Tuesday, January 31, 2012

All Eyes on Florida: Yeast, Egos, and Resurrection Strategies

This morning, beside the wind-swept sea, I noticed a strong, yeasty smell.  Was someone setting out their bread dough to rise?  Brewing beer?

I thought about various horror movies and thought about what the sea might be gestating.  I wondered if I was just smelling the salty air in an unusually intense way because of the wind.

I thought about today's Republican primary in Florida and wondered about yeast as a metaphor.

Will all eyes be on Florida today?  Does the wider nation care about Republican primaries?

If you're tuned in, you'll probably hear a lot about the state, and you'll wonder how one state can contain such multitudes.  It is a huge state--it takes 10 hours to go from north to south, and 8 or so hours to go from east to west if you go west from Jacksonville.  At the northern parts of the state, it resembles the deep South, but with more expensive insurance rates.  At the southern, pre-Keys part of the state, it resembles much of the Caribbean or Latin America.  We've got more old people than much of the U.S., but oddly, we also have a lot of the youth that will be the face of tomorrow's U.S.:  think Hispanic, think immigrant, think mixed in ways our grandparents never could have foreseen.  This state has huge concentrations of wealth which are almost impossible to imagine.  It also has deep poverty of various sorts:  inner city, rural, suburban.

It's a state I both love and yearn to leave.  Yesterday was one of those yearning to leave days.  I was having one of those work days when I looked at an flier tacked to a bulletin board, and I said, "Bassist wanted for a punk band, eh?  Wonder if I'd qualify?"

Of course not.  I don't play bass.  I'm a bit old to join a punk band that advertises its needs on a college bulletin board.

Instead, I went to the library, always one of my favorite places to hide.  I read the latest Rolling Stone and took some comfort from realizing that even David Bowie wanted to escape his life when he was most successful and when he was spiralling downward.  I took comfort from being surrounded by print sources of all kinds.

I both admire and abhor the political candidates and their certainty that they are exactly what the nation needs.  How would that feel?  I admire superstars like David Bowie who can say, "Whoa, my art and my life are off the rails here, and I'm in danger."  I'm in awe of anyone who can realize the danger and figure out a resurrection strategy.

Resurrection strategies:  now there's a good meditation prompt, a good writing prompt.  Enjoy, as you stand in line to vote, as you watch the returns trickle back, as you face yeasty futures of various kinds.

Monday, January 30, 2012

For Your Monday Listening Pleasure

I realize that Mondays are difficult for many of us.  If you need comfort, I can't recommend yesterday's NPR On Being program highly enough.  Krista Tippett interviewed the late poet and philosopher John O'Donohue. I heard the interview when it first aired years ago, and the rebroadcast reminded me of what a wonderful conversation it was. They talked about a wide range of topics, like the role of beauty and how creative practices and the arts nourish us and our need to be known for who we really are and language and landscape.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"That's why I find the aesthetic things like poetry, fiction, good film, theater, drama, dance, and music actually awaken that inside you, you know? And remind you that there is a huge interiority within you. Like, for instance when I came in to New York last Thursday evening and checked into the hotel, I found out that there was a Tchaikovsky concert on in Lincoln center. And I went over there and I got a ticket, like one of the last tickets, which was two rows in the front, and I'd never been so near an orchestra. And I said, 'My god, I'm too near.' Then I watched them, and all the rest of it. But I knew, why I was given the ticket then, at the end, because it was Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, and Lorin Maazel came out to conduct it. And then this beautiful violinist, Janine Jansen, a Dutch violinist, it was her debut in New York. And she played this, it was just unbelievable. I cried. Like, after the first movement, people spontaneously stood up and went to give her a standing ovation, and she just held it. And we all went back again into our seats. And then at the end, people were just blown away, because an event, an aesthetic event had happened."

"I think that beauty is not a luxury, but I think that it ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that is within us. I always loved what Mandela said when he came out, and I was actually in his cell in Robben Island, one time I was in South Africa. Even after 27 years in confinement for something he never — for wrong you never committed, he turned himself into a huge priest and come out with this sentence where he said, 'You know that what we are afraid of is not so much our limitations but the infinite within us.' And I think that that is in everybody. And I suppose the question that's at the heart of all we've been discussing really, which is a beautiful question, is the question of God, you know?"

"When I think of the word 'beauty,' some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me, by people that cared for me, in bleak unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, who you never hear about, who hold out on lines — on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage somehow to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing. I also think — always when I think of beauty — because it's so beautiful for me — is I think of music. I love music. I think music is just it. I mean, I think that's — I love poetry as well, of course, and I think of beauty in poetry. But I always think that music is what language would love to be if it could, you know?"

