Saturday, April 30, 2016

Retreat Retrospective (with Pictures)

A week ago, I'd have been about to head to Richmond for the women's retreat put together by the women of my mom's church, St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Williamsburg, Virginia.  We went to Richmond Hill, a retreat center in urban Richmond, in a gentrifying neighborhood (or perhaps already gentrified).  Above the door is a reminder of one of the missions of Richmond Hill:

The retreat center is 2 or 3 buildings:  a historic house, a historic church and school, and parts of the building which look newer.

And of course, there are lovely gardens--someone has designed amazing creations in what is actually a very small space for walking gardens.

There's an amazing labyrinth:

I love the old church/chapel, where the community gathers 3 times a day to pray for Richmond and for a variety of other people and places:

The chapel has a wall of historic stained glass windows:

The meeting room, contained in the historic house part of the center, had windows on three sides; it was a great space where we gathered throughout the retreat to discuss parables, to experience contemplative movement, and to make cards that will be sent to parishioners throughout the year.

Along the hallway to the main meeting room were smaller spaces.  Here I am facilitating a workshop on spiritual journaling:

Here's a different meeting room:

My mom used the word "austere" to describe the rooms, which are simple with single use community bathrooms down the hall.  The rooms were spacious and the beds comfortable.   We remade the beds when we were done, and we prayed for the next retreatents as we prepared the room.

The retreat center has 10-16 people who live at the center full-time and take care of it.  The community has elements of a monastic order, although they are not vowed to place and they do not require a lifetime commitment.  There are small apartments for them tucked into various spaces throughout the center.  And there are common spaces; below is the lounge just outside the dining area:

Along the way, we were reminded of the overriding purpose of the retreat center:

And thus renewed, we headed back into the world, to be the light, the salt, the yeast, the city on a hill.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Passionate Kisses of the Young and Desperate

We have been having Internet/router and phone issues--hopefully the 3rd visit by Comcast today will fix everything for good.  I am trying not to despair by reminding myself that in the grand scheme of life, these problems are relatively easy--but exasperating as they happen.

So, let me capture a few of the events of the week that I want to remember:

--On Tuesday morning, I took my friend to the bus station.  Once I saw that he was safely on the bus, I went back to my car in the parking lot on the other side of my car.  Beside my car was a thriftstore-glamorous couple clinging to each other and kissing in that desperate way that one sees when one part of the couple is going to leave momentarily..

I thought about how seldom I see this kind of kiss these days, even though I've been traveling.  I didn't see it in the airports I've been to in the past month.  I don't see it in the parking garage of my school.  The other passengers in the bus station that day were not in passionate-desperate kissing mode.

--On Wednesday night I drove home after 8, as darkness was starting to settle in for the night.  A Queen song came on the radio.  I marveled at the great quality of the sound.  I stayed in the car in the driveway to hear "Somebody to Love" all the way to the end.  Has there ever been anyone else as talented as Freddy Mercury?

--Prince may not have been as vocally talented (see this story to understand why Mercury's voice was so amazing), but he certainly was more talented in a number of ways.  Last night, we had a spin class ride with the music of Prince.  It was amazing.

--I got an idea for a short story as we spun:  a woman who makes a life-changing experience based on the reactions to the song "When Doves Cry."  Stay tuned!

--I also thought of a poem based on that passionate-desperate kiss and watching old Prince and Duran Duran videos on the computer at work while eating my sturdy breakfast of yogurt, raspberries, oats, and pecans.  Men in make-up contrasted with a sensible breakfast.  Hmm.

--I hope to have a chance to actually write in the coming days.

--Last night, after my spin class ride, I pulled out my markers.  I need to get back to daily sketching, drawing, journaling with color.  You can see the influence of Prince:

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Straightjacket or Smorgasbord

On Thursday, I caught a ride to work very early with a friend; we got there so early that we had to wait for the building to open.  I sent some e-mails at 7 a.m., and I was amazed at how quickly my colleagues answered them.

I was there early because I was going to catch a flight to Richmond at mid-day.  Somewhere in there, Prince's body was discovered.  I didn't hear the news in real time, the way I have with other deaths of famous people.  We were waiting at baggage claim, and my mom asked a woman if they had figured out how Prince died.

I thought, Prince Charles?  One of Diana's boys?  And then it dawned on me.  I said, "Do you mean the musical figure, Prince?"  My mom nodded.  I did quick calculations.  Was he that much older than I thought?  Had he had some disease I didn't know about?  And I felt that blow:  one more amazing, creative person gone--will this year never end?

I was offline much of the time between Thursday and Monday, and I felt strangely disconnected.  I was fairly sure what would be posted on Facebook--the same kinds of things that my friends posted when Bowie died.  I missed that aspect of communal grieving.

I don't have any Prince albums.  I couldn't have spent the whole day revisiting the past that way, which is a shame.  The music of Prince, like the music of so many others, was a backdrop to many of my most formative years.  I remember a hot summer morning in 1984 when my boyfriend (who would become my husband) reached over to turn up the radio.  "This is the most amazing song," he said about "When Doves Cry."

I thought about Prince, who wrote what seemed to be the essential party song "1999," a year that seemed impossibly long into the future when I was in high school when the song came out.  The music and the movie from the Purple Rain period seemed a change in direction--and it was and it wasn't.

As a teenager, what both scared and intoxicated me about Prince, and about David Bowie, was that sense that they didn't buy into the dominant cultural message about how we must be men and women.  And I still find that aspect deeply compelling.  That undercurrent of androgyny in the 70's and 80's seems an important development to getting us where we are today.  It's also important to getting us where I hope we'll be some day--while we've made progress, many of us still find gendered expectations to be more like a straightjacket than a smorgasbord of choices.

In my later years, I've come to appreciate both Prince and Bowie as artists who never let the dominant culture tell them about how we must be artists.  That message, too, is one we sorely need.

Too often, we let ourselves become experts in one art form, and we ignore the yearnings to try something new.  We tell ourselves we're poets, so we can't also write a novel.  We're writers, so why invest in fancy markers?  On and on we go like this.  And some of us might add the soul deadeners of "I'll never master this, so why start?" or "I can't make money at this, so why bother?"

Or worse:  I'm too old, it's too late.

In this year of deaths that startle me out of my lethargy, let me use this unsettled feeling to return to the work that is important--and to remember to play with abandon.  Let me do some of both each day.  And let me be delighted by both.

And let me remember that the work that is important may come disguised as play that has no apparent purpose other than joy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retreat Week-end

I am back from a week-end away that was both a long week-end and a whirlwind of a time.  I was helping to lead a retreat from Saturday morning to Sunday morning at Richmond Hill, a fascinating retreat center and intentional community, in Richmond, Virginia.   For more on the retreat itself, see this post on my theology blog.

It was my mom's group from her church in nearby Williamsburg, and so I took Friday and Monday off, so that I could spend time with my mom and dad.  In coming days, I expect to write in more detail about some aspects of the week-end, but for now, here are some quick impressions.

--I flew up on Thursday afternoon.  I have never had TSA agents examine my boarding pass and my license quite so intently as they did on Thursday.  And yesterday, in the Richmond airport, my carry on bag was searched.  Is it me?  Just the luck of the draw?  Is something larger going on, some "chatter" that most of us wouldn't know about?

