Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Travels and Reading Recommendations

I just got back from Williamsburg, where we've been visiting my parents, in their new homeplace, and hanging out with them, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my nephew.  More on that later.  Suffice it to say, it POURED rain on Saturday, so we didn't do all the historic stuff.  There will be time for that in coming years.  It was a relaxing week-end, sitting around and remembering strategies for winning at Uno, my nephew's new favorite game.

We are back in the sunshine state to find that buckets of rain also fell here, and are still falling, and thus, I do not expect many trick-or-treaters.

We don't get many trick-or-treaters even when we have perfect weather, so I'm glad I only bought one bag of candy--and I'm glad that I bought candy that we like to eat.

If you're sitting at home, and you're in the mood for some theological reading on this Halloween, let me direct you to my post at the Living Lutheran site.  Never fear--it's not one of those preachy approaches, not a let's ban books and not have anything to do with witches and wizards angle.  No sir, not me.

Halloween is, after all, a holiday that comes to us partly because of its proximity to the Christian holidays of All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2)--and my blog post tries to reconcile all these threads.

But maybe you're in the mood for something more wickedly fun, as you wait for trick-or-treaters.  I read part of Glen Duncan's I, Lucifer on the plane today.  What a treat!  Milton updated, along with sardonic treatments of modern life and pop culture.  I probably never would have picked up this book if I hadn't enjoyed his book, The Last Werewolf, so much--another appropriate Halloween pick.

So, however you're celebrating, whether it be a costume ball or waiting for trick-or-treaters or shoveling freak October snow off your pathways, I hope you have lots of treats and no tricks!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reformation Sunday: What Does It Mean for Writers and Other Artists?

Today is Reformation Sunday.  For a more spiritual angle, go here to one of my favorite Reformation Sunday meditations.

Even if you're not spiritual or religious, if you're a scholarly sort, you should celebrate.  If you're a writer, or indeed, an artist of any kind, you should celebrate.

Martin Luther and those other Reformers not only created new approaches to church, but they launched us much further down the road towards modernity than we'd have been otherwise.

I'm a Lutheran, so let me just offer some examples from the life of Martin Luther.  Martin Luther was the first to translate the Bible into a common language that everyone could read.  Why does that matter, you ask.  Once everyone could read the Bible, the priests lost the control they had once had.  Having access to those Scriptures made it possible for people to think for themselves.

And having the Scripture in those common languages made people yearn for literacy so that they could read those Scriptures.  And I'm a liberal arts gal, so I believe that more literacy is better than less.

Yes there are dark periods in Church History where the arts have been repressed, and we see that repression more in some of the religions that came out of the Reformation than we do in Catholicism.  But unfortunately, one of the messages of human history is that we're always struggling to find a balance between healthy expression and darker aspects of our nature.

So, on this Reformation Sunday, lift a beer or an apple cider in a toast to the Reformation.  Take a popular song and make new lyrics, like so many of those early Reformers did:  some of our most famous Lutheran hymns have melodies from drinking songs.  Read a book  or a blog post and think about how wonderful it is to have the ability to read and more stuff to read than you can ever plow through.  Try a new art form.  Think about your own art form and the reformations you'd like to see.  Treat your inner artist with a spirit of grace, not judgment.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Thinking About Thin Places As Halloween Approaches

Last week I got my contributor copy of Florida English.  What a beautiful journal!  You still have plenty of time to submit and have your work considered for the 2012 issue; the deadline is April 15.

My poem that appears in the journal is more appropriate for Holy Week than for the days when our attention turns to Halloween.  Or is it?  We've been having springlike weather here.  But I know that's not true for most of my readers.

The poem talks about thin places, and Halloween is one of the most famous thin places of all.  What's a thin place, you ask?  Spiritually, it's the place where this world and the spirit world come into closest contact.

Maundy Thursday at Hartsfield

We long for Celestial food, or at least to leave our earthbound
selves behind, but it is not to be. The airport shuts
down as late thunderstorms sweep across the south.
I resign myself to spending Maundy Thursday in the airport.

One of a minority who even knows the meaning of Maundy,
I roam restlessly. I cannot even approximate
a Last Supper—the only food to be had is fast
and disgusting. I think of that distant
Passover, the Last Supper that transformed
us into a Eucharistic people.

A distant outpost of a vast empire, teeming
with a variety of humans, all hurrying
and keeping our heads down: Jerusalem or the modern
airport? I watch my fellow humans, notice
the hunger in their faces, their haunted feet,
so in need of love and water.

I watch Spring Breakers and athletes and moms
and gnarled elders and unattached children, all racing
through their earthly days, hurtling through time,
crossing continents, without any rituals to ground
them. I think of Christ’s radical
agenda: homelessness, care, and listening,
ignoring rules that made no sense,
making scarce resources stretch,
food eaten on the run, a community hunted
by their own and by the alien government.
I miss my own church, by now gathered in a dark
sanctuary, participating in ancient rituals
we don’t fully understand, looking for that thin
place between the sacred and the every day.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Michael Hettich's Writing Experiment

A week ago, I saw the poet Michael Hettich at Books and Books.  He looked a bit nervous as he started the reading, but he needn't have been.  What wonderful poems in his latest book, The Animals Beyond Us!

But as he talked about his process, the source of his nervousness became clear.  His writing approach with this latest book was very different.  It makes me wonder about adopting a different approach once in awhile, just to see what might happen.

He wrote in a burst during a 2 month time.  He wrote 150 poems.  In the past, he's done more writing in form, but during this 2 month burst, the form was the process.  He knew he wanted to write 150 poems, not 136, not 194, but 150. 

Here's the process:  He wrote quickly, with no revising, no looking back, no judging.  He wrote 2 or 3 poems a day.  He tried to juxtapose items in a radical way, putting those items together in a way that would surprise the reader.

In these poems, there aren't as many that are based on true stories.  He said that these aren't poems about the big things (existential issues, like why are we here and why can life be so painful?).  He said these are just walking around poems.  They do seem to be based in observations of daily life.

When he was done with the 150 poems, he read them all and chose the 50 poems that appear in this book.  He says he didn't do much revising.  He didn't do what he called overediting.

He said that when you've been writing and revising for a long time, you tend to bring your poems to a habitual place because that's what you know how to do.  You end them the same way.  You use similar approaches.

Michael Hettich said that he needed to bring his poems to a different place, and that his new process helped him do that. 

During his Friday reading, he read the poems in the same order as they appear in the book.  He didn't do much in the way of introduction, which one of the audience members said she really liked, because she got to form her own opinion.

At the end of the reading, the Books and Books employee noted that he could bring in a specialist on the Middle East and get maybe 10 people to come.  But Michael Hettich read to a packed room--and he made it worth our efforts.

If he's ever in your neighborhood, I highly recommend him.  But even if he's not, you can still read his books.

Here's my last Michael Hettich anecdote.  Years ago, I applied for an individual artist's grant from the state of Florida.  I didn't get it.  But I did get a mailing that included samples of the award winning work.  When I read Michael Hettich's poem, I thought, "Cool.  He deserves this grant."  I understand that there's a limited pool of money.  It makes it easier to accept that I didn't get any of the money when the prize-winning work makes me shake my head in wonder at the skill of the poet.

If you go here and scroll down, you can read that poem, "The Point of Touching."  And there are other poems for you to enjoy too--a great way to celebrate Friday! 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

End of October Miscellany

Today, I have many things on the brain.  Can they make a unified post?

--On this day, in 1962, my parents got married--yes, during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.   I wrote about it here.  Love and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation:  maybe some grad student 100 years from now will write about my work in those contexts.

--The rest of the nation enjoys Halloween weather--or Christmas weather, if you live in Denver.  We're back to summer:  humid and sweaty.  I've lived in South Florida long enough that Halloween sweating feels normal to me.

