Sunday, May 31, 2015

Incubating the Improbable in an Unlikely Womb

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

In the churches of my younger years, we never celebrated feast days.  What a loss.  I love this additional calendar that circles through the year, this calendar that reminds us of what ordinary people can do.

I also find these days inspiring in so many ways.  Today, let's think about what this day teaches us as we approach our creative processes.

In our age that worships fame and celebrity and insists that if they haven't come early, then what we're doing isn't worth much, this feast day reminds us that there are times when we may need to sit with our projects.  It may be good if it takes months, years, or even decades to bring a project to completion.  We may need periods of distance to see what we're creating with fresh eyes.  It may take time for us to know what we're doing.  We may need to wait for the surrounding world to be ready.

In short, when I find myself feeling despair over how long it's taken me to actually pull together my memoir/book of essays, I remind myself that time to incubate is not bad.  It's a stronger manuscript that I have now than the one that I would have had if I had rushed it into existence when I first had the idea.

I also love the idea that these two women have each other.  They're both taking similar journeys through very unusual territory, and they can use support.

We live in a culture that doesn't support much in the way of creativity, unless we're harnessing our creative powers to make gobs and gobs of money.  It's good to have fellow travelers.  On this day, I'm offering up gratitude for all those who have given me encouragement while also working on their own projects.  I'm grateful for the ways that their creativity has nourished mine.

This feast day also reminds us of the value of retreat.  I love to get away on the writing retreats that I take periodically.  I get so much done when I'm away from the demands of regular life.  And even during those years when I return with not much done, I often have a blaze of creativity shortly after I return.  Those retreats nourish me on multiple levels.

This morning, I'm feeling most inspired by the possibility of the impossible.  The world tells us that so much of what we desire is just not possible.  Our work will never find favor, our relationships will always disappoint, we will never truly achieve mastery over what hurts us--in short, we live in a culture that tells us we are doomed.  We swim in these seas, and it's hard to avoid the pollution.

Along comes this feast day which proclaims that the not only is the impossible possible, but the impossible is already incubating in an unlikely womb. It's much too easy for any of us to say, "Who am I to think that I can do this?"  The good news of this feast day is that I don't have to be the perfect one for the task.  By saying yes, I have made myself the perfect one.

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

Today is a good day to think of all the times we've been afraid to take those first steps, those projects and dreams to which we've said no.  Maybe it's time to go back and say yes.  It's not too late.  As long as there is breath in our bodies, it is not too late.

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

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Weekly Writing Report

It's been a great writing week.  I have about 7 weeks where my online teaching load is lighter.  It's interesting how that knowledge has shaped my writing priorities.  I'm reminded of writers who say, "I make the most of naptime."  Or the time when children march off to school.  There aren't that many hours, so when they come, one makes the most of them.

I've typed more poems into the computer and sent more poems out into the world.  But here's what's making me really proud of myself this week:  I sent a query letter about my memoir/book of essays off to three possible agents.

Some readers may shrug and wonder why that's a big deal. 

I wrote the draft of the letter back in February.  But that agent required a Table of Contents, which meant I had to go back and insert page numbers.  And then there was vacation time.  But those reasons aren't what really held me back.

It was fear.  I had sent a version of the letter to a different agent who seemed like a perfect match and heard nothing.  I have put a lot into this writing project.  I am so hopeful.  I am so afraid that like so many of my longer projects, I will never bring this one to publishing fruition.

So what made the difference this week?  Part of it is my vow that I made in this blog post.  Part of it is having time.  Part of my determination stems from my wonderful writer friend who has so much faith in this project--plus, over Memorial week-end, she put a query letter and proposal together for her book of short stories and sent it off to 15 potential agents.  Her fearlessness inspired me.  I'm lucky to have this kind of friend.

I decided on where to send the letters by an old-fashioned way:  I looked at books on my shelf that I loved, books that are like my own writing in some way.  I researched these authors to find out their agents--often it was as simple as flipping to the acknowledgments page.

Since I want this blog to be a record of my process, I'll go ahead and tell which agents are getting queries from me:

My writing style and organization in this project is modeled after Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk.  Her agent is Lynn Nesbit.

Likewise, Lillian Daniel seems to be doing something similar to me with her blog posts transformed into essays in When "Spiritual but Not Religious" Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church.  Her agent works for Daniel Literary Group (are they related?  unsure, but the agency has brought other books that I recognize to publishers).

I've been enjoying Rachel Held Evans' Searching for Sunday.  Her agent is Rochelle Gardner.

I'm also feeling psyched this morning because I've started reading the manuscript from start to finish.  More on that tomorrow or Monday.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Simple Summer Healthier Approach to Eating

I am surrounded by many people who are trying to get back to healthier eating patterns as summer sets in.  I am too.

I am surprised by how much dietary information, the basics, just does not change.  We know what to do:

--eat more plant-based foods
--eat moderately
--limit processed foods
--stay away from traditional fast food--by which I mean anything fried in those industrial vats
--in restaurants, also stay away from those fried and crispy offerings
--stay hydrated, which can include more than water:  tea, coffee, moderate amounts of wine!
--eat ever more plant-based foods

With all the information that's out there, I'm surprised by how much a lot of people don't know.  It's not enough to know the calorie content of food; the carb content is less important than many people think.  We should think in terms of nutritional value--what foods give us the most nutrients for the calories?

We can have a salad made of iceberg lettuce or a salad made of romaine lettuce.  Iceberg gives us no nutrients.  The romaine salad will give us at least half of the vitamin A that we need in a day.

Several weeks ago, I made a pumpkin pudding--that's pumpkin pie filling baked in a pie pan without a crust.  It's delicious and packed with vitamin A and has some protein and the sugar content is moderate.  I told a friend about it, and she said, "I just think of food in terms of the category."

I said, "So you'd classify what I made as dessert and not eat it?"

She nodded.  And depending on what else she eats during the day, that approach might work.  But there are lots of desserts in that category that would be worth the calories--like a berry crumble, made with oats.

I have nutrition on the brain too, because NPR has been covering the Blue Zones research.  The Blue Zones are places where people live to be a healthy old age.  Here, too, the news does not surprise me.  But it is interesting how some of these foods have been in and out of favor through the years.  For example, the research suggests that eating 2 oz. of nuts each day might add 2-4 years to a healthy life.  I remember years when many people were avoiding nuts because of their fat.

Likewise, I've had people tell me I shouldn't eat carrots because they've got too much sugar.  They may have more sugar than broccoli.  But that's fine with me, because they also have lots of vitamin A and fiber.

One suggestion from the Blue Zone coverage was to eat a half a cup of beans each day: I can't find the quote, but one researcher said that most of the nutrients that you need for the day are contained in that half cup of beans. I tried doing that with lots of success back around 1996.   I wonder if I could do it again . . .

When I first considered it, two decades ago, I worried that I couldn't find many ways to enjoy beans.  But all I need is one or two ways.  I ate a lot of veggie stews with beans.  And I cooked a pot of barley and a pot of lentils and combined them with a bit of olive oil, feta cheese, and rosemary/basil/oregano/any spices which appeal.  For awhile, I had a berry smoothie in the morning, a scoop of lentils and barley for lunch, and a sensible dinner.  At that time, I wasn't drinking alcohol, but I was worried about my sweet tea consumption--ah, my wayward youth!

It will not surprise you that I was at my lowest weight of my adult life during that time period.

So here's my summer sensible eating plan.  I will eat my plain yogurt/thawed frozen raspberry/oats/pecans mix once a day.  I will eat a scoop of barley and lentils or some other half cup of beans each day or some other mix that will give me roughly half a cup of beans (you can find good recipes here and here).  I will cut up a cantaloupe and a small watermelon each week and eat as much as I want each day.  If I can do that, I suspect the rest will take care of itself. 

But when we get to Bastille Day, I'll reassess.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Love in the Time of Sea Level Rise

Before I go any further, a reassurance for my South Florida friends.  I am not moving.  I am not even thinking about moving.  I have a full-time job here and a house I love here and it's in a great location and I've waited a long time for this house in this location--and so I am not moving.

But any of us who live here, especially those of us who have bought houses here, must keep a wary eye towards the sea.  Once it was just hurricanes, and at least we could see those coming.  But now, sea level rise threatens us in all sorts of ways.

It's not just the rising water levels that may swamp us.  Long before the sea swallows our landscape, we will have to deal with salt water intrusion into our fresh water supplies.