--The weather was beautiful--perfect spring days, with one showery afternoon on Friday.

--We went over to Colonial Williamsburg, where my dad does volunteer work at the library.  He's digitizing various databases, as he did at the wig shop.  We wandered amongst the stacks of the library--what amazing resources!  While I didn't want to sit down and read most of the books, it made me happy that someone found the subject matter fascinating enough to write those books about all sorts of aspects of history.

--Friday afternoon I got a haircut and highlights.  The stylist was snipping tiny amounts, and I suggested that she cut off more.  She said, "If we even out these layers, I'll be taking 3-4 inches off the back."  I asked that she do that.  So now my hair is at my shoulders and less shaggy looking--perfect for summer.

--I had very little in the way of Internet access, which was fine with me--I got a lot of reading done.  I read Golden Age, the third book in the Hundred Years trilogy by Jane Smiley.  I liked it better than the second book, and almost as much as the first.  During a lovely, lazy Sunday afternoon after brunch, I read most of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents--and Ourselves by Jane Gross; I finished it yesterday morning.  And on the plane (and waiting for the plane), I read half of Jonathan Franzen's Purity, which I plan to finish.

--I didn't get much writing done, but I expected that.  I did wonder if it might be possible to work some of the ideas from my parable workshop into some sort of book:  devotional, self-help/enrichment, and part in-depth study.  Many people have already claimed the Living Parables title, but I could come up with something interesting.

--One of the more interesting ideas we talked about:  what if God needs us as much as we need God?  There's a parable about a fig tree that hasn't been bearing fruit and the conversation about whether or not to rip it out.  The gardener fights for the tree, asking for one more chance to save it by giving it more manure.  A standard interpretation:  God is either the gardener or the landowner who wants to rip out the tree.  But what if God is the withered tree and humans are the manure?

--It was great to have the hour long drive home to have some decompression time with my mom.  We talked about the retreat, which we agreed went well.  We talked about whether or not we could take our show on the road--me with Bible study, Mom with music, both of us creating worship and workshop opportunities.  But we agreed that it would probably take more time than we have right now.

--I know that if I ever get to a point where I have more time, it might not be the right time for my mom.  Will that make me sad?  I will remember to be grateful for the time that we had.

--We also agreed that we've done 3 retreats together for groups that we already knew and that it would likely be harder if we didn't know the group.

--It was a week-end of meeting lots of people, both at the retreat and at my mom and dad's retirement community.  And there was the jam-packed plane.  And our college friend came on Wednesday and leaves today--I drop him off on my way to work. 

I hope today is fairly quiet at work, or at least the morning.  I need some gentle re-entry time.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Happy Birthday, Robert Penn Warren

Today is the birthday of Robert Penn Warren.  Now he seems like a figure from the distant past, a generation born not long after the Civil War, a generation of agrarians, a generation who would not recognize the modern South. 

Heck, some days, I don't really recognize it myself.

But in many ways, Robert Penn Warren's work is timeless.  I remember reading All the King's Men in undergraduate school and being blown away by the poetry that crept into the prose.  I suspect that the character of Willie Stark, the corrupt governor, would still feel relevant.

I must confess that I haven't spent much time with the poetry.  You can get to some of his poems from this page at  I read a few when I realized I couldn't recall a single poem of his that I had ever read.  They are masterful pieces, but they remind me of a certain type of poem, popular at mid-20th-century:  somewhat distant, masterful in form, a bit like Greek philosophy. 

Let me try a different explanation.  These are poems made of stone, cold and carved and impressive.  But if I'm honest, I prefer poems made of colorful scraps of fabric or squirts of paint.  I prefer my poems to have bits of pie dough stuck to them and a whiff of decaying vegetable scraps.

Those of you who know about Robert Penn Warren's friendship with Cleanth Brooks will protest:  "Those aren't the kind of poems he was trying to write.  No fair."  That fact is true.  But those are the poems I want to read.

Those of you who are tired of doing literary criticism that is rooted in historical time periods or the biography of the author or feminist analysis or Marxist analysis or looking at what isn't in the work--and by now, maybe that's all of us to an extent--you might want to remember the New Criticism, which Brooks and Warren helped catapult into universities across the nation.  In the 80's, in undergraduate school, I was trained as a new critic.  My favorite professor let us look at only the work on the page.  We were not to bring in knowledge of biography or history or our personal feelings or anything else as we analyzed poetry from the past.

How heady to get to grad school and to discover feminist criticism.  How I delighted in applying knowledge of history to my analysis of the work.  How we debated what was most important in our understanding of poems--and it wasn't the form of the poem and rarely the subject matter.

And then, after teaching for a decade or so, I began to wish that students were a bit better at looking at the text that was right in front of them.  And now, my colleagues and I spend time thinking about all the different things that a text can be.  What would Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks make of a world of Twitter and Facebook updates and all of us writing such widely disparate kinds of work?

I imagine their ancient visages, wrinkled before they would wrinkle their faces in protest.  Or maybe death has granted them a completely different perspective.

I think of my favorite undergraduate professor.  She used to say that no one had written a good political poem.  Now I could intelligently disagree.  But now, I must confess that I do grow increasingly weary of strident political discourse.  When poems become strident, I look away.

What would Warren say?  Here's a quote from The Writer's Almanac site:  "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake."

It makes me think about our historic time and how we dwell in it.  Some of us will write strident political poems and some of us will write meditative poems about current events.  And some of us will turn away, back to earlier times.  Some of us may dream of becoming agrarian farmers ourselves, quoting classical poetry as we tend the vegetables, just as Robert Penn Warren's grandfather did.

It's interesting to think which poetry stream we swim in, although it may be hard for us to know, given that we're often paddling too hard to understand the nature of the water and the rest of the environment.  I thought of this idea a bit more when I came across this Harold Bloom quote at the the site:  "At their strongest, Warren's poems win their contest with the American Sublime and find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant, Emersonian tradition."  That's high praise! 

When you need a daydreaming moment today, think about what Harold Bloom would say about your work, and where it fits into various literary traditions. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Creating Parables

This week-end, once again I have left my spouse to keep our South Florida homestead running smoothly, and I'm helping to lead a retreat.  Today, we will be studying parables.  Perhaps we will even write some.

If you want to play along, here's what inspired me, at a retreat in 2009--but I think it will work well with different groups and for people who are alone:

First, you will need to make lists:

6 natural objects

6 humanmade objects

6 ordinary actions

6 art materials.

If you're working with groups, you could give each group member the responsibility of one of the lists. Divide into groups of 4. Person #1 makes a list of 6 natural objects, person #2 makes a list of art materials, and so on. They number the list.

The team leader pulls a number--1-6--out of a hat. Let's say it's #4. Each group member says what the # 4 item on their list is.

So, in my group, we had canvas, coffee mug, autumn leaf, and sleeping. We started with the creating prompt: "The Kingdom of God is like ____________."

Now, we didn't need to use all the items on the list, although that might be a fun follow-up activity. We just started talking. "How is the Kingdom of God like a blank canvas? How is it like a painted canvas? How is it like a coffee mug?" We talked in our groups, then we talked as a larger group.