--Long ago, I wrote a disjointed poem with Halloween images.  I still like these two lines:

Heat drapes itself over Halloween,
a candle scorching our pumpkin insides.

--Kathleen writes a post about Halloween weather, but she actually has traditional Halloween weather.  She's got great art with this post--wow.  I clicked on her link to see more work by the artist Kathleen Lolly.  Wonderful!

--This article at The Washington Post made me want to grill pumpkins.  Don't delay, though.  The Post only allows free access for 2 weeks.  And soon, the pumpkins will be gone.  Christmas is just around the corner, after all.

--As we approach the last day with our RIFed colleagues at work, I keep thinking about Halloween images and the downsizing workplace:  ghosts and zombies and werewolves . . . I feel like I have more than I can use.  I'm thinking of a series of poems, but my spouse has challenged me to write a long poem.  He's observed that most of my poems are of a similar length.  He's right.  Maybe I'll challenge myself.

--I'm also working on a poem inspired by Hirsch's "I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic" (a great poem on its own but also part of this beautiful larger blog post).  My poem:  "I Am Going to Start Living Like a Hospice Chaplain."  Many days my job duties feel more like hospice chaplain duties than department chair duties.  Or maybe any job I took would draw those qualities out of me; maybe I would always frame my duties that way (at least recently).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Postcards as Poetry and Prayer Flags

I've been following Donna Vorreyer's teaching experiment with great interest since I first read about it here.  And this week, we get follow up posts!

Donna's class of 7th graders read Dave Bonta's poem about ghosts and wrote him postcards with both poems they wrote inspired by his poem and questions.  And he created this post, with pictures of the postcards strung like prayer flags and answers to the questions.  How cool!

I've spent the morning thinking about how this idea could be expanded and could be used to introduce students to poetry that will be more inspiring to them than the traditional approach of teaching dead white guys and one token woman.

Or maybe no one really teaches that way any more.  But still, the world needs more poetry evangelists, and I'd be willing to be part of the plan.  I think that Donna's approach would work well with both younger and older students, even college students.  I think that one of the reasons why her plan works is because it ties in to the fast-approaching holiday of Halloween.  Those of us who write holiday-themed poems could certainly play along.  And for teachers who need an analytical idea for Composition classrooms, it would be interesting to compare the poems written by poets to ones we find in greeting cards--of course, some holidays would work better than others.  I could see that Mother's Day would yield rich analysis--Halloween, perhaps not so much.

I think it would also be interesting to talk about poems rooted in place with students who could then go on to write poems about their own place.  My poem "Ash Wednesday on I95 South" that recently appeared in Hobble Creek Review offers interesting possibilities.  I wrote one version, the one in print, as a rhyming sonnet and one version that doesn't rhyme.  Students could think about Interstates and what they mean.  My poem is rooted in a theological holiday which reminds us that we're not here for very long.  Lots of interesting analytical approaches, should a teacher decide to go that route.

I like assignments that ask students to interact with a source both by using a creative writing approach and an analytical approach.  I like having students write meta-essays about their experience trying to do each--what did they learn from the writing?  I like that these kind of assignments generate excitement, in a best case scenario, and discourage cheating--to my knowledge, there aren't many essays written about my work that already exist for students to download.  And I remember how cool it was as a student to write letters to living authors and presidents and to get answers back.

So, if any teachers out there want a poet who's willing to write to students, I'm volunteering!  I'm visualizing a future data bank, full of writers like me, writers who aren't famous but who are willing to help educate and inspire the next generation.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Quilting with Scraps of Time

Today's post will be short, and you may have noticed that yesterday's post didn't ever come into being.  It's one of those time periods of more travelling and more deadlines and the time crunch that ensues.  It's a time period that makes me think about my writing life and my larger life and what my priorities should be.

I used to have a t-shirt that said, "So many books, so little time."  I still feel that way.  I also feel like there are so many writing projects that I could do and so little time.  How to decide what to do?

Some decisions are easy.  Yesterday I had a deadline for a blog post for the Living Lutheran site.  I was commissioned to write about the holiday of Halloween from a Lutheran point of view.  I know, I know, you didn't think there was a Lutheran point of view!  Well, on Oct. 31, you  can migrate over there to see how I handled it.

So, yesterday, I devoted my writing time to that post.  After all, I get paid for that one.  Other decisions are not so easy.

I have a Ph.D. in British Literature, but I also write poetry.  I'd love a job in a liberal arts college where I could teach both Brit Lit classes and creative writing classes--I'd like that job and so would the rest of the Ph.D.s I know.  So, if I'm thinking about staying marketable, should I need a job in the future, which conferences does it make the most sense to attend?  Should I write papers that analyze literary works or concentrate on my poetry manuscripts?  Or should I think about articles for magazines?

I'd like to arrange to have more readings, both for me and for other writers who deserve audiences.  I'd like to go one step further and create a literary series for my school.  Again, those things take time.

And I'd like to apply for a grant (Sandy Longhorn wrote a great post on that subject and the larger issues of time).  But that takes a surprising amount of time too.

On the one hand, I'm happy to have a rich life that means I need to make these decisions:  do I go to hear an author at Books and Books or do I stay home and write?  Do I apply for a grant or do I use that time to write, which I can do, since I have a full-time job?  And I'm happy that I have so many interests that I never experience writer's block.  Writer's block seems like a luxury to me.  I spend my non-writing time thinking about what I'll be writing when my writing time comes, so that I don't waste a precious scrap of time.

Quilting with scraps of time.  I like that image better than the title of my post I originally used:  time starved.  I'm not starved, I just wish I had more.  Scraps of time crafted into complete cloth--now there's an image I might use during my next poetry writing session!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fun with Pumpkins--Without Sharp Edges!

We are deep into pumpkin time.  Even down here, when we must be careful about how early we carve the pumpkins, we see fields of pumpkins popping up for sale.  My church, Trinity Lutheran in Pembroke Pines, makes a lot of money for our youth and education programs by selling pumpkins.

I know that lots of people love carving pumpkins, but I've always hated the work involved with gutting any kind of gourd.  I have more than one scar on my hands from the process.

So, for those of you who need an alternative for a fun experience with pumpkins and little ones, I offer these ideas.

I would never have thought of alternative possibilities of decorating pumpkins had I not helped staff the pumpkin carving event at my school in 2009.  I offered to bring cloth, buttons, ribbons, and other items from my craft closet.  I was amazed at what the students created.  I even got into the spirit with the pirate pumpkin above.  No carving necessary!  And a festive decoration at the end.

When my nephew was here last year, we had every intention of carving pumpkins with him; that's why there's newspaper underneath the pumpkin in these pictures.  However, my nephew seemed far more interested in seeing the pumpkin as a kind of canvas.  He seized the crayons, and instead of drawing the face that he wanted carved into his pumpkin, he wrote words and drew pictures.

Last year, he was just learning to write words--you can see the word "Daddy" in the picture above.

Here my spouse tried to make a hybrid pumpkin:  partly carved, partly covered in crayon drawing.

I'm pretty sure the above picture with its ghostly face is a feature of taking the picture without the flash on.  But it almost looks like the pumpkin has a candle glowing.

And of course, you could always cook with them.  Go to this post for my adventures with cooking pumpkins.  You could make a soup right in the pumpkin--but if you try this, make sure you've got the pumpkin in a big Pyrex bowl or a rimmed baking sheet--the sides could collapse or start to leak.  And pie made from fresh pumpkin really is much better than pie made from canned pumpkin. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween Poetry Reading: A Photo Essay

Back in May, when we did our poetry reading at the wine shop, one of the audience members asked us to do an October reading at her children's theatre space.  We said yes, and we immediately started thinking about the possibilities that  late October reading offered.