If I had lots of money, I'd be buying/building plants that take salt water and turns it into fresh water.  I'd be the queen of the desalinization industry because I got in at the bottom of the market back in 2015.  Alas, I am not that kind of entrepreneur.

And before we run out of water to drink, we may not be able to insure our homes.  I have this issue on the brain because this is the week we've been getting our bills for insurance for the coming year.  I pay a mortgage, so I don't have to pay the bills directly--but they are staggering:  over $3000 a year for flood, and over $8000 a year for windstorm.  Still to come:  the regular home owner's insurance.

In the early 90's, when I lived 25 miles inland from the South Carolina coast, I paid $300 a year for insurance that would cover the total cost of a rebuild should disaster strike--we weren't covered for flood, however.

I have moved to a high-risk area, and if I owned an insurance company, I'd charge a lot of money to cover South Floridians too.  This post is not one where I will whine about my high rates.

I do want to note a shift, however.  In past years, when we've gotten these envelopes of doom from the insurance company, I've said, "How much longer can we afford to live here?"

It was a rhetorical question, but my spouse always answered, "We can afford it at least another year."  And we did, and we have.

It's a Zen practice, in a way.  We live in the moment.  I doubt that's what the Buddha had in mind.

When my spouse says we haven't saved enough for retirement, I think about how we might not be able to travel, the way my parents do.  Lately, it occurs to me that much of my retirement savings will go towards housing insurance.

Last night, when I opened the envelopes of doom, it was my spouse who said, "We can't afford this much longer."

I was the one who said, "We can afford it for another year."

I love this house and this location.  Happily, if we need to, we have options to cover the increased costs.  We may not be able to do this for decades, but we can last a bit longer.

And an even happier possibility, this blog post says that NOAA says that the pattern of more active, more destructive Atlantic hurricane seasons that started in 1995 might be over.

And yes, I realize that even in a less active time period, hurricanes that decimate communities can occur:  Andrew in 1992 and Hugo in 1989.

So, though I think of myself as a non-risk taker when it comes to being an entrepreneur, perhaps I do have a bit of that spirit.  I'm betting on mild hurricane seasons and continuing to dodge the occasional bullet.  I'm betting that the ocean will repossess my house around the time when I can no longer live here anyway (or better yet, when I'm dead).

My stupidest bet:  that local governments will figure out how to deal with sea level rise.  But history shows that humans do figure it out.  If I've figured out that desalinization plants are a way to make money, I'm sure that others have too--and some of them will have access to money and will proceed.

And maybe, just maybe, if the risk of living here decreases, my insurance rates will too.

But even if they don't, my spouse and I will figure out how to make a way through difficult circumstances.  It's the first time we've both been happy to be living in a place, after all.  I'd like to enjoy that for a time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

In Praise of Poetry Notebooks and Legal Pads

It's been awhile since I've typed poems into the computer.  I usually write my rough drafts on a purple legal pad.  As I've said before,I used to type them and then put the legal pad in a drawer.  Lately, for the past half decade or more, I've just been putting the pad in the drawer as I finish without typing any poems or sending them out into the world. 

But when do I return to them?

In February of 2014, while at Mepkin Abbey, I looked through various legal pads and typed the poems that needed to be in my book-length manuscript revision.  In fact, that's usually why I return to the legal pads.  I can't remember the last time that I typed poems without a larger project in mind.

But that's what I've been doing for the past week.  Let me record my insights.

--I've said it before, but it bears repeating.  I read the poems and can see the thread of the lectionary readings that tinge my metaphors.  Or is it just because those words are always lurking in my subconscious?  Bones, breath, ash, beads, water, wine, flame, stars:  some future grad student can weave a dissertation around these words.

--I am also inspired by science:  stuff I'm reading, stuff I'm hearing on NPR, and more rarely, stuff I see on PBS TV specials.  What will a future grad student make of these threads?  Will it be hard for that future grad student to reconcile the poet who's informed by science with the poet who uses the language of liturgy and the Bible?

--Dave Bonta's blog, where I find the poems that Luisa A. Igloria writes each day, inspires me quite often too. At one point, she wrote a series of poems about the Buddha, who went to a therapist and the dentist, who moved through modern daily life in a variety of ways.  Inspired by her work, I wrote a few more of my Jesus in the world poems.  I named the one about Jesus at the yoga class "Son Salutations."

--I go through the legal pads and often only find a poem that's worthy of being typed into the computer once or twice per legal pad.  Most legal pads cover 6 months of writing.  One or two per six months?  Really?

--But occasionally, there are bursts, poem after poem that takes my breath away.  I'm typing much of the legal pad into the computer.  Almost every poem written in a 6 month period seems worthy of being sent out into the world.  Is it cyclical?  Could I do something to trigger those bursts so that they happen more often?  Or should I just be grateful that they come at all?

--I'm usually working with legal pads from the past few years.  I rarely go back further.  I wonder if future Kristin would find something in the notebooks that present Kristin has rejected. 

--I've read many a how-to-write book, and so many suggest going back through old notebooks, claiming rejected lines, making something new.  I almost never do that, once the legal pad has gone into the drawer.  I wonder if I should?

--So far, though, I'm not seeing many abandoned lines which suggest anything new.  Perhaps I vaguely recall where I was headed with an idea, and so it's hard to come at it from a different angle.  But I suspect something darker, for me as a writer:  if a poem turns out to be stillborn, or half-formed, or malformed, there's not much use mangling it further.

--I'm happy to report that I leaf through old notebooks, and I'm pleased with my life's work as a poet.  And I'm intensely curious to see where I head next.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Almost Perfect Balance

I have had such a perfect stretch of balanced days that I almost hesitate to mention it.  I have this vision of wrathful gods turning around and saying, "Wait, we didn't notice you down in that corner of the U.S.  How dare you have that kind of balance?  We simply cannot allow that."

I've been having the kind of writing days when I both create new work and send "finished" work out into the world.  As I've been doing that work, I've also done the administrative and online teaching work that pays the bills.  It hasn't left me too exhausted--I'm always grateful for those kinds of work days. 

I've been eating enough fruits and veggies most days and getting enough sleep.  I have good books to read.  During my recent vacation in April, I read Jane Smiley's Some Luck, which is the first book in a trilogy; on Friday, I checked out the second book in the trilogy, hot off the press, from our local library.  It's wonderful too.

I've done some quilting.  I got great deals on quilting materials that we'll need for Vacation Bible School.  Some home repair issues weren't as difficult as I'd feared.

Of course, even a perfect week, like my past week, has imperfect moments.  My left eye gets red and irritated and goopy/crusty; it's an allergic reaction, and it only happens in my left eye.  When it's not flaring up, I have hopes that it's gone forever.

For the past week, it's been in full flare-up mode, which is not only unattractive, but slightly painful.  Sigh.  And I have the aches and pains in my feet and hands that make me wonder if arthritis is in my future.

And let me mention yesterday's lunch experience.  We had bought baby back ribs and planned to grill.   We got off to a great start.  I peeled potatoes and put the slices in a pot of water--mashed potatoes on the way.

Well, I let the pot boil dry, but managed to salvage some of the potatoes.  But when I tried to make mashed potatoes, they turned into a lumpy mess of glue.  Sigh.

Worse, when my spouse opened the grill, we saw flaming racks of ribs.  We were able to get a few pieces of meat, but most of the ribs were scorched to inedibility.

We rarely ruin a meal so thoroughly.  So that's something to be grateful for.

And we had invited our down-the-street neighbors, who just had a baby.  But they decided it was too early for an outing.  So at least we didn't ruin their meal too.

I think of the Amish theory of quilt making.  Amish quilters always intentionally make a mistake.  After all, only God can create perfection.

In a stretch of perfect days, I'm grateful that the imperfections are so small.  The flaming ribs didn't set anything else on fire.  Our health is mostly good.  Our houses hold together.

I know the stretch of perfect days will end:  in July, I'm scheduled to teach more online classes, which will tilt parts of my life off balance again.  Happily, they're classes I look forward to teaching, so the tip won't be too severe.

That's always the hope.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Winds of Memorial Day

The wind has howled all night, as we have moved from Pentecost to Memorial Day.  I woke up with a vague unease, as I often do on Memorial Day.