We had fun with this activity, and it was a great way to get to know each other. This activity would work better after the large group had looked at one of Christ's parables. Jesus took every day things/situations/activities and transformed them into stories that would help us understand God and God's purpose. We forget how strange those parables would have been to the audiences who first heard Jesus. But it's that strangeness that gets under our skin and makes us think.

We can do the same thing. We can create parables that will help us think about God and Kingdom building in new ways. We can create parables of wondrous strangeness that will get under people's skins.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Last Day to Order Chapbook and Influence the Size of the Press Run

Today is the last day for pre-publication orders of my forthcoming chapbook.  Have you ordered yours yet?  If not, go here to order your copy.  It will ship in June, and you'll have a lovely summer treat.

You may ask, why not wait to order until it's ready?  Because the press run is determined by how many books are ordered in this time period.  If the sales reach certain levels, more books are published, and since a second printing is unlikely, it would be great to make it to some of those higher levels.

Here's a poem to whet your appetite:

Sustainable Habitat
Since she has stuck to her diet for several days, she rewards
herself with extra cashews
for her meal of yogurt and raspberries.
She prepares a new pot
of shade-grown, fair trade coffee.
She thinks about the miles travelled
to bring her breakfast to her.

She sorts through a pile of manuscripts,
children’s stories, one of the few types of books
her publishing company will still print on paper.
She notices how many of them
are based on stories from vanished
cultures. She makes notes about illustrators
and thinks of her own paints
now gathering dust.

Later, she orders Christmas presents
for the children: plush
toys that turn rapacious predators
into cuddly comfort. Her purchase
supports a fund to sustain habitat.

She orders a holiday treat for herself:
a sparkly jewelry set crafted
by a woman several continents
away. It will perfectly complement
her holiday outfit that was constructed
in a factory on an island that will sink
under the rising seas by the end of the century.

To see how this poem interacts with others, order my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction, here. You'll find other poems of consolation and hope, poems that explore what elements of modern life give us hope in the face of all the stresses and calamities we face both individually, as a culture, and as a planet.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

All of Our Cells

Tomorrow is the last day for pre-publication orders of my forthcoming chapbook.  Have you ordered yours yet?  If not, go here to order your copy.  It will ship in June, and you'll have a lovely summer treat.

You may ask, why not wait to order until it's ready?  Because the press run is determined by how many books are ordered in this time period.  If the sales reach certain levels, more books are published, and since a second printing is unlikely, it would be great to make it to some of those higher levels.

Here's a poem to whet your appetite.  It first appeared in The Innisfree Poetry Journal
I got the idea for this poem when I was at Mepkin Abbey. I read a brochure that asked us to consider turning our cell phones off--not just to vibrate, but completely off. The word cell leapt off the page, and I immediately thought of the biological definition. Since I was at an abbey, I also thought of the definition associated with monasteries and abbeys. This poem was one of those that came easily to me. Enjoy!

Some monk once said that we should return
to our cells, that our cells
would teach us everything we need to know. 
She thinks of that monk
every time a cell phone interrupts
her class, that jarring, reproduction
of a ring tone, the student's rush
to return to the hall to take a call,
leaving the class behind to try to gather
the fragments of their scattered attention
to return to the task at hand. 
She thinks of that monk
as she tries to declutter.
She chooses a different closet
each month.  She tries to be ruthless
as she sorts, but she lapses
into sentimentality and maudlin tears.  
She thinks of that monk
each month as she returns
to the doctor to do battle
against her own traitorous cells.
The doctor shows her scans of her invisible
insides.  She sees the clumps that will kill
her.  She thinks of terrorists plotting
their dark revenge, of a coven practicing
dark arts, of all the ways a cell
can go bad and destroy all it touches.  
She returns to the church lit by candles.
The smell of wax and chant
of Psalms sends her back to childhood,
that original cell, still so much to learn.

To see how this poem interacts with others, order my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction, here. You'll find other poems of consolation and hope, poems that explore what elements of modern life give us hope in the face of all the stresses and calamities we face both individually, as a culture, and as a planet.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Of Flexion and Rough Drafts

Last week, a friend talked about her experience riding a horse, which of course, made me wonder about the poetry possibilities, if God was the rider, and I was the horse.  I'm not sure I understand all the aspects of horse riding, but I wanted to do this experiment in real time.  I'm going to write and post the rough draft.  I'm not going to worry about how the draft is not perfect, and I'm not going to worry if the theology is perfect--or even accurate. 

I want to start with the last line of the post, which made me worry about the theology.  Many of us will protest:  how can we be the 3rd favorite?  I'm not sure.  I haven't written the poem.  Let's see how it turns out.

I'm also deciding not to use first person.  Maybe that will make it easier.

First Gretchen's post:  "It's a two post on facebook kind of night. So, here is post one. Nate and I have a lesson tomorrow and Hans was tacked up, so Nate got the night off. I had a great ride on Hans. Why was it great? Well, because I did several things that a few years ago would have been unthinkable. 1) We had a glorious canter. We just let go and had fun. (two or three years ago, his canter scared the bejeerbers out of me) 2) He picked up the counter canter and I RECOGNIZED IT! (Two years ago, of the reasons I didn't pass advanced cert was b/c I couldn't recognize that the horse was counter cantering. 3) I stopped and went back to the basics and recognized that he had NO right flexion and therefore no right lead. We went back to the walk and establlished our flexion and I did NOT just "haul on a rein" or pull his head around in an attempt to fix it. I held my outiside rein, used my inside leg and asked for flexion on the inside and waited for him to give it to me. He stopped, backed up, pouted and then gave me some nice flexion. We got flexion in both directions in a straight line and then established a nice trot and then got our true leads in both directions with correct flexion. smile emoticon A year ago, i might have recognized the wrong lead, but i wouldn't have been able to process how to fix myself or Hans. Baby steps for most of you who ride, but for me all those baby steps add up. smile emoticon onward and upward. We keep learning and growing. I do love that goofy, old, stubborn, silly warmblood. He's my (3rd) favorite horse."

And now, on to a rough draft.  As usual, I have no title.

She is the third favorite horse of God.
She wonders if she should do more to win
God's favor, and yet she understands the futility
of the thought.  And so, she waits
patiently, watching the other horses
in the stable, wondering what she should learn.

God understands the emotional lives
of the horses, and yet God cannot correct
these strange ideas that they have.  God
gives the horses a stable with the perfect
temperature, hay, medical care,
and an apple or some other treat each day.
Yet still they categorize themselves.

And then comes the perfect day, when the flexion
works as it should, when the reins take
horse and rider exactly where they need to go,
where the speed of the trot exhilarates
but does not terrify, where the jumps seem effortless.

God analyzes the riding experience in an effort
to repeat the success.  Why did this lead
pulled in this direction work, when yesterday,
God just yanked the horse's head ineffectively?

Does the horse, too, engage
in self-analysis?  Does the horse realize
that some rides are different
than others?  Does the horse plot
how to give more perfect flexion?
Does the horse pledge to trot
in a perfectly paced canter?

Tomorrow will bring a different ride,
another path which will contain
new challenges, with treats
and safe pasture at the end.