I love the space.  It's amazing what a determined group can do to transform a space that used to be a small furniture store into a theatre.  And the stage was set for the current production, and happily, the set matched our reading.

We decided that we'd each read for 8-10 minutes, and then we'd do a Halloween-themed round robin.  I read exclusively from my new chapbook.  That's me, below.  When choosing what to wear, I selected autumnal clothing.  The scarf has colored leaves, as close to colored leaves as I'll get down here.

For the round robin, we chose themes in advance: 

1.  witches
2.  wolves and other monsters
3.  spells, potions, and enchantments.

Marissa Cohen reads above.  Shefali Choksi reads below.  In the background of all these pictures, you can see the set.  What an amazing set!

Below, our audience mingles after our reading.  Teenagers came!  Sure, they came because their moms came, but still, how thrilling.  And one of them asked me very insightful questions about my poem "Kitchen Remodels" after the reading, and we talked about first world problems and third world problems.  Delightful.

I promised my easy tiramisu recipe.  It's adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts.


I doubled this recipe because I wanted leftovers; as is, this recipe serves 5 generously, 6 modestly

8 oz. mascarpone cheese (cream cheese will do)
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 tsp. cocoa
1/2 c. whipping cream
2-4 c. coffee (you can add in some coffee and/or amaretto liqueur)
12 ladyfingers

Whip the cream in one bowl.  In another bowl, beat the mascarpone cheese, sugar, cocoa, and vanilla together.  Fold the whipped cream into the mixture.

Pour the coffee into a shallow bowl or pan.  Soak the ladyfingers for a minute or two on each side.  You can then create individual bowls or one big bowl.  Put the soaked ladyfingers on the bottom of the bowl (and the sides, if you like).  Add the whipped cream mixture.  You could keep doing this in layers or not.

Refrigerate for at least an hour and serve cold.  You can top with grated chocolate or cocoa or raspberries--whatever you'd like.

Friday, October 21, 2011

First Review of "I Stand Here Shredding Documents"!

Today I'm a bit tired after a great poetry reading last night, which I'll write more about (with pictures!  but no video/audio) tomorrow.  It went well:  a neat venue, good friends, appreciative audience members, a wonderful chat with a perceptive teenage audience member afterwards.  But it was a late night, since we couldn't start right at 7:30 and since the theatre is further away from my house, and since I was the carpool driver who dropped people back off at their houses.

What a wonderful treat to wake up this morning, not only with happy memories and leftover tiramisu in my fridge (easy recipe tomorrow too, so that you can make some), but to read Kathleen Kirk's insightful review of my latest chapbook.  She says,  "I Stand Here Shredding Documents is also a gentle, humorous, and pithy critique of contemporary life, particularly 20th- and 21st-century woman's place in it." 

It's always interesting to read/hear what others think of my work, but it's wonderful when my work has the effect I intended.  When I first thought about putting together these poems into a manuscript, I wrote a blog piece in which I said, "I'm seeing a manuscript develop from poems that I've written that explore the shortcomings and frustrations of modern work life, especially from a woman's perspective. I wonder if the manuscript would be too depressing. But then I think of books like Deborah Garrison's A Working Girl Can't Win, and I'm determined to see where this leads me. How many books deal with the mid-life disappointments of working women? Working women without children?"

I did worry that the overall effect of the collection is gloom, but when I read it, as a whole work, I see the hopeful notes amidst the absurdity and strain.  My spouse worries that my timing is all wrong, that in a time of horrible economic decline when so many people have no jobs, the audience for a book that explores the modern workplace may have dwindled.  But one of my goals as a writer has always been to write about life as I experience it, particularly my life as a woman in this particular time, in these particular places.  As a literary scholar, that aspect of literature was always what fascinated me most:  what can I learn about the lives people lived by reading this literature?

Still, I don't want to be a complete bummer of a writer.  So, I was relieved to read Kathleen's final insight:  "But there's a sense in the book as a whole that some of the unfinished work is yet to come, after the regular workday, and isn't boring, and is meaningful, and it's here, woven into poems."

Thank you, Kathleen, for such a generous review!  You've made my morning, and likely my whole week-end.

And if you're reading this blog and Kathleen's review, and you're thinking that you'd love a signed copy, contact me, and we can make arrangements.  Or click on the cover to the right, and you can buy an unsigned copy from the publisher.  Or you can stay tuned, for my special holiday promotion, coming in just a few weeks!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween Poetry Readings

In the best tradition of my undergraduate journalism training, let me put the most important information first.  If you're in South Florida, please come to my reading tonight at the Sol Children's Theatre in Boca Raton (3333 Federal Highway, which is also Highway 1).  I'll be sharing the stage with 2 other poets, and we'll start at 7:30.  This reading will be the first time I'll be reading extensively from my new chapbook.  We'll be selling and signing books afterwards.

Since we're close to Halloween, we've chosen some poems with Halloween themes, and we'll do a round robin kind of reading at the end.  I have in mind that we'll each read a poem that has something to do with enchantment, then we'll each do a poem that deals with witches, then we'll each read a poem that has to do with wolves or other monsters.  Of course, my fellow poets may have a different idea.  For my 8-10 minutes of poetry reading before the round robin, I'm going to focus on the tricks and treats of the modern workplace.

I told one of my colleagues that our reading will be particularly kid friendly, especially since it's at a children's theatre space.  Of course, it would be neat if every poetry reading was kid friendly.  We need to grow the next generation of poetry lovers.

Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote a great post about that topic here.  She talks about going to the Seattle Symphony when they had a sci-fi event, and she wonders if poets shouldn't be planning readings in a similar way.

Long ago, we received "Be a Tourist in Your Home Town" tickets for a Christmas present.  We spent a chilly January exploring Charleston, South Carolina.  We went to a Sunday afternoon Symphony concert that was billed as family friendly.  The conductor talked to the children in the audience to explain what the orchestra was about to do and what to listen for.  I'm sure I wasn't the only adult in the venue who left feeling enriched beyond measure.

I like the idea of holiday themed readings, although I realize the danger of hokiness.  My fellow poets with whom I've been reading this year are Hindu and Jewish.  I'm still hoping to pull together a reading where we read poems about our special holidays.  Where are the intersections?  What do the differences tell us?

In a similar vein, go here to read a great teaching idea from Donna Vorreyer.  She got the idea when she read Dave Bonta's poem about ghosts here.  I had a wonderful experience this morning as several strands came together and wove themselves into a poem.

Last week, I attended the Employee Engagement Committee.  We're the group that plans events in the hopes of keeping up morale.  In a twist that's either very cruel or full of black humor (and irony?), most of the committee has just been informed that they will be losing their jobs in the November RIF.

So, last week, there we were, trying to plan the Halloween events, and laughing to keep from crying.  We talked about costumes, and I suggested that the HR people come dressed as the ghosts that will haunt us as we sit waiting for a response from the 1-800 HR number.

This morning, I started thinking about all the other Halloween metaphors that fit a RIF work environment so perfectly.  Here's a stanza:

We agree that we can't afford pumpkins
in this era of downsizing.
Too many programs gutted--
why mangle these poor gourds?

I think I'll read the poem tonight.  We start at 7:30--it would be great to see you there, but since I know that many of my readers live far away, I'll take pictures and write up a retrospective this week-end.  Maybe I'll even experiment with recording, although I haven't had much luck yet.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Good Enough Approach

Maybe it's the gloomy weather we've been having lately or the dwindling hours of the days.  Maybe it's the natural outcome of travel.  I've been in a negative spiral, full of self-recrimination about all I haven't gotten done.  I haven't mailed out all the poetry packets that I meant to mail, I haven't arranged as many readings as I think I should, I ate too much fried food on Saturday, I haven't written a poem in what feels like ages, I haven't been a good friend and wife, I could do more to improve our school . . . on and on I could go.