Is it because of Memorial Day?   Even though my dad was in the Air Force, and then the Air Force reserve, for most of my life, I, like many Americans, have felt some ambivalence about the military. I have some trouble reconciling my religious beliefs which tend towards pacifism, to the necessity for military protection. There have been times in my lifetime where I've thought, at last, we're moving towards a world that won't need military action. And then the world launches into a new form of barbarism.
It is impossible not to realize the cost of war.  There's the money, of course, and the death of soldiers.  We may forget the other costs:  the families of military members, the injured veterans, the civilians damaged in so many ways, peace of all kinds shattered.

So, on this day which has become for so many of us just an excuse to have a barbecue, let us pause to reflect and remember.  If we're safe right now, let us spend a moment in gratitude.  Let us remember that we've still got lots of military people serving in dangerous places.  And recent events have reminded me that the world we feel is safe can quickly dissolve into conflict and war.

Oh so quickly.

Today, I'd like to be at a national monument, listening to one of the service bands perform. Or maybe I'd rather be in a contemplative spot, saying a thank you.  Or maybe something more festive.  I miss the small town parades; I know that my college town of Newberry, South Carolina will be celebrating in ways that remind me of the 1950's.  Now, I no longer know the stories of my neighbors.  I don't know whose great great grandfather/uncle served in which ways.

Now I live in a place that feels more like a future U.S., where English isn't the dominant language, where there are more recent arrivals than people with ancestors buried in the soil. Most days, I'm cool with this, and invigorated by it.

But today, I feel uneasy.  Part of it is the wind.  I've lived in states in the U.S. South where this kind of wind portends a fiercer wind later, as the heat has time to build to storms.

Part of my unease is how invisible the military feels to so many people today.  Once, all of my schoolmates had relatives, often a father, who had served in the military.  Now I find that I'm often the only one.  Growing up, I chafed a bit under the expectations of military family discipline.  Now I find myself thinking we might all be better if national service was required.

In his lecture several weeks ago, David Brooks responded to a question about the value of national service.  He said, "A kid from Connecticut living with a kid from Birmingham living with a kid from Cody, Wyoming--that would be valuable in many ways."

We've become a more stratified society in so many ways, and not just the economic ways that often trigger handwringing.  More and more, most of us tend to meet people just like us.  Maybe that's the source of my unease.

But most likely my unease comes from this day to honor the dead--while realizing that we are far from a world where we can beat our swords into ploughshares and practice war no more.

So, let me return to a valuable practice.  Let me pray to the One who has more power than I do in these matters.

A prayer I wrote for Memorial Day (see the end of this post) could also make a good poem.  Let me try some transformation.

The wind howls on this Memorial Day, as if the souls
lost to war have come to claim our attention.  The howls echo
the moaning of those who celebrate this day not by a grill
but beside a grave. 

At least those souls have graves.  On this day, how many honor
the bodies fertilizing foreign soil?  Civil War soldiers sewed
addresses of loved ones onto their uniforms in the hopes
that they would be remembered.

On this day after Pentecost, we welcome
visions of a day when soldiers have no jobs
to do.  We dream of the time when we beat
all our military metals
into instruments of peace.


This poem is different than the prayer I wrote for Memorial Day:

God of comfort, on this Memorial Day, we remember those souls whom we have lost to war.  We pray for those who mourn.  We pray for military members who have died and been forgotten.  We pray for all those sites where human blood has soaked the soil.  God of Peace, on this Memorial Day, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers.  On this Memorial Day,we offer a prayer of hope that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do. We offer our pleading prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Terrorist's HR Files

I have spent much of the week-end with my thoughts circling round and round on various subjects.  Some of those subjects will not surprise you:  how wonderful it is to have a 3 day week-end, how can I eat more fruits and veggies, which book should I read now/next, how did I get myself into this writing tangle and how shall I get myself out, do those clouds portend rain later . . .

But here's what you might not expect.  I find myself thinking about Osama Bin Ladin's documents and files that were recently released. I heard about some of the items released on Friday's edition of The Diane Rehm Show which covers international news. 

You may have heard about his bookshelf; I had heard bits and pieces about what he had been reading, and nothing surprised me.  Apparently he read lots of books about politics and industrialized countries, particularly in the U.S.

I wondered if he read any fiction or any theology or any poetry.  If so, no one has noted it.  I thought about the strange places where my books might go.  Would I be mortified if a book I wrote wound up on a terrorist's bookshelf?  Or would I feel like somehow I had failed in my essential message?  Or is it ridiculous to think that way at all?

I've dreamt of having a book of mine adopted for a "Community Reads" event or a first year University 101 class at a university--lots of book sales there!  But what if Osama Bin Laden had ordered hundreds of copies of one of my chapbooks?  What if one terrorist cell had said, "Hey, read this poem!  I don't think we have to blow up buildings to affect change!  Let's feed the hungry instead."  And then another could have said, "Hey, I know what would really drive the U.S. crazy--let's help all those folks fleeing repressive regimes south of the U.S.  Let's create an underground railroad to resettle them in the U.S."

I know, I know, it's ridiculous to think this way. 

But what's really captured my imagination is Bin Ladin's HR files.  Commenter Greg Myre calls it "the universality of bureaucracy."   He said,  "You saw some very odd stuff in the application, such as, you know, if you are martyred, whom should we contact?"

An application to be a terrorist?  Now there would be an interesting mock application to create!

And there were expense reports.  I was both comforted and saddened to realize that not even terrorists are free from the tyranny of spreadsheets.  It's a different kind of martyrdom.

I keep thinking of assessment and rubrics.  I have this vision of a rubric to assess the effectiveness of various terrorist strategies.  In the current climate, I would not dare to write this kind of satire--well, I would, if I felt strongly enough about it.  But I spend quite enough time with spreadsheets and rubrics and assessment reports.

I shall, however, create a poem in the terrorist leader's voice.  It might start this way:

"From the distance of several continents, I can destroy
buildings.   . . .

Perhaps it will end in this way:

"Now I am become death, destroyer
of worlds.  Even the destroyer of worlds must balance
the books."

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Spinning a Title

--I've been working on getting my proposal for my memoir/book of essays ready to send to agents.  It occurs to me that I should settle on a title.

--My memoir looks at trying to balance my life as a creative person, my life as an administrator at a for-profit school, and my life as a church going Lutheran.  For a long time, I was loving the title "Monk or Marxist."

--Last summer, when I brainstormed book titles with a group of creative friends, however, they didn't like that title. I wrote about the experience in a blog post.  My friends came up with a different title:  "It's Hard to Be a Goddess in the Corporate World.  One of us thought that was too long and voted for Goddess in the Corporate World."

--But I'm not really a goddess.  And to me, that's a different book.  I would pick it  up expecting a book about pagan spirituality.  Or maybe something fluffier, like make-up, hair, and fashion tips for women with corporate jobs.

--Gods of Corporate Academe?

--Let me take a classic approach to titling a book; let me look at chapter titles.  Here are some which seem possible:
       --Incubating the Improbable (probably too many big words for a catchy title?)
      --Ministries of Interruptions
      --Mac and Cheese Eucharist (would people expect a motherhood memoir?)
     --Setting Sail in Tiny Boats

--Of those title possibilities, I'm pulled to Ministries of Interruptions.  It's clear and it gives a sense of the book.  The words are familiar.  I would pick up that book and read it.

--Would others be pulled to that title?

--Over the week-end, I'll flip through the manuscript and see if anything leaps out at me.  And soon I'm off to spin class.  I often get solutions when I'm spinning away in the dark.

--Spinning in the Dark.  Now there's a title!  A title for a different book, alas.

Friday, May 22, 2015

This Week's Online Inspirations

Lately, I find myself thinking about the wonders of our Internet age.  I know many people who have made great use of various music sites and services.  In my younger years, I might have too.

But more often, as I'm working on a wide variety of writing tasks, I find myself grateful for all the public radio shows.  Lately I find myself limiting the shows that analyze the news in detail.  Happily, there's a great deal of interesting stuff out there.

If you like to listen to people talk about their work and writing, don't miss this interview with NewsHour reporter Jeffrey Brown.  He's transformed the news, the headlines, wonderful quotes, all sorts of scenes into remarkable poems.

I admit that I was doubtful at first.  It sounded too gimmicky.  But the poems work as poems, not just as curiosities.

I also loved this On Being interview with Maria Popova, who created the website Brain Pickings.  Krista Tippett says of her guest, "She doesn’t merely curate, she cross-pollinates — between philosophy and design, physics and poetry, the scholarly and the experiential."