What I usually do with a rough draft is to put it away for awhile, usually months.  That's my approach when I'm doing my usual writing process, which is by hand on a legal pad--I flip the page and move to a new rough draft.

But I am happy for any feedback.  Maybe we can revise together.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My Experiment with Visual (and Spiritual?) Journaling

Last week, I bought the most expensive markers I've ever bought--perhaps the most expensive art supply ever (or does a sewing machine count?).  For more on that day, see this post.

What I want to document/explore today is what I've done in less than a week.  I will confess that I want to create great art at the same time I'm making a record of a moment in time, and perhaps of my emotional life.  But I'm not spending hours with the goal of great art.  These are more like sketches, done in less than 1/2 hour for most of them, and when I'm done, I haven't thus far gone back to do more to them.

Friday night I drew this:

People have told me that they see a stone being rolled away, and that they love my wonky spirals.  I see a planet and/or an eye.  Or three eyes.  I was just experimenting to see the colors and the types of strokes, and then to see if my older markers could also work with the newer, more expensive markers.

On Saturday, I drew this.

The words are from a hymn:  "When peace like a river . . ." and "it is well with my soul."

On Sunday, I was ready for a different challenge.  I took my markers and my journal to church.  I sketched while our pastor preached his sermon:

Our pastor has been off-lectionary, so we were studying the story of Elijah and Elisha and the transition of power.  There was a parting of the seas, so I started with that--swirls a river parting, a space down the middle.  For more on the process, see this post.

Yesterday evening, after wine on the deck with friends while my spouse gave their daughter a violin lesson, I sat outside on my front porch and read My Life in Middlemarch.  Then I drew.  I had in mind a tree, a river, and a cottage.  But I came up with this:

As it got darker, and my spouse continued to play his violin, I filled in the colors and added dots.  I put in words:  Middlemarch, and Hobbit at the top, hide away and cozy in the middle of the tree.

I plan to explore the blending of color more, as well as doing more with dots and other aspects of drawing instead of swooping lines.

In terms of capturing my mood or capturing the day--am I doing that?  In a way.  But it's not the way I thought, when I've thought about doing this.  For example, I might have thought I would draw a wine glass yesterday, not a hobbit house in a tree.    But the hobbit house in the tree might capture my mood even more perfectly, as my spouse played his violin, and I felt comforted in a number of ways.

I plan to continue doing this, and I'll blog about it occasionally.  It's an interesting aspect of creative life, spiritual life, and inner life.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Packing and Preparing

I have a lot of thoughts swirling in my brain this morning.  On Thursday, I head out again--I am helping my mom lead a retreat for her women's group.  We are going to a retreat center in Richmond.  We were supposed to go a year or two ago, but our various schedules didn't sync with openings that the retreat center had.

I am leading 4 sessions of Bible study on parables and 1 spiritual journaling workshop, the same workshop two different times.  But I am ready for those aspects of the retreat.

What fills my brain?  Packing.  It's a tough time of year to travel in terms of knowing what clothes to bring--it will be warm in the day and cool/cold at night.

And the day before I leave, one of our friends from college will arrive.  It feels odd to say, "Hi.  Bye.  See you on Monday."  I am no longer sure what anyone eats, so I'll just leave the grocery shopping to my spouse and our college friend to figure out.  They were college roommates before I knew either of them, so they have a long history together.

Still there's a bit of straightening of the guest room to do.  It won't be perfect, but that's O.K. because I am realistic enough to know I don't have time (or space or money or . . .) to make it perfect.

In that vein, I wrote a poem that begins this way:

Amish quilters made intentional mistakes
because only God can craft
items of perfection.

I make mistakes without precision,
scattering them across my work
with great abandon, as if to ward
off evil spirits.

To read the rest of the poem, go here.  I love this site because a variety of poets show up here each day, and most of the poems link in a way to some other poem on the site.  It's a modern call and response.

These past few weeks feel full of reminders of end times or maybe just ultimate changes that will come to us all.  There's the death of my colleague, and a good friend with thyroid cancer (treatable with good prognosis) and other new friends with cancer battles, and people retiring.

I wish I could say that all the death and disease that surrounds me makes me savor life more--instead, it makes me want to give up everything that doesn't satisfy me deeply.
The danger with that mindset is that I may jettison something only to realize too late that it did satisfy me deeply.  And thus, I will sit with this mindset, but not act.
This past month does make me realize how important it is to continue to strive for balance, even though it's so elusive.  And so, let me start savoring the feeling of an upcoming retreat week-end, time with my mom and sister, and new friends to meet.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Post-Retreat Dreams of the Future

Longtime readers of this blog know that I occasionally (often) return to the idea of what would make a good job, a good career, and how to know if it's time for a shift.  If you're weary of that kind of post, you might want to toggle away now.

During my retreat week, I wrote this,

I am somewhat exhausted thinking about my career.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe by being emptied out in this way, I can dream of something that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise.

And yet, ever since I came back from that week, I can't stop thinking about alternate futures.  Maybe that's the dreaming to which I refer?

In the past week, I've been thinking more and more about transfers of power from one generation to the next.  In some ways, I'm the generation who will soon be leaving.  But at 50 years old, perhaps I'm the ascending generation.

Because I'm just back from various retreats, I'm thinking about the camp directors who may soon be leaving.  One of my beloved Lutheridge directors has been open about the fact that she will not be retiring next year, but likely within 5 years.   And one of the women that I met during my travels announced that she and her spouse are headed off to become directors of a different retreat center that she loves.  She looked to be about my age, so maybe I'm not the departing generation yet.

I'm only just beginning to think about this.  I used to assume that program directors would need to be ordained, but that's more rare than usual, someone told me once.  I used to assume it was a job for the young, but it's the camp counselors who are young, not necessarily the ones in charge.

My spouse and I discuss on a regular, sometimes daily, basis how we might structure our lives so that we didn't need a full-time job.  We know too many people who have been forced into this position, so my hope is that if we ponder the possibilities, we might not be caught as much by surprise.

We have a one bedroom/1 bath cottage at the back of our very small property.  Right now, a friend lives there in exchange for paying her share of expenses.  But what if we decided we wanted to make a profit?  We've thought of renting it out to vacationers, but there's some part of me that recoils from strangers living on site.

We've thought of starting a small retreat center of some sort, or of having a variety of practices that could use the property (music teacher, art therapist/coach), bringing in both money and a tax deduction.  At one point in the past month, my spouse said, "We could move into the cottage."  We'd still have access to the big house, and we'd have more of a tax advantage.

I've also wondered if a retreat center, in the tradition of Lutheridge which requires over 150 acres, is going to become increasingly unviable as the century goes on.  I've thought of my church, which has some space for retreat activities.  I've thought of various friends who also have lovely spaces.  What kind of retreat community might I create if I didn't think I needed to have a huge space?  Would scattered spaces across 10 miles work?  It would be a different kind of retreat experience, but it might work.

As with many of my discernment posts, I have no conclusions, just somewhat inchoate thoughts.  But I want to record them--in the hopes that they continue to sprout up, in the hopes that they inspire (me, someone else, the universe . . .).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Carpe Doodle!