This morning, I didn't have time for my full routine with weights:  instead of 3 sets, I did one set at each machine.  And you know what?  That's probably good enough.

That realization made me wonder if I'm just being too tough on myself.  I checked my poetry notebook.  I last wrote a poem last Monday.  Even though I was travelling last week-end, I wrote blog postings in advance for the days that I was going to be away.  I haven't gotten as much in the mail as I feel like I should, but I've gotten a few packets in the mail each week.

I've done this by seizing time in whatever increments I have.  I don't have time to do a massive mailing, but if I have time to prepare a few packets, that will do.

Let me try that approach in other areas of my life.  Let me remember the ways I have achieved what I have wanted to achieve.  Let me not mourn too much that I don't have the kind of time I had when I was younger.  I've been thinking about my grad school years, when a group of us met every Saturday and did stitching all day long.  What a luxury to have that kind of time!  But even if I don't have a whole day, I have some hours here and there, and one Saturday a month.  I want more, but I'll enjoy what I have.

I will always wonder what I could be accomplishing if my life was different. I'm not good at living in the moment.  My inner critic, who sounds like a guidance counselor, is always telling me I'm not living up to my full potential.  That voice is useful at times, when I've been truly slothful.  It's not as useful when I've been doing my best.

I've been reading various blogs, and I sense I'm not the only one feeling a bit overwhelmed.  It's the time of year when we have papers to grade and appointments to keep and looming deadlines.  What more might we accomplish if we didn't wait for perfect circumstances, but instead adopted an "It's good enough" approach?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Making Space for Creativity on the Feast Day of St. Luke

Today is the feast day of St. Luke, the patron saint of artists.  He's also the patron saint of student, physicians, surgeons, and butchers--there's likely a poem there, a poem about people who deconstruct, who reconstruct, who hack and who stitch.

For a more theological meditation on St. Luke, I wrote a post on my theology blog here.

I'm intrigued by the early Church's embrace of the arts.  Luke is given credit for creating the first icon of the Virgin Mary.  The early Church knew that creativity can enrich our spiritual lives.  What happened in the intervening centuries?

I'll let others tell that story.  Happily, in the past few decades, we've seen many churches move to embrace the arts and to explore the ways that artistic practice can lead us to a deeper spiritual rootedness.

For those of you interested in exploring these intersections, let me recommend Christine Valters Paintner's latest book, The Artist's Rule:  Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom.  Much like Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, Paintner's book is set up as a 12 week intensive immersion into techniques and practices that will make us better artists and deepen our spiritual experiences. 

But unlike other books that claim to do the same thing, Paintner's book finds inspiration from monastic practices.  Paintner is not the first person who has noticed the similarity between artists and monks, but her insights bear repeating.  Both groups work in fields that aren't always honored by the larger community.  Both groups are largely misunderstood by the larger community.  Both groups engage in practices that aren't always understood.  Both groups have to practice some sort of contemplation to do what they do.  Both groups have to establish boundaries.  In many cases, both groups experience a sense of awe and wonder on a more regular basis than members of the regular world will experience.

Paintner's book is a wonderful introduction to monasticism.  It's also a wonderful introduction to a variety of practices that can be used in a number of ways.  She has her readers make wisdom cards and arts altars.  She has her readers experiment with movement in a variety of ways.  She offers guided meditations.  She suggests that readers play with poetic forms and fairy tales.  The book includes poems, Bible verses, and quotes, and Paintner encourages the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, close reading which allows readers to uncover wisdom.

Her writing style is accessible, even for those of us who have never given monasticism much thought.  When she offers activities for readers to do, her tone encourages novices and experts alike.  Each chapter gives a wide variety of possible approaches, and most of them sound intriguing.  I was first introduced to Paintner's approach to life and her writing style at her comprehensive website, and this book doesn't disappoint.

So, on this feast day that celebrates the patron saint of artists, pick up your paint brush, your pen, your camera.  If you're stuck at a desk at work, move your arms or flutter your fingers.  Google icons and think about what a contemporary icon maker would do.  Cook something tasty for dinner.  Plan your garden for spring, and include some restorative herbs.   Think about ways to make space each day for more creative practice.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Back to Regular Life, Should Such a Thing Exist

On Friday, my spouse and I drove to the Asheville area (he had a meeting on Saturday), and yesterday, we drove back.  It was only tough in the last hour.  I'm a little more tired than usual for a Monday today, understandably so.

And it's back to a hectic week:  the Festival and Club Rush happens tomorrow, unless we decide the rain risk is too high.  Thursday, at 7:30, I'm part of a poetry reading at the Sol Children's Theatre in Boca Raton (3333 N. Federal Highway).  We're doing some Halloween themes and some readings from our books.  If you're in the area, come join us!  One of my favorite area poets, Michael Hettich, reads at Books and Books Friday night, so I'll try to go to that.

I returned home to discover that two of my poems that had been accepted by Hobble Creek Review are now part of the latest issue of that journal.  Go here to read those poems.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Interviews with Writers for Your Sunday Pleasure

You may not be a lover of NPR the way that I am, so you may not have realized how many great interviews with writers have taken place in the past week or two.  For your Sunday listening pleasure, I'm happy to offer these links.

Writer Chris Bohjalian writes compelling books, and he gives a great interview on the Diane Rehm show.  What would you do for your art?  Would you undergo simulated drowning in an airplane?  Bohjalian does, and it's fascinating to hear about.

Margaret Atwood has just put together a book about the art and practice of science fiction that sounds wonderful.  Hear her talk about it here.  When will this woman win the Nobel Prize?  She is one of the greatest, if not THE GREATEST, writers of her generation.

Art Spiegelman talks about Maus and MetaMaus here.  He talks about his father's desire for his son to have a good job, and I laughed out loud when Spiegelman noted that his father didn't realize that there would be no secure jobs in the 21st century.  He talks a bit about the future of animation and eBooks--facets I hadn't really considered before I heard him talk.

I heard this interview with poet Tracy K. Smith over a month ago, but it's worth mentioning again.  What a great interview.  Life on Mars is as fabulous as the interview led me to expect it would be.

A good interview with a writer, whether it's via podcast or magazine article or radio or a bound collection of interviews, a good interview makes me want to head to my computer/notebook/legal pad and start putting words to paper.  These interviews do just that. 

So, let's have virtual brunch:  good coffee, stout tea, scones, coffee cake--whatever your joy.  Let's listen to an interview or two.  Let's write together.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Autumn in the Mountains: A Photo Essay, with Writing Prompts

It's Autumn, the time when the thoughts of many of us turn towards the mountains.  For your viewing pleasure, I present a virtual trip to the mountains.  Feel free to cue up your favorite mountain music.  And for those of you casting about for writing assignments, you might show your students these photos and ask them to create a soundtrack.

But for those of you who don't immediately think of your favorite mountain music, might I suggest some bluegrass?  Start with Ricky Skaggs, in his Kentucky Thunder incarnation.  Or Doc Watson.  Or Earl Scruggs.  You could start with the album The Three Pickers, which features the three of them.

Or just enjoy the silence.  Now, on to the photos.

Let's begin with an iconic shot of mountains, above.

Apples in their native habitat!

Apples for sale, on an apple highway of sorts.

Below, apple orchards on a distant hill.

Just because you see a farm for sale, God is not telling you to move to a North Carolina mountainside.  Not necessarily. 

For those of you looking for a writing prompt, ask what would be a clear sign from God.  The sign below?  Something else?  What would make you give up your current life and leave?

Below:  is it a colored leaf or sunlight sifting through foliage or a butterfly?