Popova's got all sorts of wonderful wisdom, like this nugget:  "And I think — the thing is, I don't think hope is a baked-in faculty, that you're born either with or without. It's a conditioned response. So we can respond to horrible events that do happen in the world and we do need to actually attend to and try to understand and help. We can respond to those with hope. And we can can respond to them with resignation, which brings us back to this notion of the sort of reparenting. Because I think when we have a foundation of wisdom and of assuredness, I guess, that comes from people who have lived long ago and have gone through horrible things and through beautiful things, that then we somehow are better able to rest in that and know that despite what happens, yes, we should show up and think critically about it, but despite it all, at the base level, there is this hope that is the human experience."

If exploring different time periods gives you inspiration, don't miss this interview with Steve Inskeep on The Diane Rehm Show.  He's written Jacksonland.  In the interview, he makes the subject of Andrew Jackson so fascinating that I'm tempted to read the book.  But since I'm not likely to have that kind of time, I'm glad to have been able to hear this smart conversation.

He also talks about his writing process--after all, he's one of the hosts of NPR's Morning Edition.  He talks about balancing his work life and his writing life.

And if you want to go further back in time, don't miss this show about Joan of Arc.  Helen Castor has written a new history of the woman and her time period.

If you want to go WAY back in time, go to  the Cosmos and Culture blog at the NPR site;  this piece captivated me on Thursday when I read it.  I know that we're looking back into the past when we look into a telescope, but I never thought of it this way before:  "Looking at the night sky is like looking through a time machine into the past; every image comes from a different past, a sort of kaleidoscope of times, each telling a different story."

Even this cosmic reality has interesting implications for humans:  "Who knows where the atoms making up your body came from? They are a collage of different stories, coming from different regions, remains of stars that died 5 or more billion years ago in the neighborhood of what would become the solar system."

I've had a great writing stretch--I'm glad to have had the company of great radio shows as I made my way through the week.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Writing Cycles, Life Cycles

Once I typed my poems into the computer soon after I wrote them, and sent them right out into the world. In those days, I sent a lot of poems out to journals, poems on paper, stuffed into envelopes.  I used my with spit to seal the envelopes and affix the stamps.  I needed a mass of poems, because I was sending out so many in a month, so I needed to have those poems typed and ready to go.  I used to read the advice of more seasoned writers who said we should wait a season between writing and sending. 

Sometimes I did.  I never made substantial changes.  For the most part, I continued to write a poem, wait a few days, make a few changes, type them into the computer, print a batch, and send them.

Now they hibernate in a drawer until I have time to type. Now I often return to them a year or more after I wrote them. It's good for the revision/editing process, although I confess I'm still not making substantial changes, but it means I'm sending less material out into the world. 

This morning I was working with poems that I wrote back in March of 2014.  I read one and started to weep.  I'm going to say it's an effective poem.

I wonder if it works for a reader who might not catch the Ash Wednesday imagery, the hint of Easter, a reader who might not realize that Mardi Gras is more than a drinking holiday.  But would readers who think of Mardi Gras as a drinking holiday be reading my poems?  A girl can dream.

I read the poems and can see the thread of the lectionary readings that tinge my metaphors.  Or is it just because those words are always lurking in my subconscious?  Bones, breath, ash, beads, water, wine, flame, stars:  some future grad student can weave a dissertation around these words.  Or maybe it's time for a new batch of sestinas.

I'm also beginning to send poetry manuscripts out into the world again.  As I was typing this morning's poems, I had a vision for a different chapbook, one that is more overtly spiritual/religious.

I remember meeting a friend for coffee in 2002 or 2003.  At that time, my friend was the age that I am now.  I told her of my plans for putting a manuscript together and sending it out into the world.  I talked about how I would publicize the book.  My friend marveled at my energy and my plans.

Now I look back at my younger self, and I, too, am in awe.  But back then, I had a lot more unstructured time.

It would be interesting to know if I really did so much more in my younger years.  I suspect the truth is closer to this:  some years, I send out great amounts of material for possible publication, but other years I don't.  Some years, I get manuscripts finished, but other years I don't.  Some years I write a lot of poems and fiction, while I'm a more fallow field in other years.

Much of my life is cyclical in this way:  I see the same cycle in my exercise.  I'm always exercising, but some years it's more frequent and vigorous, and in other years, other priorities take over.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating--it's the returning to the process that will ultimately change the trajectory.  My hope is that I can keep realizing when I'm not quite on track and return to my good practices more quickly.  That's the consistency that will keep me constant.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wednesday Wonderings/Wanderings: Words and Language

--Occasionally, in my role as an administrator, I read a rough draft here and there.  Occasionally, I'm helping a colleague with a project.  But more often, I'm helping a student.

--I find it rewarding in the midst of administrator tasks, to work one on one with a student.  Sometimes they're students who want someone to take a last look at their portfolio, a last proofreading.  Sometimes, it's a first year student.  Thus, I read a wide variety of writing.

--When I was working with a student, the student said, "Because of my autism, it takes me awhile to get the words right." 

--I said, "I'll let you in on a secret:  even people without autism usually don't get the words perfect right away."

--Not for the first time, I thought of the fact that so many of us believe that writing should be easy; after all, we use words every day, right?

--And we do a poor job of talking about writing as having a variety of purposes and a variety of audiences.  The paper that you're writing for your teacher is different than the e-mail that you'll send the teacher and it's all different, probably, from the texting that you and your friends do.

--I'm beginning to think of texting as another language, not just another form of writing.  More and more I get an e-mail written in texting language, and I have to write back to say, "I have no idea what this is supposed to mean."

--Maybe it's not texting as a different language but voice recognition software that approaches English as a Second Language.

--I think of the discussions about the meaning of words that I've had in recent weeks.  We've talked about the meaning of the word "support"--as in "Do you support this student's appeal?"  We've talked about the word "possible"--as in "Is it possible for the student to pass this class?"

--Sure, if we believe that past behavior is a predictor of future behavior, we'd interpret that question differently than someone who wants to believe in the possibility of human change.  The question is really a math question, in the case of the particular form where we find the question.  Mathematically, can the student possibly pass the class at this point?

--We think of mathematics as a clean language, a black and white language, a language which leaves no wiggle room.  But I wonder if we think that way because we aren't trained in Math. 

--Maybe a Ph.D. in Math would shake his/her head over my belief that math is a more precise language.

--Suddenly I find myself longing for more time to dive into the issue of language.  I'd like to spend the morning reading books about chaos theory.

--Instead, I'll head to the office and herd the e-mails and the forms and the numbers.

--Once men herded cattle (and yes, I'm using gendered language on purpose).  Now men and women herd words.

--But will our words change a continent?  How I long to believe! 

--But as I sort through old e-mails (so many in one day!), I find myself full of doubt.

--And worse, the words that might change a continent are left to moulder in unsent packets of submissions.

--Sigh.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Morning Writing Report

--Yesterday's post led me all sorts of places.  I used the same pictures, but transformed the text into a more spiritual meditation in this blog post on my theology blog.

--I wrote a poem.  I took these lines: I've built an altar out of abandoned houses of crustaceans.  I added to the sentence:  and corals calcified into rocks.  I made a poem that talks about the oceans voracious appetite for our valuables.  I used the image of the detritus from cruise ships.

--It felt good to write again, to have a poem that has potential.

--I also wrote a bit for my online class.  It's their first essay, which requires them to argue for a change in law or policy.  I wanted to give an example of how points could overlap and what to do.

Here's what I wrote:

"Your thesis statement will clearly state the change.  For example:

Undergraduate education should be free to everyone who pays taxes.

Then you need to come up with three or more reasons why this change will benefit more people than it hurts:

--Free education means that more people could go to school.
--Free education opens up opportunities to more people.
--Free education means that poor people aren't excluded.

Now, take a look at those 3 points that I just constructed.  Clearly, I have more work to do.  They could be separate and complete points, but right now, they overlap too much.  Let me try again:

--Free education means that more people could go to school, since a student wouldn't need the cash to pay the tuition.
--Free education means that people could return to school to get further training or to open up new doors in terms of careers.
--Free education would strengthen the economy, since businesses that need their workers to get trained wouldn't have to pay for it.  It would also provide more opportunities for teachers and everyone else connected to the education field.

There's still some danger of overlap with these three points, but as long as I'm careful, I could proceed."