It's been the kind of week where I get message after message that our time here is short and shorter for some of us than others.  On Thursday, a friend from college made a Facebook post that announced his decision to give up his pastoral call, move several states away, and focus on what will come next.  That move was precipitated by health crises of the past year and the desire to be nearer to family.

That same day, a colleague at work died.  She had felt bad on Sunday, called 911, and collapsed on the floor.  EMT workers took her to the hospital, but no one was able to revive her.  She had lingered in a coma until Thursday, when she died.  She was only 64, and she didn't look like someone who would have the heart attack that killed her.  In other words, she was slender.  Some people at work, mostly men, have those stomachs that portend a heart attack, but she did not.

She never missed a day of work.  The e-mail that announced her death said that she was always the first at work and the last to go home.  I bet she didn't take all her vacation time either.

Various people have reacted in various ways.  There's been some crying.  There's been brave faces.  Some people have shut their office doors and sunk into work.

And then there's me.  On Thursday morning, I did some spiritual journaling with my old markers, which once had been the most expensive art supply I ever had.  But I found myself missing the Copic markers that I had used on the retreat.

So, on Thursday afternoon, I slipped away from my mourning work place and went to Dick Blick, the art supply store.  I thought I'd just buy a few markers, but if I bought 12, they were much cheaper.  And so, I bought myself a carpe diem present (or as my spouse said, a carpe doodling present):

They work well with my other markers, which is good news.  Last night, I felt like sketching, and here's what I came up with:

It's very different from my Thursday morning sketching:

I look forward to seeing where I will go with these markers.  They now sit on the window ledge above my writing desk:

I tend to assume that I'll have a long life.  But I might not.  I want to fill the time that I have with the things that bring me joy.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Heart Repair

Only one week remains in the pre-publication order window for my forthcoming chapbook.  Have you ordered yours yet?  If not, go here to order your copy.  It will ship in June, and you'll have a lovely summer treat.

You may ask, why not wait to order until it's ready?  Because the press run is determined by how many books are ordered in this time period.  If the sales reach certain levels, more books are published, and since a second printing is unlikely, it would be great to make it to some of those higher levels.
Here's a poem to whet your appetite. This poem was first published in Escape into Life.  To read the story of how the poem came to be, see this blog post.

Sacred Heart

You thought your heart
was a thing of feathers and frippery.
You envisioned the Mardi Gras mask
of your heart, the glittered borders, the bejeweled
chambers of celebration, blood bubbly as champagne.

You didn’t realize you would need to deconstruct
your rosary to have a sturdy
thread to stitch your heart
back together. But here you sit embroidering
fancy patterns with beaded embellishments.

You should have invested in a supply
of surgical thread, but your stash
of sacred relics will serve
you just as well, as you repair
your beating heart and pray
for happy endings.

To see how this poem interacts with others, order my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction here.  You'll find other poems of consolation and hope, poems that explore what elements of modern life give us hope in the face of all the stresses and calamities we face both individually, as a culture, and as a planet.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hollowed Out and Dreamless

Two weeks ago, I'd have been headed from the Lowcountry to the mountains, headed to the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge.  The theme of this year's retreat was "Dreams and Visions."  I had been asked to do this:  "For our "artist stories" this year, we'd like folks to share dreams - this can be a dream for yourself or a dream for some group (like your church, family, etc.) or it can be a dream for "the church"... Would you be willing to do that?" 

I said sure--it was a presentation of just a few minutes, and I'd have time to think about it during my travels.  But when I got to Lutheridge and looked at the program, I realized how many of the workshops and presentations would revolve around the idea of our dreams for ourselves.  I thought, how long has it been since I've had a dream for myself?

I felt instantly sad.  My dreams of a better job, in terms of the same job that I have now as an administrator but at a different place--that's not the kind of dream for myself that wish that I had.

I thought back to the time in 1995, when my spouse and I started to dream about remaking our lives.  Where might we want to move?  How would we get there?  If we could do anything, what would it be?

And then, we did it.  Are we living completely different lives?  In a way, no.  I continued to teach, and my spouse, too, has returned to teaching.  But we would not have come to South Florida without that time of extended dreaming and planning.

I wondered what I should say, when it was my time to present an artist story.  How could I have come to a retreat on dreams and visions with absolutely zero in the way of dreams and visions?

I prayed for wisdom.   And the message that I got was to be truthful about the stage of life that is mine right now.  So, I stood up and talked about who I had been, the girl with a plan and a back-up plan, and a bucket of wild dreams and hopes.  But now, at the age of 50, I find myself with a lack of vision for the future.  I said, "This is not the midlife crisis which I was promised.  But maybe that's O.K., because I don't have to pay for a flashy sports car or endure an inappropriate mate."

I talked about the possible advantages of being hollowed out and left empty, with no dreams.  Maybe that's when we're more open to every possibility, not just the ones we've been trained to consider.  Maybe that's when we can hear the voice of God which beckons us to greater visions than we could have ever developed on our own.

In these days of coming down from the mountaintop, I am bombarded with reminders that time may be shorter than I think.  A friend from college just made a Facebook post that announced his decision to give up his pastoral call, move several states away, and focus on what will come next.  That move was precipitated by health crises of the past year and the desire to be nearer to family.  The past two weeks have been full of that kind of news.

I think back to the person I was in 1995.  I knew that we would be place-bound for a few years, as my spouse went back to school to get his MPA degree.  But I wanted to be in a good position to make a move when that time was done.  And so, each day and each week, I took on a task to move to that state of readiness.

Let me now dream of what life could be like in 5 years.  Stay tuned!

Update:  After writing this blog post, I did some visual journaling.  I miss the markers that I had access to at the retreat, but I used what I have on hand.  Good to know that the expensive markers might be worth the investment. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Vocations: Christian and Secular

In this post, I talked about Middlemarch.  In many ways, it's a book about vocation.  I feel like I've been reading many books this year that look at vocation, but perhaps not from traditional angles.

I'm thinking of The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski.  It looks at the literary and spiritual lives of the intellectual group, The Inklings, which included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

The book returns many times to the idea of how these writers could best serve God, best serve their art, best serve their fellow citizens. During times of war, these questions took on poignancy, especially during World War II, when any projects undertaken might not be finished--and there was the larger question of why do any of it, when one's fellow citizens were being slaughtered.

Here's how C.S. Lewis reconciled these issues:

"The answer, for Lewis, has to do with the nature of Christian vocation.  A Christian may be called to heroic exertion or sacrifice or to more humble tasks.  The main thing is to stay at one's post.  If the life of a scholar is good in ordinary times, Lewis maintains, it remains good during war; if it is a frivolity during war, it has no place in a world at peace" (p.286-287).

I like this idea of staying at one's post.  I know that the danger is that we never realize when it's time to leave the post, but for people like me, who are convinced that the answer to all problems involves a move, I need this reminder of the value of stability, the commitment to place.

Yesterday, I was part of an audience who helped a group of students get ready for a competition.  They needed a group as they practiced their presentation.  I was glad to be part.  I spend the bulk of my days hearing from disgruntled students and distraught parents--it's good to be reminded of the larger picture, of the good that happens in the classrooms.