A writing prompt:  can you write an autumnal piece that doesn't mention leaves?  To see how one of the masters did it, read John Keats' "To Autumn."

Above:  the typical flaming leaves of Fall.

 Seasonal treats above--a traditional medium, a non-traditional presentation.

A writing prompt:  What do Jack-O-Lanterns tell us about ourselves, about the person who carved them, about our society?

And we drive away, away from one of the continent's spines, back to the edge of America.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Back Up Plan #1: Visiting Intentional Communities

A few days ago, when writing this post about Thich Nhat Hanh, I wrote this bit about intentional communities: 

"Some day, perhaps I'll write a book that looks at the logistics of how these communities are founded. For example, where does the money to buy the land come from? How are buildings designed? Is there a master plan for the land or does it emerge organically as new programs develop?

I'm also interested in the difference between intentional communities that have spiritual beliefs at their core and those that don't. Are the odds of success different?"

And then, I had a spark of an idea.  Wouldn't it be interesting to travel around the country doing research and interviewing people?  Of course, it would be harder at some communities than others.  Monasteries that observe strict silence would probably not welcome my intrusive inquiries.

Now, don't worry that I'm about to sell my house, quit my job, buy a camper, and hit the road.  No, while I still have a job, I'll not give it up.  But in the last year, we've been facing some downsizing at work (a whitewashed way of saying that between 30 and 50 people have had their jobs taken away), which has prompted most of us to start thinking about what we'd do if we found ourselves out of work.

Once upon a time, an academic named W. T. Pfefferle travelled the country interviewing poets; he happened to be my supervisor when I was an adjunct at a local school down here, but I'd have been interested in his saga regardless.  He kept a blog while he did it, and ended up with a book.  His may have been the first blog that I followed, and in some ways, I ended up liking the blog better than the book, although I did thoroughly enjoy the book.

So, one of my back up plans, should I find myself unemployed with time on my hands:  travel the country to visit intentional communities.  I'd love to explore spiritual communities and artistic communities and social justice communities.  I'd love to analyze the ways they intersect.  I'd love to stay to participate in the community, if that's possible, even as I'd force myself to remember that a visitor doesn't really experience the fullness of the community.

And of course, I'd keep a blog and be open to other ways that the larger world might like to hear from me.

And then I'd love to write a book that would offer something definitive on these subjects that interest me so much.  One of the definitive aspects would be a best practices and procedures for intentional communities that want to thrive.

And maybe once I'd travelled the country and gathered my thoughts, I'd create an intentional community all my own.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Mollie Katzen

Today is the birthday of Mollie Katzen, who has probably had a profound impact on your life, even if you're not a vegetarian, even if you think you could care less about cooking.  Mollie Katzen is perhaps most famous for writing and illustrating the very first Moosewood cookbook, although my favorite of hers is The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook.  To this day, almost everything I cook out of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook pleases almost everyone who comes to my dinner table.  The Moosewood Cookbook has a good mix of recipes, but some of them take me back to some of the most unpleasant attributes of 1970's vegetarian cooking, with its flavors of soy and yogurt and undigestable grains.

For those of you who are scoffing at the idea of Mollie Katzen and Moosewood having a lasting impact on the culture, I'd point you to the proliferation of farmer's markets and fresh food in your grocery stores.  When I was a child/adolescent in mid-size Southern towns, we didn't have much in the way of produce departments.  That's changed, at least at the edges of the country.  The inner reaches of the continent may remain untouched, but I doubt it.

My vegetarian roots probably go back to the 5th grade, when our class mouse died, and as a class, we got to vote as to whether or not we buried it or dissected it.  We voted for dissection.  When my 5th grade teacher peeled back the skin, he pointed to the muscle and said, "That's what you're eating when you eat meat."  My relationship with meat has never been the same since.

In high school, my mom invited lonely seminarians over to our house for dinner--and those of you who know me or have read my blogs are probably saying, "Ah, that explains it."  Many of the seminarians were vegetarians, so we learned to cook vegetarian.  We experimented with baking our own bread, a process which bewitched me when I first attempted it during long summers in the late 70's and early 80's.

More and more I wanted to give up meat altogether.  My mom said I could if I learned about nutrition so that I could be sure I was getting enough protein.  I did.  For Christmas, she gave me The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook--what a treat!

I had a great family--they would gamely attempt to eat whatever I cooked.  My dad was not a meat and potatoes dad.  He ran 6-10 miles a day, so he was happy to eat healthy foods.  My mom was happy to share meal prep duties.  My sister made tacos during the week nights when it was her turn to cook.  It all worked out.

I'm happy that Mollie Katzen was there with recipes that my whole family would eat.  I'm happy that she illustrated her own books.

These days, I'm looking at her as a model of how to live a life that's not necessarily the one that society might dictate.  She always seemed to live by her own rules.  She dropped out of college when student protestors made it hard to get to class.  She came to the Moosewood Restaurant thinking that she'd only stay for a little while, and she stayed 5 years.  She self-published the first edition and the second edition of The Moosewood Cookbook (very small press runs), and it went on to become one of the top-selling cookbooks of all times.  She has always mixed her love of painting and drawing with her love of cooking.

Just imagine if Mollie Katzen had talked to you about her plan pre-Moosewood Cookbook plan:  "I'm going to take some of the most popular recipes from the restaurant and adapt them to home kitchens.  They're vegetarian recipes; yes, I know that most of the nation doesn't eat vegetarian meals.  I'm going to illustrate my recipes with pen-and-ink drawings that I'll create by hand, only me, all by myself.  I'll do this while I continue to work at the restaurant."

Most people would have told her that she was crazy, that her plan would never work.  It makes me wonder how many crazy ideas I have that I just discard because everyone around me says, "But what about health insurance?  But what about job security?  But what about planning for retirement?"

What Mollie Katzen like improbable books have been lost because of people who listened to the practical people around them, the scared voices in their own heads?

I'm also intrigued with the idea of cookbooks as architects of social revolution.  Again, we might scoff, but that's because we've been trained to look for social revolution elsewhere--and authored/created by men.  But think about the changes wrought by cookbooks. 

Mollie Katzen led a nation to better health because of her cookbooks.  Mollie Katzen started the movement that may end up changing American agriculture, as more and more people insist on fresh vegetables in a diversity that would have stunned our grandparents.

We could argue that our eating habits might even help save the planet, but that's a discussion for another day.

I see Mollie Katzen as offering a compelling example of a life spent doing what you love and how that can lead to so many amazing changes.  It's a good day to think about what that might mean for our own lives.

Or maybe that's too heavy a thought.  Maybe we should just spend some time making a pot of soup or baking some bread.  It's always a good idea to nourish ourselves, no matter what we face in the coming hours or days.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Werewolf Moons

On Monday, I watched the sun setting and the moon rising at 6:45 in the evening.  As you'd expect, this close to the equinox, they were directly across from each other in the sky.  I watched the sun and the moon through a scrim of rain clouds, which made the light from the sun more like molten gold and the light from the moon silvery.

The next morning at the beach, I got to watch the moon set as I jogged down the Broadwalk.  The moon transformed from a distant, cold coin into a blazing pat of butter looming large in the west.  I had hopes that the sun would rise just as the moon set, but I'm probably on the wrong part of the planet for that.

What a glorious full moon!  I just happen to be reading The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan.  It's a perfect book for a full moon, a perfect book for October/Halloween, a perfect book for English major types who miss Britain even if they never lived there.

I might never have picked up this book, had I not heard Glen Duncan interviewed on the NPR show On Point (you can listen here).  I'm fascinated by literary writers who try their hand at writing books that might be pigeonholed as genre novels, if we were still doing that.  One of my favorite reads of the summer of 2010 was Justin Cronin's The Passage.  I liked what he did with metaphors of illness and apocalypse.  I'm game for a genre novel if it's doing something interesting.  It doesn't even have to do anything breathtakingly interesting--just don't make me wince at bad dialogue or plot twists that can't possibly happen, even in the otherworldly parameters of the novel.