--I also wrote an early e-mail to my dean, who wanted us to choose 2-3 processes that could be made more efficient, and to give 2-3 possible solutions.  He set a Tuesday deadline but didn't give a time.  I decided to get it done.  At one point I tried to delete something and deleted the whole thing, just as I was almost finished.  Grr.  I wrote it again.  Since the processes are so unique to our institution, I won't post them here.  But that task did take almost an hour.

--I wrote a page of my short story.  I remember years ago when I could write 20 pages of a short story at a time.  Those days are not these days.   But I'm happy that I'm writing at all.

Monday, May 18, 2015

When Creative Life Feels Like a Barefoot Walk on a Stony Beach

I look at notes I've taken for future poems.  I see scraps but cannot weave them into anything that makes sense.



Some weeks, my creative efforts feel like a barefoot walk on a rocky beach.



But then I look closer, and I see that I've been here before.  I've built an altar out of abandoned houses of crustaceans.



I see a glimmer that may or may not be gold.




Even in isolated tidal pools in isolated shelves of coral stones, life bubbles.



I will keep walking, hoping for the time that language breaks through my skull and washes my brain with wonder.



(pictures from our April 2015 trip to Hawaii)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Muscle Memory

I have awakened far too sore for someone who spent the majority of yesterday afternoon paddling about lazily in a pool. 

But let me remind myself of what I actually did accomplish yesterday:  I took the flowerpots with dead stalks to the side of the house, the potting and re-potting area.  I moved the flowerboxes that are really too big for a windowsill; I had a vision of petunias trailing over the side of the boxes, but so far, they are hiding meekly.  My spouse got up on the roof for the annual inspection and the cutting back of tree branches.  I hauled tree branches to the branch pile.  I made focaccia dough, and made a pan of traditional focaccia and a pan of pizza--yum, yum, yum.  I helped a friend fix her bike.  I went to spin class, too; it's not like I was completely lazy.  In fact, as I look at this list, I begin to understand why I'm achy.

I tend to see myself as not living up to my full potential--thank you, Inner Guidance Counselor.  That's why I think that journaling and blogging is good.  I can go back and really see what I've done, not just what I remember.  And I can check in periodically, to see where I need to adjust the trajectory of my life.

In terms of writing, it's been a week where I didn't get much new writing done.  I tried to write some poems, but nothing gelled.  I wrote another page of my short story.

But if I look at the areas that are also important to a writing life, it's been good.  I pulled together my June posts for the Living Lutheran site, which is more like a weaving together of old ideas and new ones.  I updated my web page.  I added some more agents to my list of people to query.  I sent off 5 packets of poetry and 1 short story--hurrah!

It's interesting to me how some weeks, it's easy to do the creating, but I feel like I'll never send out a submission ever again.  Other weeks, I do a lot of the background work but worry that I'll never write a poem or finish writing a short story again. 

It's important to keep all of these muscles functioning.  It would be great if I could flex them each day (writing in the morning, submissions in the afternoon, networking in the evening), but that's not the life I live right now.

The life I live right now is more like this:  prepare a packet of poems to submit, help a student, research a writing opportunity, prepare a report that may or may not be important, sign paperwork that withdraws a student from class or changes a grade, write down a line or two that may become a poem, help a faculty member with a problem, write myself a note to send a packet of poems to a journal before they close for summer, evaluate a student transcript, answer 20 e-mails, sign another 8 pieces of paperwork, get a flash of insight for how to move forward the short story that I'm writing, answer the questions of the dean or an admissions person, prepare a packet of poems, help a student figure out who can help with their issue, wish for more time for more focus, answer a student question . . .

But those writing muscles are ready, whether I have a scrap of time or the rare stretch of time.

A footnote:  I got this idea of muscle memory from the world of sports and training.  I think it carries over nicely to the world of creativity.  And for those of you who want a Sunday poem, here's a villanelle.  I don't usually write in form, but for I'm calling it a success.  It first appeared in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

And in terms of content, it's a poem I still like, even though I wrote it years ago. 

So, for your reading pleasure, here's the poem:


One Fast, One Slow

The muscles remember what the mind forgets.
The brain replays every decision, each move.
The muscles waste no time on useless regrets.

They keep an even speed, moving in the groove.
They do not lose a beat, always keeping the pace.
The muscles know only one way towards what they have to prove.

With the mind mired in time, the muscles move through space.
The body leaves the mind alone to second guessing.
The mind, unlike the body, knows there’s more than just one race.

The mind spends time wondering what is missing,
That abandoned job, the trip we never took,
The other people we could have been kissing.

The mind knows any decision is worth a second look,
Even choices made years ago.
The brain decides there’s no such thing as a closed book.

The muscles focus on their task, to strengthen and to grow,
The mind might say it does the same,
Two processes, one fast, one slow.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Updating the CV

I've been updating my CVs--I don't have any job search in mind, but watching my spouse update his reminded me that I need to do some updating too.  I try to stay on top of this task, so that if an opportunity arises, I'm ready.

I have several versions of my CV, one for each kind of job for which I might apply (administrative, teaching, and so on) and the master CV where I keep a list of every publication I've ever had.

This morning, I thought about how strange my CV would seem to someone who had gone a traditional route.  In terms of publishing, I'm fairly traditional in terms of the poems and chapbooks.  But there's a wide range of spiritual essays published at the Living Lutheran site. 

In terms of work, I've held a variety of both administrative and teaching jobs.  I've had jobs in all of the sectors of higher-ed:  for-profit, community college, 4 year schools of all sorts.

At one point, I hoped that my CV would lead me to a full-time job at a liberal arts school.  I still feel twinges as I send out packets of poems to literary journals housed at schools that sound so lovely.  And every so often, I hear about events that make me wonder what it would be like at a different kind of school with a different kind of job. 

But my spouse and I have decided to stay here until the sea swallows the house.   Hopefully we'll be dead by the time that happens, although I am keeping a wary eye on the state of the various ice packs across the globe.

I'm also updating my CV in the hopes that it will be easier to update my website.  I don't stay on top of that task the way that I should.

But soon I will be sending a query e-mail to some agents who will be expecting that website to be up to date.  It's hard to argue that I'm media and tech savvy with a website that looks like I haven't published anything in a few years.

Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been able to envision the various opportunities that were coming my way, both in my higher-ed career or in my writing life.  I wonder what I'll say 10 years from now?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Failing Like a Buddhist

One of our longtime friends said to my spouse that when I took up motorcycle lessons, I'd probably do what I ordinarily do, which is to thoroughly master something, then spend lots of time second guessing myself.

Even before I could muster up any feelings of defensiveness, I thought, huh, what a spot-on analysis of me.

I may not seem like that person because I try to go plowing ahead, even as I'm second guessing myself.  I try not to wallow in the second guessing.  I suspect it's what wakes me up in the middle of the night:  did I handle such and such the right way, have I forgotten a deadline, should I be doing this instead of that?

Last night we talked about opportunities that we let pass us by in our past.  I am haunted by my grad school self who believed she could never survive a publish-or-perish academic world.  I want to lecture that girl, to say, "Of course you could do this.  You have interesting ideas, and you come at them from an interesting angle."

When we look back at this time period, I wonder how my future self would lecture my 2015 self.  I suspect she'd say, "Get moving on that memoir."

It's also much too easy to berate myself for all the opportunities lost.  Is that a different personality trait or part of the same one?  And from there, it's a short spiral into feeling like a failure.  But recently, I came across a  great article from Pema Chodron on how to fail.

She says, "This is what we need a lot of help with: this feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, that we are the failure because of the relationship or the job or whatever it is that didn’t work out—botched opportunities, doing something that flops, heartbreak of all kinds."

As you might expect, this Buddhist expert has a different approach to failing:  "It can be hard to tell what’s a failure and what’s just something that is shifting your life in a different direction. In other words, failure can be the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh perspective."

She suggests that when we're feeling the sting of failure, that we let our curiosity take over.  What is the situation trying to reveal to us?

That curiosity may keep us from some of the traps which may wait for us when we feel like a failure:  we may fall into addictive behaviors to keep from feeling the negative emotions or anger that we might use rather than feeling the failure.

I will try to remember her conclusion when I'm feeling the sting of failure, of letting myself down, of not being perfect enough:

"And so I can tell you that it is out of this same space that come our best human qualities of bravery, kindness, and the ability to really reach out to and care about each other. It’s where real communication with other people starts to happen, because it's a very unguarded, wide-open space in which you can go beyond the blame and just feel the bleedingness of it, the raw-meat quality of it.