Last night, I didn't make it to the retirement celebration of a colleague at a school where I worked before my current school.  But the Facebook posts remind me of all the good that we do, even when we're not convinced that anything we do makes any difference at all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Living to the Age of 100

Today is an interesting juxtaposition of anniversaries.  It's the 100th birthday of Beverly Cleary, who is still alive and doing well.  For more on her history, see this article.  I am fascinated by the fact that she was one of the first writers who explored the regular lives of ordinary children.

When I was young, Beverly Cleary was one of my FAVORITE writers, along with Laura Ingalls Wilder and whoever was writing the Trixie Beldon series at the time.  I loved Beverly Cleary long before I loved Judy Blume.  And even now, I have a fondness for those Cleary characters that I don't necessarily have for the Blume characters.  That mouse on the toy motorcycle who lives in a hotel!  Ramona, who has the normal problems of childhood (being the youngest, oh, how unfair!), not the scoliosis and larger social problems of the Judy Blume novels.
I'm also grateful to her for exploring ordinary lives and showing that they matter too.  She opened the door to all of us who want to do the same:  to explore the ordinary and through that exploration, to show the universal.

My mother-in-law would not live 100 years.  She died on this day in 2005, after a long and difficult several months of medical spiraling, down and down, after a broken hip at the end of 2004.  Every time I thought her ordeal couldn't get any worse, it did.  I have always been phobic of doctors and hospitals, since childhood when a shot went wrong with a broken needle (my mother tells me; mercifully, I have no memory).  Her experience did not convince me that my fears are misplaced--just the opposite.

It's sobering to realize how many deaths begin in a fall and a hip break.  One of my mother-in-law's doctors said, "We come into the world through the birth canal, and we often leave it through the femoral neck."  It's those hips that hold us when we're in the womb, but it's those same hips that leave us vulnerable as older people.  Half the people who have a hip break will be dead a year later--and those who survive don't face good odds for survival in the next 5 years.

It's that knowledge that gets me to the gym multiple times a week.  I no longer hope for a dress size in the single digits.  No, I want to improve upon my flexibility and strength.  I want to strengthen my muscles, including that all important heart muscle.  Happily, through this training process, I am more likely to find success in those areas than I was likely to find success in shrinking myself into a single digit dress size.

I have known too many people, including my mother-in-law, who assumed that they would die long before the age of 100 because their parents had died at a relatively young age.  And then they are surprised to find out that they aren't dead.  I've also known too many people who have bad habits that ensure that they will die well before the age of 100.

I want Beverly Cleary's old age, where she only suffers a bit of arthritis and no other health issues.  I don't want the old age that so many of us seem doomed to suffer.

I am also aware of the futility of trying to avoid death.  We must live with the knowledge of impending obliteration, while also trying to age with grace and find comfort in the face of certain doom.

I have some recent publications that deal with these juxtapositions.  The "Lucky Charms" section of Escape into Life has 2 of my poems that show some coping methods, and yesterday, my poem  "Season of Ash and Penitence" was published here on the Hawai'i Pacific Review site.  That poem moves through Ash Wednesday as it looks at the ways we deal with the knowledge of our mortality.

On this day of interesting anniversary juxtapositions, let me close on a happy-ish note.  Here's the last line of "Praying the Breviary at 30,000 Feet," found in the "Lucky Charms" section of Escape into Life:

I pray the ancient patterns,
perceptions shifting like the view.
I let the language form
my mind into a calmer landscape.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Middlemarch at Midlife

I read Middlemarch long ago, in grad school, as a young woman, just 24 years old.  It was the last novel in our Victorian novel class, so I read it just after Thanksgiving, in a mad rush to get to the end.  I appreciated many things about it, but I most appreciated being a female in the 20th century, when I wouldn't have to marry to be able to fulfill my destiny.

Of course, I read it as a woman who had just gotten married 15 months earlier, but I saw that as a choice.  And I was sure that I would have a wonderful career, because after all, I was in grad school, in full control of my destiny.

Oh, the hubris that is special to the young!

And now, here I am, having just read Middlemarch at age 50, and seeing my young self in Dorothea, although my marriage choice has been a wiser one.  Honestly, none of the marriages in the book would make me want to be married, but what else was a woman to do?

When I was young, I saw the book as an exploration of how the world stymies women.  But at this  point, I see it as an exploration of what it means to live a good life--even if we're not exactly sure what that would look like.  Early on, Dorothea leads the way. 

I first saw this glimmer early, on page 392 (chapter 39) when Dorothea explains her philosophy to Will:  "That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil -- widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

And at the end of the book, her life is held up as a model of the good life, although it may be a surprising model, not the traditional life we hold up as one that is true and good:

"Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

I found this ending so moving that I almost wept.  For obvious reasons, I love the idea that we can live our faithful lives, and that even our unhistoric acts can be important, even if the scope of that importance is not vast.

I am now reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, a true delight, with its mix of memoir and literary analysis and history.  And I came across this essay by Francine Prose.  Here is her wisdom:

"Even as our inner children are reading to find out what happens, Eliot's taking the grown-ups on a dizzying tour past the landmarks of adulthood: the uneasy truce between ambition and limitation; how we satisfy our desires for love, excitement, and money; the compromises we make with ourselves; how hard it is to admit a costly mistake.

Unlike a history book or tract, Eliot shows us what it was like, from the inside, to live in an era in which female intelligence was considered a serious handicap, and she tells us precisely what it's like to weigh the longing for simple happiness against the desire to be a good person and lead a meaningful life."

I didn't see all of these elements when I was a younger reader.  I always tell my students that you know that a piece of literature is good when it bears rereading.  By this standard, Middlemarch is great.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Inspiration from David Whyte

In the past 2 weeks, I've heard several people mention the poet David Whyte--and I had never heard of him before.  I've learned to pay attention when a name appears again and again.

Much to my surprise, he's on the show On Being today.  Although I am late to the David Whyte party, I see why people like him:

"I’ve often felt the deeper discipline of poetry is overhearing yourself say things you didn’t want to know about the world. And something that actually emancipates you from this smaller self out into this larger dispensation that you actually didn’t think you deserved. And so one of the things we’re most afraid of in silence is this death of the periphery, the outside concerns, the place where you’ve been building your personality, and where you think you’ve been building who you are starts to atomize and fall apart.

And it’s one of the basic reasons we find it difficult even just to turn the radio off, or the television, or not look at our gadget — is that giving over to something that’s going to actually seem as if it’s undermining you to begin with, and lead to your demise. And the intuition, unfortunately, is correct. You are heading toward your demise, but it’s leading towards this richer, deeper place that doesn’t get corroborated very much in our everyday outer world."
More on poetry:  "Well, I always say that poetry is language against which you have no defenses. Otherwise, it’s not poetry. It’s prose."
His view of incarnation (of individual humans, not particularly the incarnation of God which is Christ):  "Well, it’s really working with that earlier dynamic we worked of of incarnation, of becoming visible in the world. And yet the gift that you’re going to give and keep on giving is an invisible gift that will take many different forms and that you learn more of each time you allow it to take a different form. And you move from your 20s into your 30s, and you suddenly find another, larger form for it, or a different shape that makes a different connection. And then you deepen it in your 40s. And you get overwhelmed by it in your 50s. And then it returns to you again in more mature forms, settled forms, in your 60s. So this is the gift that keeps giving. And it’s that internal deeper source. It’s you becoming more and more real and more and more visible in the world."
Two poems:
Everything is Waiting for You.
Your great mistake — Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice
You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you courage.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
The tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything, everything, everything is waiting for you.
Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
It’s time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
The night
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing. You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
Go here to read the transcript and to hear the program.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Nourishment of All Sorts

Two weeks ago, I'd have been on the road for several hours--that's after staying after the Good Friday service to count money.  I slept for 4 hours, got up, and drove for just under 9 hours. 