Glen Duncan has been around for awhile, and he wrote this novel because his former novels hadn't sold very well.  He's touted as a literary novelist, and gorgeous passages in the novel attest to his skill.  When reflecting on the fact that werewolves live about 400 years, the main character, a werewolf, says, "Naturally, one sets oneself challenges--Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t'ai chi--but that only addresses the problem of Time.  The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger.  (Vampires, not surprisingly, have an on-off love affair with catatonia)" (page 7).  The book is smart and witty and intriguing. 

The book wrestles with interesting questions:  why do we always want to consume the ones we love?  How is that consumption both literal and metaphorical?  What if you were truly the last of your species?  How do we keep living, even after our zest for life is gone?

I haven't finished the book yet, but I will soon.  It's too good to resist!

Here's a moon photo from March for your inspirational pleasure--it looks like an October moon to me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Thich Nhat Hanh

Today is the birthday of Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps one of the most famous Buddhist monks of all time, with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama, who you may or may not count as a monk.  For those of you wanting a more theological meditation, head to this post on my theology blog. 

I'm struck by how many writers and other creative types cite Thich Nhat Hanh as an influence.  He's written an amazing number of books and articles.  As a creative person, his output is amazing.

I'm also struck by how many communities he has founded.  I've been spending time lately thinking about intentional communities.  I would theorize that one of the reasons that Thich Nhat Hanh has been able to accomplish so much is that he's been immersed in community.

The questions that he poses to the larger society are ones that have haunted artists for centuries.  What living conditions make the most fertile soil for creating?  What do artists owe to their societies?  What is the proper creative response to injustice?

Thich Nhat Hanh created a whole new strand of Buddhism, Engaged Buddhism, to deal with the question of how to live in a world where oppression threatens us all.  It's not enough to just withdraw to our individual communities.  We won't protect ourselves ultimately if we decide to only look out for our own family or community members.

For those of us who feel despair in these days when it seems that individuals can accomplish nothing, I'd point to the example of people like Thich Nhat Hanh.  He is given credit for convincing Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War.  He has influenced several generations of thinkers and artists.  He founded monastery after monastery.

Some day, perhaps I'll write a book that looks at the logistics of how these communities are founded.  For example, where does the money to buy the land come from?  How are buildings designed?  Is there a master plan for the land or does it emerge organically as new programs develop? 

I'm also interested in the difference between intentional communities that have spiritual beliefs at their core and those that don't.  Are the odds of success different?

Perhaps it's the definition of success that's different from one community to the next.

And these days, a book on intentional community would have to include online communities.  It's a question that Christian churches, at least the mainline kind, are only beginning to address.  Do we need to meet in person to truly be a community?

Perhaps the answer will be similar to what colleges seem to be discovering.  Based on anecdotal evidence, most teachers I know discover that many students don't do well with courses that are totally online.  However, classes that use online elements, or the more intentional blended class (which meets for part of the term in a classroom and part of the term in cyberspace), often appeal to students in ways that classes that are strictly online or strictly on ground can't.

It's time for me to head to the dentist, so it would be nice to have a pithy way to conclude.  I don't.  I'll think about all these things as I'm trying to distract myself from my mouth.  I'll offer a prayer of gratitude for the miraculous monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has inspired so many of us.  I'll hope for artists out there who are ready to change the world.  And I'll dream about the ways we might create the next generation of intentional communities.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ecological Convulsions, Trash Trees, and Columbus Day

Are you one of the few Americans who have Columbus Day off?  I am not.  It's one of those federal holidays I've never had off.  During my college and grad school years, I rarely had any kind of Fall Break between the start of classes and Thanksgiving, so I didn't even have accidental Columbus Days.

If I had lots of time, I'd read Charles C. Mann's 1493, but alas, I don't have that kind of time.  Happily, he had a great conversation with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air.  You can hear it here.  It's a discussion of how the collision of worlds had lasting impact to this day.  He talks about it in terms of ecological convulsions:  promiscuous honeybees, leaf blight, and all sorts of other treats.

I've had these collisions on the brain on a lot these days.  I've been doing some baking, and for my autumnal baking, I like to have pecans.

What has happened to the price of pecans???!!!!!!  They cost almost as much as pistachios these days.

What has happened is that Asian countries have discovered this nut, which increases demand, and suddenly, there are pecan shortages, which means we all pay more.  Sigh.  In a way, that's the narrative arc of much of the old world meets new world sagas; it all boils down to capitalism and marketing which worked or didn't.  And of course, there's the interplay of disease.  If the Africans hadn't been so resistant to the malaria that flourished in swampy North America, they wouldn't have been enslaved.

But back to my pecan musings.

Pecans used to be a sort of trashy nut off of trashy trees.  That's how my grandmother thought of them.  You couldn't be sure which years your trees would produce pecans and which years they wouldn't, and when they did, you'd have all these nuts to deal with.

I remember visiting my grandparents' house in South Carolina one year after a particularly prolific year of production for their pecan tree.  I took a nutcracker outside and spent the whole Thanksgiving break shelling pecans.

I always was a strange high school kid.  I couldn't bear to think of all those nuts just rotting back into the earth, what with the Christmas baking season upon us.

Little did I know that that experience would inspire a poem almost 20 years later.  I was thinking of pecans and lost trees and ancestral land that had been sold, and out of that came my poem, "Family Jewels," which you'll see below.

I've also been thinking of those early colonies and their success or failure.  I once heard a historian say that the colonies that survived are the ones where there were plenty of women.  When asked why, the historian said that women reminded the men to plant food crops, not just cash crops:  you'll starve to death if you only plant tobacco.  My mind occasionally thinks back to this idea, and I hope one day to write the poem that will do it justice as a metaphor.

In the meantime, here's a pecan tree poem for your Columbus Day.  It was first published in CrossRoads:  A Southern Culture Annual. 

Family Jewels

Some women hoard the family jewelry.
As each child comes of age, reaches
an important milestone, the matron doles
out an appropriate piece.

I hide the last bags of pecans
in my vault of a freezer. I will receive
no more nuts when these are gone.
My grandmother has sold the land,
the trees bulldozed for a subdivision.

As children, we were sent to scout
the nuts from under the leaves. Some children get
Easter egg hunts, but we had the real autumnal treasure.
Whoever brought in the most got to dictate
dessert for the evening: buttery cookies or a pie
crunchy with nuts in the crust and the topping.

For punishment, we had to shell the nuts,
pick the prize pieces away from the bitter bits.
I enjoyed the enforced time out
even as my hands stained brown,
the cool air calming me, the crack
of the shell draining my aggression.

Now my children don’t even realize
that nuts grow on trees. They approve
of grocery store nuts, even though they’re stale
and oddly chewy. So unlike the ones I hoard
in the freezer, ration out for special occasions.
I portion out these prizes, savor
every last nugget, mourn the loss
of family and homeplace and majestic trees.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

When Women Win the Nobel Peace Prize

The week of the Nobel awards always affects me similarly to the awarding of the MacArthur Fellowships.  I'm filled with awe and wonder.  I wonder about the people who didn't win.  I'm struck by how much I don't know about the world.  I feel a gnawing inadequacy.

But mostly, I'm reminded that we won't any of us be here on the planet for very long--and we need to consider how we're spending our time.  We need to consider that question not just at major birthdays or once a year; if we can bear it, we should really think about that question daily.

I love that three women have won the Noble Peace Prize; I wrote about the women and the prize from a slightly spiritual angle here.  I can't imagine that they've managed this feat, and they've done it in some of the darkest places in the planet.  How can I possibly justify my lack of accomplishment?