It’s from that space that our best part of ourselves comes out. It’s in that space—when we aren’t masking ourselves or trying to make circumstances go away—that our best qualities begin to shine."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Containing Multitudes

Yesterday's post about our recent motorcycle ride through Everglades National Park made me want to record an interchange I had with my boss on Monday.

He asked me how my week-end had been.  Usually, I'd have said, "Fine.  Yours?"

On Monday, I said, "It was great.  On Saturday I went on a motorcycle ride through Everglades National Park, and on Sunday, I was quilting with my quilt group."

He gave me a steady stare.  "A motorcycle trip and quilting."

I couldn't resist.  I threw a Whitman quote into the mix.  I said, "I contain multitudes."

He said, "You don't strike me as someone who would ride a motorcycle."  And then I asked about his week-end, and he gave the usual, it-was-fine, answer, and we moved on.

But I've been thinking about that comment:  does it mean that I look like someone who would quilt?  Or is it not a surprise because of the fabric art on my walls?  And do I seem too sturdy and responsible to ride a motorcycle?  How could we make quilting a more edgy exercise?  And why do I want it to be edgy?

My spouse and I have been discussing this aspect of containing multitudes.  We are both a bundle of contradictions, at least in the ways that the larger culture tries to define people.  We don't fit neatly into any category.  We go to church, which is unusual according to the latest study from the Pew Center, which found that the more education a person has and the more money a person has, the less likely the person will have a religious affiliation.  We have fairly liberal politics when it comes to LBTGQ rights, but we believe in owning guns.  We bought two hybrid cars, but we have 2 motorcycles which are less fuel efficient than those cars.  We give lots of money to various charities, but we don't deny ourselves various pleasures either.

We contain multitudes, in short.

I imagine that statement is true of most of us.  How would our various national conversations change if we could remember that fact?

And on a different note, let me write down something that occurred to me last night on the way home:  I wonder if there are any publishing opportunities that could come from being an unusual motorcycle rider?  If nothing else, I could certainly write some interesting essays about the spiritual insights that have come to me while riding on the back of a bike. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Better on a Bike

Today when I need a break, I will let my brain go back to our recent motorcycle trek through the Everglades.

From the very first day we got the bike, I knew I wanted to experience Everglades National Park on the back of the motorcycle.  It's wonderful in a car, so I thought it would be even better on a bike.

I was right.

Before we went inside, we stopped at the visitor center, which is free to visit.  I love the mosaic that's part of the floor; it depicts the state of Florida, with different colored tiles representing different types of land and water:  marsh, wetland, ocean, and so on.

We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a bench outside of the visitor's center.  It's not the picturesque picnic that others might have enjoyed on a Mother's Day week-end, but I thought it was perfect. 

I watched the other visitors in the parking lot.  Some were clearly on a mission; they did not linger to take in the sights.  One man with a stuffed station wagon sat on a beach chair reading a newspaper under a tree with his dog on a leash.  One younger woman screeched as a black bird got too close to her.  One older woman had an enormous camera.

It was a good day to be in the park.  There weren't many bugs, and the weather was sunny and dry.  The sky was that deep blue, with white clouds scudding across the panorama.

We didn't see many animals.  I'm not surprised.  I thought the roar of the pipes would repel them.

We also didn't see many cars.  How I love the small moments of non-tourist time that we get down here.

As we rode, I stretched my arms wide above my head.  At a retreat once, someone told me I should pray that way.  Inside, I scoffed.  But then I tried it and was surprised.  I felt my heart open in a different way.

On Saturday, I said a prayer of awe and thanks for such an amazing creation.  I prayed for everyone in need of improved health, and as always, I was a bit saddened at how long that list becomes. 

We couldn't stay long, alas.  I always thought of motorcycles as getting hundreds of miles to a gallon of gas.  That is not true.  We headed back when we needed to fuel up.

Later, I told my spouse that my experience was like an IMAX movie, only with better special effects.  I don't have that feeling in a car, although I do like the vastness of land and sky that one experiences in that national park.

How I would love to plan a trip going from national park to national park--but only during the off times, when I wouldn't have to share the park with hoards of people.

In the meantime, I'll start planning the next trip to the park that's in my back yard.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

French Houses, Florida Houses

I am intrigued by our fantasies of alternative lives, particularly the alternative lives we envision for ourselves when we're at midlife.  The fantasies of younger folks I'm familiar with from watching reality shows:  everyone thinks they'll be the next great pop singer, the next great chef, the only person who can dance, on and on I could go.

With yesterday's announcement that American Idol will be coming to an end, perhaps I should write more about that fantasy of being a superstar.  But I'm much more interested in the narrative of people who quest for a different quality of life.

Last week, a friend gave me Don Wallace's book, The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All.  Just from the title, you likely understand the trajectory.  I want it to be a cautionary tale, but it will likely make me want to pull up stakes and move to a distant village--preferably one with good food and plumbing in place.

My friend told me that it was much more realistic than those Frances Mayes books that made us all want to move to Tuscany.  In other words, we get a sense of what it really takes to restore a ruined mansion.

I think of all of us with home repairs that we never quite manage to get done, and how we all yearn to move someplace else with even more home repairs--in a foreign country, where we really don't speak the language or understand the building codes.

What does this say about our culture?

The two people in this book are writers living in New York.  They're struggling.  I don't understand how they can afford to live in New York, much less come up with extra for a French house--even if it's a French house that only costs roughly $15,000. 

That fact should have tipped them off as to how much work it would be.

The other day, my spouse and I were laughing about the time we were finishing grad school and as we so often did, we read the Sunday paper and went out to look at HUD and VA repo houses.  We found an amazing house for just $29,000, which was cheap even in 1992 dollars for a house that was essentially 2 houses on a huge lot.  The house was over 4,000 square feet in a time when not many houses were that big.  Not a great neighborhood, but not bad.

So, we went to the bank to get a mortgage.  The very kind banker did not treat us rudely, although he did help us understand the way of the world when he said, "You know, we usually like you to have a full-time job before we loan anyone this kind of money."

I felt a bit huffy.  Couldn't the banker see our potential?  I was about to get a Ph.D. in English, and my spouse would soon get his M.A. in Philosophy.  Of course we would pay the money back.  We were honorable people.

During the recent housing crash, I thought of that banker--and then I thought of all the other bankers who threw that rule out the window.  No job?  No problem--here's your mortgage.

My dreams of escape do not involve exchanging one house for another.  I keep thinking about all the places in the U.S. that I would like to see, places where I would like to linger but not to settle and sink roots.

My dreams of travelling the U.S. in an RV are less escape dreams than back up plans to a back up plan should I lose my current job.  This morning I took a walk through my neighborhood and made it to the beach in time for a gorgeous sunrise. 

Perhaps I'd have done the same if I woke up on an island off the coast of France.  But I'm happy to have had the chance to do it here.

And happy to know that I could do it almost every morning if I wanted.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Sacraments of a Quilting Group

Yesterday, instead of going to church, I went to spend time with my quilting group.  We met at the house of one of us, a house that's been undergoing lots of transformation in the past half year.  I quilted, one friend sewed patches together, one friend knitted (or was she crocheting?), and one friend sewed beads on a piece of fabric art.  One friend couldn't come for a variety of reasons.

I am surprised by how quickly my Inner Apocalypse Gal leaps into action.  She is convinced that one friend's inability to clear her schedule means that we'll never see her again.  She thinks about how we used to meet regularly once a month, and now it's closer to once a quarter.  She's both sad about that and feeling swamped by scheduling demands like the rest of the world.

There's always a bit of sadness for me around our quilting group get-togethers.  I think of one of our founding members who moved to Virginia and died in June from a brain tumor.  I think of all the other losses.  Once we all worked full-time at the same place.  Now we don't.

Still, I try to rejoice in the fact that we still make time for each other.  I rejoice in the fact that we have gone on to other jobs, even if it means we don't see each other as much in our day to day lives.  I can acknowledge that I miss people, even when they're nearby.  I can accept a situation, even if it's not perfect.  I don't have to perfect it.

In our early days of meeting as a group, I wrote the following poem.  I was not a lapsed Lutheran, although I liked the way it sounded, so I kept that language.   Careful readers may note some Passover symbolism too.