Why didn't I have a more leisurely trip?  My friend who organizes the most wonderful tea parties had her Easter tea at 2, and I didn't want to miss it.  And yes, it was worth the drive.

The afternoon turned gray and drizzly, which was perfect for tea.  My friend's family members joined us, and they are gracious and inclusive.  We enjoyed goodies to eat and numerous pots of tea and interesting conversation--very nourishing.

One week ago, I'd have risen early to do some writing on the computer and to take advantage of zippier Wi-Fi.  I decided to skip the yoga/stretching session at 7:30, and to read before breakfast.  I went to the dining hall so that I could have some coffee while I read.  I watched the sun rise over the mountains while I read Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words.  That morning, too, was nourishing.

I have spent part of this week getting handouts ready for my next retreat, which will be two weeks from today.  I'm leading the Bible study on parables, and I'm leading a workshop on spiritual journaling.  These are things I've done before--an example of how past retreats continue to nourish me.

Along the way of the past two weeks, I've been nourished in the regular way too--lots of good meals.  I have returned from retreat week determined to eat more salad.  It's a good time of year to think about that.

There are many aspects of retreat week that have already begun to slip away.  On Tuesday, I was still in a good mental space.  By Wednesday, I was letting stuff get to me again and letting people's moods bleed into mine. 

But the idea of nourishment of all sorts--I'm hoping that's an idea that I can hang onto.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Poem for the Final Weeks of the Pre-Publication Ordering Period

We are 2 weeks away from the pre-publication order window for my forthcoming chapbook.  Have you ordered yours yet?  If not, go here to order your copy.  It will ship in June, and you'll have a lovely summer treat.

You may ask, why not wait to order until it's ready?  Because the press run is determined by how many books are ordered in this time period.  If the sales reach certain levels, more books are published, and since a second printing is unlikely, it would be great to make it to some of those higher levels. 

And if you order during this pre-publication period, you have no shipping cost.

Here's a poem to whet your appetite. This poem was first published in Adanna.

Tuscany Dreams

No one buys a suburban home
in Tuscany.
They buy old barns or sheep pens
or buildings of indeterminate
origin. In Tuscany,
the explosive wiring and undependable
plumbing seem charming
because it’s Tuscany.

No one thinks about transoceanic
flights or aging parents on a different
continent once they’ve bought
a house in Tuscany.
No one needs health
care in Tuscany. No one develops
rare diseases there.

No one mentions the cost of phone
calls to all the ones left behind in the move
to Tuscany. It’s all sun-drenched
colors and fresh foods, and no one suffers
homesickness in Tuscany.

To see how this poem interacts with others, order my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction here.  You'll find other poems of consolation and hope, poems that explore what elements of modern life give us hope in the face of all the stresses and calamities we face both individually, as a culture, and as a planet.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Room of One's Own and a Radio Interview

A week ago, I'd have already been on the road, headed to my college hometown of Newberry, South Carolina.  My friend had asked if I could be there by 9:30 so that she could interview me for her radio show.  I knew that I'd be coming from Mepkin Abbey, and that I'd be up early.  I said that barring some sort of traffic delay, I'd be there.

I got to Newberry early and drove around.  In some ways, the town hasn't changed.  But in many ways, it's vastly different.

I started at Newberry College in 1983, when the town had been devastated by much of its manufacturing pulling out of town--there had been 3 mills, I think, and 2 of them had just been closed.  There was a chicken processing plant or two, but certainly not enough jobs for everyone who had just been laid off.  The Opera House downtown had been shuttered for years, and the rest of the downtown area looked fairly bleak.

Now there's a hotel downtown to support the thriving Opera House.  There are several fine restaurants--during my college years, there was some fast food, Plato's (a sort of diner out on the Bypass), and Dopey's, a burger shack on the edge of campus that may not have been entirely legal.

I was at the radio station with plenty of time to spare, and so I got to set up my laptop, so as to do some reading from my forthcoming book.  I made my selections and got ready.

I've been interviewed for this radio show before, but it was by phone.  This time, I was in the studio, which hadn't changed much since my own college years, when my then-boyfriend, now-spouse worked at the station.

The interview went wonderfully well.  I didn't get tongue-tied or say "um"--I knew the answers to all the questions.  Of course, it's not like I'm running for office.  The interview was much more like a warm discussion about college and literature and writing and poetry.

Afterwards, we went out for brunch and then spent some time rocking on the porch, talking about life, watching the world go by.  It was delightful.

My friend first knew me at Newberry during my Senior year, when she took a class with my beloved English professor, Dr. Swanson.  My friend also worked for the PR department of the college, and she hired me to be a staff writer.  I wrote articles about students, and she sent them to hometown newspapers, who were happy for the free copy.  I got both publication and payment for writing.  It was intoxicating.  I have yet to recover.

We were both fiction writers, and we went out to lunch, in the nearby town of Prosperity, at The Back Porch, which was a restaurant run by a woman who took special care of some of the disadvantaged in the community.  We showed each other our stories and encouraged each other.

Last week on the porch, I said, "I did think that one of us would be famous by now."

When I was young, I thought of all the stories through history that hadn't been told because women weren't permitted to write them.  Now that I'm older, I realize that literacy isn't the only piece, and that one can have time, money, and a room of one's own and still face significant hurdles. 

At the end of last week, I read Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words, which reminds me that success doesn't even bring freedom from hurdles.  Lahiri talks about finding the freedom to write that she lost, to some extent, when her first book received such acclaim.  She did it by learning Italian and choosing to write exclusively in Italian.

I don't have any solutions.  Some of us will write in Italian, and some of us will devote ourselves to just one novel in our lifetime.  Some, like me, will keep exploring a variety of possibilities, hopeful that what needs to survive will survive.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


I don't always travel with a laptop, although it's becoming less unusual than it once was.  And when I travel with my laptop, I don't always seek out an Internet connection.  This past retreat week was both the same and different.

I took my laptop because part of the week was going to be devoted to writing, and I thought I might want to have access to my files.  I didn't really plan to be online much, and I even told my boss and my students that I didn't expect to be able to check in.

During the first part of the week, I was able to get a connection at my friend's house where I'd gotten one before, but not at the other friend's house.  On Monday, I got to Mt. Pleasant an hour and a half before my lunch appointment with friends.  I thought about going to a museum, but decided it was just not enough time, what with the surprising amount of traffic in the Charleston area.  I thought about finding an Internet connection, but couldn't find a Panera and the Starbucks looked crowded.

The public library provided me the Wi-Fi--I provided the laptop.  At the time I wasn't sure of what the retreat at Mepkin Abbey would look like, with the absence of Kathleen Norris.  So I downloaded the submission guidelines for a publisher in case I had time to prepare the packet.  I answered some e-mails.  I checked in on my online class.  I did not check work e-mails, since I know that task always takes more time than I think it will.