Nothing I do will ever be enough for my inner 19 year old, who is convinced that I'm wasting my life, that I've sold out.  In some ways, she's right.  When I was 19, I intended to live in intentional communities that fought for social justice, like those founded by Jane Addams, another one of the only 12 women to win the Nobel Prize.  I intended to forsake all creature comforts.  I intended to change the world for the better.  I wanted to do it in the big ways that people like Martin Luther King changed the world.

Now that I'm older, I realize that nothing will be enough for that inner 19 year old.  I could wipe out world hunger, and she'd say, "Now, what about that problem of land mines?"

Now that I'm older, I realize that there are many ways to change the world.  Even during weeks where I feel like I've done nothing that improves the world, when I look back, I realize I'm doing more than I think.  For instance, in the last two weeks, even though I couldn't keep dozens of our colleagues from being RIFed, I did help solve some student problems (which included keeping at least one of them in school).   I wrote two poems. I helped plan a creativity retreat. I sent some poems out into the world. I tried to calm the fears of colleagues who wonder about the safety of their jobs.  I helped serve a meal to 80 people who wouldn't have had a meal otherwise, and I was part of the big shopping trip that took grant money and bought food for my church's food pantry. 

I would argue that it's little steps like these that do help improve the world.  We remember the Martin Luther Kings, but we forget the nameless millions who worked to transform schools, who worked to change government leaders, who envisioned a better world and went to work to make it happen.

I'm also struck by the back story of so many Nobel Prize winners and winners of other awards.  This week, when hearing about the scientist who won the prize for Chemistry, I was struck by the fact that much of the world dismissed his discovery at first.

So, for those of us who struggle to believe in ourselves and our work, we should take courage from that story.  Even if you're not sure of the worth of your poems, keep writing them.  Keep going.

And often, when we look at the prize winners, we see that even the defeats are part of the ultimate success story.  Again I say, the ultimate lesson to us is the value of persistence.

Graduate school taught me this lesson too.  Many a brilliant scholar in our classes never finished the degree.  They simply couldn't face the dissertation, which takes a lot of persistence to get done.  Writing a dissertation, or any longer work, takes a lot of days of drudgery.

Those brilliant scholars forgot one of the most important lessons.  In the words of one of my professors, the dissertation doesn't have to be the magnum opus--it simply has to be done.  Even if it's not the most brilliant work, it can lay the groundwork for the brilliant work to come.

And I've often discovered that work I thought was not my best at the time, looks better once I've been away from it for awhile.

So, at the end of this week of Nobel prizes, it's a good opportunity to spend some thinking about our life's trajectory.  Are we on the path we need to travel?  Are we doing the work we need to do?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cultivating Delight with Diane Ackerman

Today is Diane Ackerman's birthday.  I first came to her work because I found one of her poems in an anthology that I was using in an English 102 class.  It was a brilliant poem which combined scuba diving and sex and all sorts of underwater imagery.   My students loved it, and so did I.

From there, I jumped to her prose.  I'm one of the bazillion people who loved her book A Natural History of the Senses.  Almost 10 years later, during a cold February morning, I read Cultivating Delight:  A Natural History of my Garden and could hardly restrain myself from going outside to plunge my hands into the chilled earth.  Ackerman is one of those writers who can talk lyrically about scientific subjects in a way that regular readers can understand.

I saw her read once at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.  My parents lived in the area, and they were willing, so we all trouped down there.  She read from Origami Bridges, and while I don't remember specific poems, I remember being enthralled.  She did a great reading in a beautiful setting, and she was gracious with each person who waited in line for her to sign a copy of the book.

As far as I know, Ackerman is the only poet who has had a molecule named after her.  I've always been interested in the intersections between poets and science, and I've been thinking about poets and the cosmos.  But I've been thinking about the larger cosmos, the planets and galaxies that are out there.  I'd love to discover a planet or a star.  I never thought of aspiring to have a molecule named after me.

For those of you who need some inspiration, go here to read "The Work of the Poet Is to Name What Is Holy."  The woman who posted it to the website even includes some writing prompts. 

So, read some Diane Ackerman today.  Read her non-fiction to remind yourself of what gorgeous language is possible when poets write prose.  Read her poems to be inspired to use concrete imagery in your poems to talk about abstract ideas.

Or just honor Diane Ackerman's birthday by going through your day fully utilizing all your senses, in every setting.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

RIP Steve Jobs

Today the world mourns the loss of Steve Jobs.  I've written about how the Apple computer changed my life--and all our lives.  I wrote about the Apple II here and the MacIntosh here.   Even if you haven't been an Apple user, Steve Jobs changed your life too.  Many of the developments which make non-Mac computers so easy to use were first developed for the Mac.

My computer scientist colleague would point out that the windows system that we've almost all switched to was first developed at Xerox, that Steve Jobs stole it before Bill Gates and Microsoft stole it from Apple.  Stole or tweaked or refined?  It's a story I don't know much about, so I'll let interested folks Google it for themselves.

Still, there's no denying the impact that Steve Jobs has had on our culture.  Think of all the things we wouldn't have without him:  iPods and iPhones and iPads.  I'd argue that we might not have had personal computers, certainly not to the extent that we've had them, without his developments.

I haven't always been able to afford Apples, especially not as the non-Apple computers became cheaper.  Plus, I'm living in a non-Mac world, so I need to remain bilingual.

But my first personal computer was a Mac, a later version of that first MacIntosh that I fell in love with in 1987.  I bought a used computer from the youth ministries director at my mom's church.  That first computer couldn't hold very much in its memory, so I stored the novel I was writing--well, everything I was writing--on discs.  It had primitive graphics.  But it was very cute.

When a housemate got a larger Mac, we called my Mac the Baby Mac.  It had such a tiny screen!  But it was cute.  I spent many years with that Mac, long after its usefulness had peaked, in part because it was so easy to use and it's cuteness brought me joy every time I looked at it.  How I loved that smiley face on a computer screen as the computer booted up.

Some day, I'm sure I'll scoff at my dumb phone, as I call it.  Some day, I'll upgrade to a phone with yet another screen that will tempt me to use my time in ways that are both smart and stupid.  Some day, I'll wonder how I could have lived without it.

And on that day, once again, I'll think of Steve Jobs and offer a prayer of gratitude that the man walked the earth and graced us with his inventions that have changed us in so many ways.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life Lessons from Spin Class

Over the past few months, I've gone to more spin classes than ever before.  For those of you who don't know what a spin class is:  we gather in a small room that has 20 stationary bikes, we turn off all but the violet lights, we pedal through all sorts of moves that our instructor gives out to a soundtrack that the instructor has put together.  Ideally, the music's beat matches what we're supposed to be doing--if we're simulating climbing a hill, the music slows down; a boppy beat might pull us out of our seats over and over again at a quick pace.  In short, it's quite a workout.

As I've listened to the motivational bits that our instructors give us, I've been intrigued by how applicable they are, both to life in general, and our creative efforts.  Here are some examples:

--Your legs are stronger than you think.  I think that as we get older, we assume that certain truths will always be true:  I can't lift more than 5 pounds; I can't write a non-fiction work; it's too late to live that dream I always had; I can't do math; I can't understand quantum physics; I'll always weigh 20 pounds more than my ideal weight.  We accept certain things as the price of being a grown up.

But what if what we think we know is true simply isn't?  In spin class, we push ourselves to the edge, and then, occasionally, just a smidge more.  And it's interesting to me how I can do what I thought couldn't be done.  My legs are stronger than I think.