Strange to think that those daughters who used to join us here and there have gone on to college and soon grad school.  When we first started meeting, they were in elementary school. 

This poem was first published in Ruminate:

Eucharist


I knead the bread leavened with beer,
stew a lamb shank in a pot of lentils,
prepare a salad of apples, walnuts, and raisins,
sweetened with wine and honey.
No one ever had herbs as bitter as this late season lettuce.

My friends gather at dusk, a motley band
of ragtags, fleeing from the Philistines of academia:
a Marxist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Charismatic Catholic,
and me, a lapsed Lutheran longing for liturgy.

Later, having drunk several bottles of wine
with prices that could have paid our grad
school rents, we eat desserts from disparate
cultures and tell our daughters tales from our deviant days.
We agree to meet again.

Gnarled vegetables coaxed from their dark hiding places
transform into a hearty broth.
Fire transubstantiates flour and water into life giving loaves.
Outcasts scavenged from the margins of education
share a meal and memories and begin to mold
a new family, a different covenant.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day 2015: Thoughts and a Poem on Nurture of All Kinds

Here we are at Mother's Day, that huge festival where we celebrate Mom--with flowers, brunch, and a gift.  But what about the rest of the year?

I am not the first person to note that we can tell a lot about a society, or an organization or a person, by looking at where it spends its money.  In the U.S., we are not a culture that celebrates mothers much at all.

But I don't really want to talk about paid parental leave policies.  I don't want to explore pop culture looking for mothers good and bad. 

This morning, I find myself thinking about nurturing of all kinds:  how we learn to nurture and how we fail to learn.  Who teaches us to care for ourselves and for others?

If we're lucky, we have a whole slew of family members who teach us the art of nurturing as they care for us.  If we're lucky, when we go out into the world, we meet another band of people who nurture us.  If we're supremely lucky, we can nurture ourselves, even when comfort from others is far away.

I think about how hard it must be to raise children.  On the one hand, you want them to feel loved and cherished.  Unconditional love is the gold standard of parental love.

On the other hand, you don't want them to be too soft.  The world will deliver many a blow.  It's good to have children that can be tough when necessary.

But we don't want them to be too tough.  Who wants to raise a thug?

But too much empathy can be debilitating too.  There's so much suffering in the world.  If we let ourselves feel too much empathy, we'll never be able to raise our heads for all the crying we must do.

And of course, we're never really done trying to balance all these demands of nurture, both the nurture of ourselves, our children, and all the people who cross our paths.

On Mother's Day, I'm thinking about some of the mothers I've known best, my own mother and my sister.  Let me post a poem that came out of some advice that my sister got early on.

But the woman in this poem is not necessarily my sister.  In some ways, the woman in this poem is Alternate Life Kristin.  In some ways, I was trying for an iconic depiction of a mother.  In some ways, she's all of us.


Comforters

The pediatrician tells her to change
her bedtime practices with her baby.
All her friends agree: "Just leave
the baby in the crib. Let the baby cry."
In this way, the baby will learn self-comfort.

The evening compresses with the wails
of a baby not skilled at self-comfort.
The mother sleepwalks through the day,
but even her bleary eyes can see a failed
domestic policy. For several generations,
parents have left screaming children to self-comfort.

Now a nation careens from bottle to bodies to fudge,
looking for love.
Never before have so many members of a country gulped
anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants.
The unmedicated drink wine or scotch
or eat whole cakes for dinner.
With a shudder, the mother looks at the angry
offerings of a popular culture raised
on this belief that they need to comfort themselves.

She returns to the rocking
chair, the nightly ritual craved
by herself, her baby, and several billion citizens
of a scary world that's short on comfort.
She sings nonsense songs and smells
her mint tea seeping on the windowsill
keeping the horrors at bay.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Saturday Gratitude

I don't want any readers to think I'm living a charmed existence.  I tend not to write about the days of exasperation, the days when I wonder why the simplest tasks must be so difficult.  I don't want to give those days too much power.

Let me create a gratitude list that gives a hint of the exasperations while giving more time to the goodness:

Work

--We have a batch of midquarter classes coming up.  One class in particular has had a lot of upsets in terms of scheduling and in terms of staffing.  But finally this week, I think I have a solution, and while it didn't come to me immediately, it's one I feel great about.

--At one of the schools where I teach part-time, I thought I'd only be teaching one class this summer.  But this week, I got a call asking if I'd teach the short fiction class, which is one of my favorites to teach.  I said yes.

--At the other school where I teach part-time, I got the online faculty of the quarter award for winter quarter.  I have never gotten this kind of recognition, and people who have known me since my teaching days know how much I have wanted this honor.  It's a sweet moment, especially since I'm not always as confident that in the online arena, I'm as competent as in the onground arena.

Creativity

--I wrote 2 poems and three pages of a short story.  I sent a packet of poems to Pleiades.

--While I am sad about all the other kinds of creativity that I don't practice as much anymore, last night I assembled 2 baby quilts so now I can start quilting them tomorrow.  And there's lots of interest at church in making Lutheran World Relief quilts for Nepal.

--In terms of performance art, I feel like I was somewhat instrumental in helping our Festival of Frida event come together, and I also was a tangential part of a wedding.  Both events went smoothly, which made me happy.

Health

--We had our health screenings as part of the Healthy Rewards incentives that gives me a health insurance discount.  My weight was up before I went on vacation, and I am not one of those people who goes on vacation and comes back thinner.  So I wasn't surprised when my weight was higher this year.  But my other numbers are fine--my blood pressure, always in the right range, was lower this year.

--A week ago, I spent a half hour at the gym doing upper body work on machines.  Oddly, I hurt my left hand. By midweek, I was starting to worry that I had done permanent damage.  It was hard for me to hold my coffee cup with my left hand.  But this morning, my hand feels much better.

--I've been keeping an eye on a crusty patch of pink skin on my face; it had some skin cancer kinds of properties.  I went to the dermatologist.  I never thought I'd be so happy to be told I had an age spot.  We can put off the carving of my face!

Spouse

--A few weeks ago, I got a message from my counterpart at a different school.  The message said that he was having trouble finding anyone qualified to teach Philosophy--did I know anyone?  Why, yes, my spouse has an M.A. in Philosophy and teaching experience, although he hasn't taught in 20 years.  I checked with my spouse to make sure he could be interested, and when he was, I put them in touch with each other. 

--My spouse had a great teaching demonstration this week, and he'll return to teaching in June.  I was happy that he had such a great experience.

--He also wrote a wedding liturgy which turned out to be even more beautiful than I thought it would be.  I'm glad we've continued to renew his notary public license.

So, in a week of ups and downs, there have been more ups than downs.  In a week of many unusual stresses, I find myself at the end relieved that all went well.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Poetry Friday: Poems for Mother's Day

I am pleased to be included in the Mother's Day feature at the amazing online journal, Escape into Life.  I always love the way Kathleen Kirk, the poetry editor, combines poetry and art:  it's often unsettling and enriches both the poetry and the visual image.

My offering:  my poem, "Orpheus Visits the Fertility Clinic."  It begins this way:

"Orpheus considers the frozen
embryos of his dead wife.
Long ago, they preserved possibilities.
and now, he pays the price."

I had originally submitted it as a possibility for Valentine's Day, but Kathleen wanted to hold onto it for Mother's Day.  It's an odd inclusion, but it works--I am biased, of course.

I have also written a poem, "Cassandra Visits the Fertility Clinic."  I think the Orpheus idea came first, but I have a memory of one idea informing another as I wrote.

It's an interesting way to write poems, transporting figures from mythology into our modern lives.  Some day, perhaps an enterprising grad student will write a dissertation about which figures I've used most.

Right now, it's Cassandra, Penelope, Persephone, Orpheus, and the occasional Eurydice poem.  I wonder if my preferences will change as the years go on.  I'm not writing as many Persephone poems as I once did.  In the past five years or so, I've been returning to Cassandra more than any other figure.  It doesn't take a genius grad student to figure out why.

If I taught a poetry writing class, I'd challenge students to write a Mother's Day poem that avoided clich├ęs, both the good and the bad.

I'd direct them to the Escape Into Life feature to see how others have responded to the challenge.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Festival of Frida: A Week of Highs and Lows

All this week at work we've been having a Festival of Frida.  Back in February, I noticed that a wide variety of us were interested in the upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit that was coming to the Museum of Art Ft. Lauderdale.  I suggested a Festival of Frida that would happen in late April or early May--enough time for us to get events together, and early enough that students could still go see the exhibit.  We decided to hook into the Cinco de Mayo activities of the week of May 5.

