, the rose, the box of candy) and make a piece of art that subverts it.

--What would a modern Saint Valentine look like?

--It's becoming clear that we need to ask the question:  do we love our IT devices as much (more?) than we love our families or pets?  What might this love look like in the future?  Are we really helping silicon based forms become the dominant life forms on the planet?  Daniel Dennett thinks so.  Make a piece of art that translates these philosophical questions into art.  Or write a philosophical treatise for the silicon age.

--We're also in the middle of the Holocene Extinction, the 6th great die-off (the 5th one killed the dinosaurs).  Write a love letter to the species you will miss the most.  Create a piece of art to honor it.

--I heard a scientist say that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs; this time, we're the asteroid.  What does it mean to be the asteroid?

--When I was in elementary school, we took shoe boxes and turned them into boxes so we'd have a place to receive Valentines.  I've thought that could be a powerful inspiration.  What Valentines do you want the world to send you?  What kind of recepticle do you need?  Create it now.

--Create a Valentine for yourself.  There are plenty of reasons that you are loved.  Make sure the Valentine mentions them.

--You've got the art forms that you love already.  Today, try a different creative medium, technique, or tool.  If you always quilt in small patterns, make a crazy quilt.  If you write short poems, write a poem that's at least 200 lines.  If you write in one genre, try something else.  If you paint, try sculpting something.  On and on I could go.

--Today is a good day to try a luscious desert.   If you can't have something sumptuous on Valentine's Day, then when can you?  But maybe you've had the kind of week that I've had, a week that's left you limp with weariness.  On my way home last night, I heard this piece on NPR about a simple chocolate mousse recipe.  All you need are eggs, salt, sugar, and chocolate.  I'm willing to bet that chocolate chips whirred in the blender or food processor would work just fine.  And sure the eggs are raw, but my friend with advanced degrees in microbiology says that as long as the shells aren't cracked, there's no risk of salmonella.

--If you don't make something special to eat, do something special for yourself today.  Maybe a nice lotion for your chapped hands--what a winter many of us have been having!  Maybe some flowers when you're at the grocery store.  Buy yourself some music or play something already in your collection that you haven't heard in awhile.  Go to bed early or sleep in.  Congratulate yourself for recent good news, whatever it may be.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Valentine's Eve

Here we are, the day before Valentine's Day, a day that can be full of symbols and signs.  It's also a good day to consider how overused those symbols have become.  Can we refresh them?

Take the simple rose.  It's the flower that I use when I teach symbols to my English 102 students.  They're not taking my class to become a better poet; they're looking to get a requirement out of the way.

So, I say, "If I arrive home to find a dozen roses waiting for me, my response would be 'Wow!  Who loves me?'  Unless, of course, it's a dozen black, withered roses.  But if it's a pot of geraniums, I'm likely to have a different response."  They get that.

Likewise the heart.  Is there a way to make that symbol new again?

Here's a poem that attempts to do just that.  I got the idea one summer, around 2001 or so.  I was reading Rick Bragg's latest book and thinking about the men who worked in the mills.  And this poem emerged.

I realize that some readers might be puzzled at the idea of me dividing myself into parts this way.  Literal readers will say, "But the heart is part of you."  Yes, I have this sort of medieval approach to my body, seeing it as separate from myself.  I expect to spend my life integrating all the parts of myself that I see as separate but really aren't.

This poem was published in Coal City Review.  I would have sworn it was also part of my first chapbook, but when I checked this morning, I realized that it's not.  Once I had that chapbook memorized; strange to realize how many years have gone by since I put it together.


Mill Worker Heart

 

 
My heart is a mill worker,
slaving long hours, hidden away in dark hollows.
It knows it cannot miss a day of work and so it slogs
away, pumping with its powerful muscle mass, conserving
energy by slaving steadily.

I throw fits, create dramas, drop into hysterics
for the most minor of reasons.  My heart ignores
me, like the man who knows he can’t be late
to work, who takes his lunch bucket, steps
across the children, kisses his weeping wife, and escapes.

I spend the better part of each day pondering, wondering
if I’m living up to my life’s ultimate purpose.
My heart spends no time on such a ridiculous
torture.  It knows its purpose, its primary
part in the body of my life.  Long ago it heard
its true calling, and it has never lost a beat.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Of Museums and Office Moves

Last week, we were told we would be in our current offices for several months.  On Monday, we were told we needed to be in our new offices by Friday or early next week.  Yesterday, we were told that the movers are coming Thursday.

As people heard the news, they said to me, "What are you going to do?"

To which I replied, "Pack."  People have looked at me skeptically.  I could almost see them measuring how many books remain on the shelf.

But I am my father's daughter.  I can pack up a bookcase in minutes.  My family never got far from its military beginnings.  We can be packed up and ready to go in very short order.

In fact, I was so convinced of my abilities to get packed that I continued with my original plan to go to the Rubell Family Collection, the wonderful field trip that my colleague arranged for her students.  On a day when I have more time, I'll likely post more pictures, but here's my favorite piece from yesterday:


You can't really tell, but it's a huge tube made of sheet after sheet of crumpled rice paper folded over hanging bamboo rods.

Here are some close ups.  This is the wall, taken from the outside:


and from underneath, looking up:



I entered the tube and felt an immediate peace.  I got a whiff of paper, like sniffing an old book that's in good condition.  I loved being surrounded by the cream color, by the paper.

The focus of the current exhibition is Chinese artists living now.  I learned a lot; needless to say, I'm not very familiar with contemporary Asian art, and very few people know much about contemporary Chinese art beyond some obvious names.

And then I returned back to the office, where I packed and packed and packed.  And it's mostly done.

Today I'll move all the files that are going with me to the file cabinet that's going with me.  I'll wipe down the furniture that's leaving.  I'll pry a sticker off my desk because it reminds me of a former friend and boss.  Hidden in a corner, the sticker proclaims that in the event of the rapture, this desk will be unmanned.  It reminds me that when I first started working here, there were more born-again folks.  They're mostly gone now.

When I look back on yesterday, will I remember the calm of the museum?  I hope so.  The day was bookended by people who are feeling all sorts of negative emotions about the changes that are barreling our way.

One of my colleagues asked me what time I'd be in today.  I replied, "The normal time, in the afternoon."  At her arched eyebrow, I said, "My reading pal still deserves our hour together."

Yes, the moving tasks will wait.  Last week, my first grade reading pal had showed the most improvement in one week that I've seen.  I want to build on that today.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mepkin Abbey: Even a Monastery Changes

It's interesting to return to a place again and again.  I tend to assume that all will be the same, but even at a monastery, there are changes.

For years, this structure was our lodging--not exactly what you'd expect from a monastery:



But this year, there's a new retreat center.



It had a Zen-like feel that I wouldn't have expected at a Catholic monastery:





Here is a view of the room.




I could stay here and write for days and days!



There's a new chapel at the retreat center, but it's only used for individual meditation:




At first there were no flowers in the chapel that's used for worship.  But by Saturday night, these Christmas flowers appeared:





The wreaths were still up, which is appropriate.  We were there for Candlemas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth, which in some traditions ends the Christmas season.







And there are new crèche scenes along the pathways.









Once there was an abandoned building:



Now there is a pottery studio:



Here's a close-up of the porch with the wheel:


And I confess that I peeked in a window:



Once the monks sold eggs, and now they sell mushrooms.  But I don't have a picture for that.  Retreatents aren't allowed to wander the farm section of the monastery.

I am trying to take comfort from this view of monastery changes.  It's a week of change at work.  Once I thought I'd be staying in my office for several months.  Yesterday I was told that I needed to be in the new office by Friday.