What would I do if I assumed that all things are possible?  I've been working on dreaming new visions for my future, and I or my friends often disrupt the pleasurable aspect of daydreaming by saying, "How would you afford health insurance?  How could you meet your monthly bills?"  Those panicky responses keep me from focusing on the life I want to be leading.

My legs are stronger than I think.  I have more resources than I recognize.

--Only use the body parts you need to do the work.  During one spin class, our instructor kept reminding us to check in to see if we were clenching our teeth, or hunching our shoulders or tensing our hands.  We only really need our legs and some ab muscles to do the work of a spin class.  Yet many of us get completely fatigued by using other parts of our bodies--and it makes the work of the legs harder.

I see people do the same thing at work.  Many of us could be more efficient.  We spend a lot of time discussing procedures which haven't essentially changed, for example.  We spend a lot of time crafting language on items that will be thrown away:  e-mails,  syllabi, notes.

Do we do the same thing in our creative lives?  How many times have I learned new computer systems, when in my writing life, I'm using the computer essentially as a jazzy typewriter?  And how much have I learned that I didn't really need to learn? 

Where are we expending energy that we don't need to spend?  I spend a lot of time worrying about things that never come to pass--while having to marshall resources to handle the emergencies that I never saw coming.  And you know what?  I can deal with those emergencies, even though I haven't been fretting about them.

Ah, to let go of the fretfulness, to live in the moment--if only I could easily learn that.

--Unhunch your shoulders.  Our spin instructors are always imploring us to unhunch our shoulders.  I go through life with my shoulders hunched up to my ears.  I try to remind myself several times a day to unhunch my shoulders.

--Keep breathing.  If you monitor your breathing, you might be surprised to find out how uneven it is.  Often when we're exerting ourselves, we hold our breath.

If you focus on deep, even breathing, the kind where your stomach pokes out when you inhale and deflates when you exhale, you'll be amazed at how calming the practice can be.  Those of us who spent time in drama class or choir already know some things about breath control and what's needed to project our voices to the back of the theatre.

In sports, too, good breathing is key.  Breathe properly, and you avoid some cramps and side stitches.  Plus, you can go for longer if you're breathing correctly.  Your heart rate slows.  You can recover from exertion faster.

In life, many of us rush around at a hectic pace.  Even if we can't control the pace of our lives, we can control our breathing.  During many a stressful moment, I've focused on my breath.  It's remarkably soothing.

We spend a lot of time focused on what's not important--it won't be important tomorrow or next month or next year, so it's really not important now.  Slow, even breathing keeps us mindful of what's essential.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Summer Shifts to Autumn: St. Francis, Keats, and a Poem

Today during my pre-dawn run at the beach, I saw a man lifting his little dog to the water fountain so that he could drink.  Not the outdoor shower/foot rinsing station that was 10 steps away, but the water fountain clearly meant for humans.

My first thought was, how appropriate for the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, which is today. 

And yet . . . and yet, some part of me rebelled.

I've approached the subject of St. Francis from a more theological angle here.  I'm intrigued by the fact that the Church remembers St. Francis primarily as a lover of animals, while neglecting to mention the fact that he gave up enormous wealth as he cared for lepers and other outcast members of society--human members. 

I also spent some time thinking about the very subtle shift from Summer to Autumn that we're experiencing this week.  When I drove home at 7:15 last night, the sun was just finished setting--quite a difference in the angle of light from just a few weeks ago.

And this morning, with a stiff breeze blowing off the Atlantic, it felt less warm and drier.  Not cool, exactly.  But not that dragon breath of moist heat that we often experience.

I find myself thinking about Autumn, and one of my favorite Keats poems, "To Autumn" (find it here).  For those of you looking for a teaching/writing idea, here are some.  You could have students write about the autumnal elements that Keats includes and the figurative language that he uses.  You could have students write about the autumnal elements that Keats leaves out.  You could have them research what Autumn would have been like as Keats experienced it.  You could show the movie Bright Star and have them compare the experience of Autumn as a visual experience and the experience of Autumn as a reading experience.  You could have students write their own poems and require that they avoid all overused autumnal elements:  can they write an autumnal poem with no hay rides, no pumpkins, no colored leaves?

Here's a poem that I wrote years ago, after teaching the Keats poem and yearning for a more autumnal October:

Longing for a Keatsian Autumn

What I wouldn’t give for a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Instead we suffer fierce heat and a flowering
fecundity that threatens to pull our thatch-eves down.
West winds bring us nothing but a pall
of heavy humidity, a harvest of hurricanes.

I want to sing songs of other seasons
than this sweat soaked summer.
I want to be wooed by weather unSouthern.

I tire of this moist mouthed peninsula,
seasonless, cursed landscape of mangroves and swamp grass
that mocks our efforts to pretend that the Southernmost
tip of America has seasons other than warm and hot.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Of Gods and Men and Artists

Yesterday, I watched Of Gods and Men, a French film that tells the story of a tiny monastery in the mountains of Algeria that got caught between a corrupt government and Islamic fundamentalists, the two sides of the Algerian civil war of the 1990's.  For a theological meditation on this movie, see this post on my theology blog.

I cannot recommend this movie highly enough.  Even if you're not into religious themes or monks or foreign films, you might like it too.  It has much to say to creative folks.

You might scoff at the idea that monks and artists are similar.  Yet they are.  Both groups live in larger societies that don't understand what they do; if they're lucky, their communities do appreciate what they do, even if they don't fully understand.  This movie shows that monks and artists may not be so lucky, that any of us at any time could get caught between societal forces we can't control.  But our mission is to continue living our lives with as much integrity as we can muster.

Kathleen Norris is one writer who has perhaps done the most to help demystify monasticism for regular readers.  In The Cloister Walk she says:

"Poets and monks do have a communal role in American culture, which alternately ignores, romanticizes, and despises them. In our relentlessly utilitarian society, structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer, yet that is what writers and monks do. Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. This is what others want and expect of us, because if we do our job right, we will express things that others may feel or know, but can't or won't say" (page 145).

The movie gives us a fascinating view of the life of a monk, a life structured around work, study, and prayer.  I truly believed I was watching a monastery in action.

But of course, I wasn't.  I was watching actors.  How did they pull this off?

The Wikipedia article on the movie explains:  "As preparation for their roles, the actors who were to play monks had a month of professional training in the Cistercian and Gregorian chants.[8] Each actor also spent a week living as a monk at the Tami√© Abbey.[5] The actors used different approaches to their individual roles. Lambert Wilson primarily used Christian de Cherg√©'s writings to develop a subjective perception of the monk's personality. Xavier Maly, a non-Catholic, prepared himself by praying every day for a month. Jean-Marie Frin based his interpretation partially on a home video from Paul Favre-Miville's vow.[9] Michael Lonsdale on the other hand preferred to rely on instinct, and did not prepare much at all."

I love that the actors took such different approaches--and each one worked!

This morning, I'm thinking about what we do for our art.  What are we willing to do?  How might we still stretch our talents and capacities?  What haven't we tried yet?  What does the work call us to do?

What does the world call us to do as artists?  What does the world need from us?

And the question that most interests me these days:  how do we live integrated lives?  I want the work that I do for money to nurture the creative work that doesn't pay enough to live on.  I want poetry to be honored.  I want time to consider manuscripts of longer works.  I want to have time to exercise and to cook nourishing food.  I want to be able to identify that which kills my soul and to shuck off those activities and situations.

I wish I could conclude with a pithy sentence or two that tells you my secret--but these questions interest me because I still haven't answered them.

Monastics point the way to an answer.  Monastics don't spend their whole day in prayer--but by stopping to pray every several hours, they live more balanced lives.  Monastic communities long ago figured out what's important, and to my outsider eyes, they don't waste time rehashing these old arguments.  They just go about living their beliefs.

What roots our creative practices?  How can we provide more of that soil?