The library put together some wonderful exhibits.  The Graphic Design students created some boards of her lesser known works.  The Fashion students created garments and had a Frida inspired fashion show.  We had one of our Art History experts give a talk about Frida Kahlo, and some of our Culinary people made Mexican refreshments for that.

I kept expecting that one of the events might flop.  I didn't do much organizing, after all.  I just floated the original idea and let people chart their own course.  Periodically I sent out an e-mail.

I am not a micromanager.  Along the way, I got the idea that some people might have preferred me to micromanage a bit more.  And that made me a smidge anxious.

But in the end, like I said, it all came together.  It's been a wonderful week, in terms of helping me appreciate my colleagues and students.  And Frida Kahlo herself is such an inspiration:  such a broken body that contained such determination to persevere.  I really should never complain about a thing.

In terms of the larger (across the nation) network of schools affiliated with my school that gives me my full-time job, yesterday was a day of bad news. We found out that 15 schools will be teaching out programs and eventually closing.  My school, one of the larger ones, will not be closing.  I woke up at 2 a.m. nonetheless.

As usual, when I wake up in a hyper-alert state, I got a lot of work done.  I wrote a page of the short story that's been in my head.  I wrote a new poem based on this blog post from the last time the school had bad news.  I looked at old poems.  I haven't typed any poems into the computer since February of 2014.  One of my summer goals will be to get some poems typed and ready to send out in the Fall.

And then, I felt tired again, around 5:30.  So I turned out the lights and went back to bed where I slept for another hour and a half.

I feel oddly well-rested for someone who has been up and down.  If I had complete control of my schedule, I'd likely work for a few hours, rest for a few hours, work for a few hours, and onward through the 24 hour cycle.

But that's not my life right now.  And so I will go and take care of a variety of duties--while basking in the happiness of a successful Festival of Frida week.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cinco de Mayo Poetry Class

Yesterday was an amazing day:  full of many moving parts and many ways the day could go off the rails.  But I'm happy to report that it did not.  It was a day of many wonders.  Let me write about one of the highlights.

One of my colleagues is teaching a poetry writing class for the first time.  She wanted some published poets to come speak to the class--including me.  I had a general sense of what she wanted, but I wasn't sure of the timing.

I showed up, and she asked me to tell the class about myself and how I came to be a published poet.  I talked about my undergraduate dreams of being a poet in residence at a lovely college being surrounded by people who wanted to read and write poetry.

I looked at their young faces, and I said to myself, "Kris, your dreams have come true!"

Granted, I'm not the poet in residence--but my job is more permanent, and thus, I've been able to have some stability, which leads to better writing for many of us.

And thus, I've had other opportunities that my younger self never would have dreamed of.  I write regularly for the Living Lutheran site.  My theology blog, Liberation Theology Lutheran, is one of the featured blogs at this site.  Long ago, the magazine that hosts that blog list, The Christian Century, was one of the ones that published essays that made me want to try my hand at nonfiction of all kinds.  My poems have been published far and wide, and I'm still proud of my chapbooks.

One of our other published poets happened to be teaching at the same time that the poetry class meets, but she came to the poetry class during her the break time for her class.  We talked about doing poetry readings together, and then we did some reading of our own poetry.  The students then read their poems.  It was wonderful.

The morning reminded me that I'm lucky to be working in this place, a place full of all sorts of artists.  I'm lucky to have found some kindred spirits.

We start off with dreams of how we'd like our lives to be, and if we're lucky, we wind up with a variation of them coming true.  I may not be the poet in residence, but I get moments throughout the year when I'm treated like one.  But more important, I am surrounded by colleagues who cheer my successes and encourage me to push on through the setbacks. 

My younger self may not have dreamed of that aspect of work life.  My older self knows how wonderful it is to have that kind of work life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by Celebrating Great Artists

Today is Cinco de Mayo.  How many of us know how this holiday came to be?  The Writer's Almanac web site tells us, "It commemorates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In a David-and-Goliath confrontation, the 8,000-strong, well-armed French army was routed by 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers, and though it wasn’t a decisive battle in the course of the war, it became a symbol of Mexican pride. It’s also become a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture in the United States."

For many of us, it's just another excuse to drink, like Saint Patrick's Day.  But what if we looked at this holiday with new eyes?  Today, I'll be thinking about how great odds can be overcome.

I won't think as much about the actual battle that gave us this holiday.  My school will celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a festival.  The International Club will be doing something Mexican themed, as will the Culinary Club.

The rest of us will be celebrating Frida Kahlo.  Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale has a display of her work through the end of May, and we decided that we wanted to do something in conjunction with that.  So we'll be having a Festival of Frida.

The high point will likely be the fashion show, with garments, jewelry, and head ornaments that are inspired by Frida Kahlo.  Before the fashion show, I'll be meeting with a poetry class in the library, which is decorated with Frida inspired art.  We will have a scavenger hunt of sorts, with some of her lesser known art reproduced on boards, and students challenged to find the names of the art.

Our Festival of Frida will end tomorrow with a talk given by one of our art historians.  I hope she'll talk about the obstacles that Frida Kahlo overcame.

I think of Frida Kahlo and her miscarriages.  I think of her excruciating pain of all sorts, and her 35 operations to try to rid her of the pain.  I think of her troubled marriage.  Through it all, she painted with fierce determination.

So, this Cinco de Mayo, I will be celebrating Frida Kahlo and her ability to carry on, even as her life gave her one obstacle after another.  I will be hoping that we can all do the same.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Seasonal Shifts

Some days, we may feel like a partly frozen pond.





Maybe we see ourselves as an orchid blossom trapped in a strange prison.




Some days, we wander down a dimly lit path.




But then we realize that new life has taken root in improbable places.



We see the ways we have been supported.



We see the great gifts that have been brought to us.



We are ready to ascend.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Poet Ponders Teaching Art Appreciation

One of the challenges of being an administrator at my school:  I'd like to have a wide pool of potential instructors, but because I have so few classes to offer, I can't keep people employed.  After 6 months of not teaching, faculty are removed from the roster, and if I need them later, I have to go through the hiring process again, which is cumbersome.

And thus, I don't have a pool of instructors beyond those who teach for us already.

Ordinarily, that's fine.  But I do shudder at the thought of someone getting sick or getting a better offer or any other kind of life event that would be so compelling that they'd leave the class half-taught or I'd get to the first day to find a class unstaffed.

Worst case scenario:  I could teach the class.  Well, I could teach most of the classes in my department.  I'd have trouble with Physics.  The others might take a lot of scrambling on my part, but I could teach them. 

Lately, I've been thinking about Art Appreciation.  The students who would be taking the class in an upcoming start would not be students going on to Graphic Design or Animation.  Most of them will be Culinary students.  If I had to teach Art Appreciation, how would I do it?

Yesterday, during a conversation with a graphic designer colleague friend at school, we came up with such good ideas that I want to record them here, just in case they're useful to someone else, and so that I remember them later.

I would not want to teach the course the way I was taught it, as an Art History overview course with lots of slides.  That would require far too much scrambling on my part.  Plus, I think there are more interesting approaches.

My Art Appreciation class would combine techniques:  field trips, guest lectures, and hands-on activities.  The class objectives direct the class to cover a variety of types of 2D and 3D art; luckily, I know a wide variety of those kinds of artists.

I'd want to begin by discussing how we define art and who decides what makes art great.  Early on, I'd want to take a field trip to a museum.  Then I'd divide the class so that each day, we'd be exploring a different aspect of art.  We'd talk about the history of painting, I'd hope to have a guest lecture by a painter, and we'd do some painting.  For sculpture, I'd talk about both traditional sculpture and assemblage; I see a simple exercise with clay for that day too.  I think collaging could make an interesting session.  We have filmmakers on staff; I'd love to talk about film for a day or too.

And then I'd end by talking about the broader definition of art and what we'll be studying 100 years from now.

I think this approach would work, plus I think it would be more interesting than a traditional, here's art from prehistory to present, approach.  I think it would foster an appreciation of art in a much vaster sense of that word.

It all began as a trouble shooting, contingency session, and now I find myself intrigued--and wondering what other types of courses could use a fresh approach.