I had no Internet connection at Mepkin Abbey, which was as I expected.   And at Lutheridge, the camp where I spent the second half of the week, I had good connectivity early in the morning, and very slow service at any other point in the day.  The slow connection was a blessing, since I wasn't tempted to be online once I left my room for the day.

I mention this history because I want to record the results of the experiment I didn't plan to conduct on myself.  It will come as no surprise to anyone that I got more work done and stayed more focused in general, when I didn't have Internet access.

I found the results of our Wednesday group writing most surprising.  The group of writers gathered for the Mepkin retreat decided to gather in the main living room-like space of the retreat center.  We would write in silence.  The night before, we had been given a prompt from 40-day Journey With Kathleen Norris, a prompt that involved silence (Day 12).  It wasn't so much a prompt for a poem as it was a prompt for insight.

I wrote 3 poems in an hour, and they were not bad at all.  I wrote a poem and then wrote it in sonnet form (that one needs more revision than I'm likely to give it) and then some fairy tale imagery bubbled up, and I followed it to another poem.  Then I revised the first one.  It was a remarkable hour.

If I had been plugged in, I'd have wasted time in Internet rambling.  I'd have looked up some fairy tale details and then popped around the Internet before returning to my writing.  And then, I'd have likely decided to work on the poem later.

But because I was committed to sitting with the group for an hour, I went deeper inside myself than I usually do.  I don't feel like the energy of being with other writers was responsible for that going deep, but I do feel that the commitment of one hour with few other distractions was the aspect that helped most.

It was also easier to do in that setting, where no one would disturb us, where no chores beckoned, where I wasn't trying to squeeze in the writing before the demands of the day set their sights on me.  It was easier to sit in silence when there was no Internet to offer a multitude of noise offerings.

I have always suspected these insights to be true, but I didn't know for sure.  Now I do.

So, will I change my daily life?  I'm not sure.  Could I add an hour of silent, unplugged writing to my weekly schedule?  Let me make a plan.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Real World, Fake World

Today is the day I plunge back into "regular life."  I was back home yesterday, but I had already put in for the day off, back when I thought I might stay with my friend on the way back.  But she had a baptism to attend on Sunday in Atlanta, and I decided to come back the whole way on Sunday.

I'm glad I took yesterday off.  It took time to unload the car, and I had lots of laundry to do.  I prepared for every kind of weather, and I ended up wearing most of the clothes.  And because there was rain along the way, most of those clothes got muddy.

But more than that, I'm glad that I took yesterday off because it's good to have a re-entry day. When I travel, I often feel like it takes time for all the pieces of myself to catch up with each other.  That's even more the case when I've been away on retreat.

In the best circumstance, retreats have given us wisdom--I worry about losing that wisdom if we rush headlong back to "real life" too quickly.

I'm not sure what to do with the wisdom that tells me that retreat life is closer to the life I want to be living than "real life."  But I found these words of hope from Pastor Mary, who responded to a Facebook post about returning to "real life" with this thought:  "The community & freedom we experienced IS God's reality for us. We go back to the FAKE world, with the task of making it REAL!"

It's a wonderful message--now for the harder, yet also joyful, task of making it real.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Retreat Recap

I had planned to write yesterday morning--the Internet connectivity at Lutheridge was fairly good in the early morning.  But as Saturday moved to Sunday, intense winds moved in, power lines came down, and we finished our Create in Me retreat in half light--and no Internet connection.

And then off I went, down the mountain, across 4 states, back to a very different coast than the one where I spent the first part of the week.

Today will not be an exhaustive recap.  That would be a very long post--but let me write a summing up of sorts.

Some background:  back in October, I saw that Kathleen Norris would be Mepkin Abbey during the first part of the week where Create in Me would end the week.  I could go to both!  And it would be during a down time of my online teaching, between quarters at one place I work.  In short, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I talked to a variety of friends along the way, some of whom I hadn't seen face to face in 2 years.  I made arrangements for visits.  Some of them changed their schedules so that they could see me.

Fast forward to the Friday before the Saturday that I was to leave. I had already packed, because it was Good Friday, and I'd be away that night at Good Friday service with duties before and afterward.  I checked my e-mail mid-afternoon to discover that because Kathleen Norris was too sick to travel, the retreat was cancelled.  We were welcome to come and do a private retreat.

I deliberated.  I had been feeling a bit of anxiety about being away that long.  I thought about cancelling the first part of the week.  But I was packed, and I thought of all the friends who would be disappointed.

In the end, I threw a few more books in the car and went ahead with the plan.  And it worked well.  Those of us who came to the retreat made our own sort of retreat.  I'm sure it was different than what Kathleen Norris would have offered, but it was great.  We met to write in a big group in the morning, and we gathered in the evening to read our work.  I haven't been part of a larger workshop environment in a very long time. 

We took walks together and worshiped together and speaking for myself, it was a wonderful time, and I'm very glad I went.  I was impressed with how we came together to design a retreat on such short notice.  We were able to quickly make decisions and thus to design a retreat that was not what we expected, but met some needs.

And then, on Thursday, I left to head to the mountains for my second retreat, the Create in Me retreat that I have gone to every year, except for last year when my family took its great Hawaii vacation.

It took some time to transition from a contemplative retreat at a monastery to the more raucous gathering that is Create in Me.  And oddly, my single room at Lutheridge was much more monastic than the gorgeous retreat center at Mepkin Abbey, which is luxurious and spa-like. 

But eventually, I was able to make the adjustment.   I've been to enough retreats that these periods of strange homesickness and longing for people who aren't there still surprise me.  Now I know to just sit with the sadness until it passes.

I was able to get a seat in a workshop on spiritual journaling on Friday morning--it was full, but I asked to be included, and it worked out.  I was able to use expensive markers, which showed me that they'd be nice, but that the markers that I have are probably just fine.  On Saturday morning, I went to a session on creative dreaming, which was a directed collaging--I hadn't had luck on Friday, but I made a great creation on Saturday.  Did I have better magazines?  Was it being in a group?

Here's the one I did on Saturday:

And the one I think of as the rough draft:

The themes are there in both pieces, aren't they?  And it doesn't take a highly trained psychologist to see what's there.

Along the way of my week, I celebrated the Eucharist four times and had many other worship experiences.  I had lots of opportunities to connect and reconnect with people, and I'm happy to say that I made the most of them.  I had time to be with myself, which was good too.  I finished Middlemarch, which moved me in different ways than when I first read it in grad school.  I read Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words, an interesting meditation on language and reading and writing.  And the varying foliage was wonderful.  In some spots, I was just in time for the azaleas and dogwoods, which I miss.  Yes, I live in a place with hibiscus, bougainvillea, and orchids, but I miss the flowering plants that aren't here too.

This post is getting long, so let me close.  I'm sure I'll dive in more deeply to some of these topics in the coming weeks.

And now, the laundry.  I have the mud of a several centuries old cemtary all over one outfit. And lots of paint and other craft supplies on one sweater. And crumbs from countless wonderful meals. I hope I don't wash away all the inspiration I've had this past week.