"I mean, we spend over one-third of our lives actually in the workplace, and one of the loneliest things you can find is somebody who is in the wrong kind of work, who shouldn't be doing what they are doing but should be doing something else and haven't the courage to get up and leave it and make a new possibility for themselves. But it's lovely when you find someone at work who's doing exactly what they dreamed they should be doing and whose work is an expression of their inner gift. And in witnessing to that gift and in bringing it out they actually provide an incredible service to us all. And I think you see that the gifts that are given to us as individuals are not for us alone, or for our own self-improvement, but they are actually for the community and to be offered. And I think this is where leadership comes in at work. And that's why I think good, wise leadership will be attuned to the vitality of a true ethos and helping to establish it."

Through the magic of the Internet, you can hear the whole show or read the transcript here.  That site will give you lots of other resources, including additional poems and a slideshow of the landscape described in the conversation.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

On Stage with an Air Force Band

Last night, we went to the ArtsPark in downtown Hollywood, Florida, about a mile from where we live.  The park once was Young Circle Park, a simple place in the middle of a traffic circle, a park with several pathways across the circle and huge, beautiful trees.

About 7 or so years ago, the ArtsPark was created in the space.  I mourned the loss of the trees, but I had to admit that the resulting park is a thing of beauty.  And last night's concert reminded me again of what a great resource it is, as did the Band of the Air Force Reserve who played there.

It was supposed to be what would be a summer evening outing elsewhere, people gathered on the lawn under the sky to hear a military band.  But it started to rain about 3 songs after the start of the concert.

Lots of people came to the space at the front of the stage, and when it started to rain much harder, the band leader invited us all to come up on the spacious stage.  He said, "And if you've ever played one of the instruments that we're playing, feel free to come up and stand beside us."  What an amazing act of generosity.

I watched children awash in wonder at getting to see a concert from closer than the front row.  I watched one child spend song after after song doing her own conducting--and then sticking her fingers up her nose.  I felt the music reverberating through my body in a marvelous way.

In this age when most of us make music by playing a recording of someone else playing, I had hopes that the love of an instrument might be kindled in some of the children.  In an age where we don't want to pay for art, or anything else, with our taxes, I had hopes that we'd come away from a concert with a commitment to art, whether it be the art of park design and the programming that it offers, or the art that military bands create, or any other art form.

I understand that a major part of why the armed forces support these bands and send them on the road is to be ambassadors for the armed forces, to build good will and support.  Last night's experience certainly did that.

It made me wonder how those of us who are practicing artists could similarly be ambassadors for the world of our art forms.  I also wonder how we could interact with younger generations to make sure that our art forms don't die.

It used to be easier to do that.  Now, in my part of the world, to visit a school requires all sorts of background checks, some of them expensive.

But I am probably thinking too small.  There are other ways to interact with the young, after all.  And even if I serve as an ambassador to older people, that work can filter down to other generations.

But maybe I'm making it sound too much like work.  One of the advantages to watching a concert on the stage was to see the joys on the faces of the band members.  I sometimes forget that making art is supposed to be fun and enrich our lives.  Sometimes, I let my art making drop into the realms of drudgery and obligation.

Today, I'm going to do some art making, just for the fun of it.  Maybe I'll doodle with markers.  Maybe I'll assemble the collage with the pictures that I cut out last week.  Maybe I'll write a poem.  Maybe I'll cook a pot of soup for the week.  If it's useful, does that count as fun?  I say yes!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Raising Bees or Raising Visibility?

You may notice the addition of share buttons at the bottom of posts now.  I just added that feature, so we'll see if I notice the same kind of bump in blog traffic that Robert Lee Brewer mentions in this post about increasing your blog traffic.  Even if you're not sure about share buttons, or if you've been using them for years, he's got 24 other tips that make a lot of sense.

I'd been thinking about adding buttons since I read his earlier post on it, but it sounded somewhat scary:  going to a website, getting some code, inserting it.  And then, yesterday, I thought, I bet this feature is already built into Blogger somehow.

Yes, it is, and it couldn't be easier:  just go to the Design tab and hit the edit button on the bottom right corner of the big square that says Blog Posts!  There are all sorts of things one could add.

I don't blame you if you say, "Oh, just leave me alone.  I just want to blog, and if only 10 people read my post, I don't care."

In some ways, the recent fervor about building your brand as a writer and increasing traffic to your blog and trying to learn how to live in this brave new world of ours reminds me of issues the modern mainstream church in America has been facing.  I woke up thinking about all the ways that the church struggles work as a metaphor for all sorts of struggling communities to which I belong:  artists, higher ed, and the larger issue of workers in general.  I've spent many a conversation in church, in groups of artists, in school meetings where we try to discover some secret to letting people know who we are and what we're doing and why they would like to join us.

I was already thinking of these ideas, and then, on The Writer's Almanac website, I find out that today is Rick Warren's birthday.  He wrote The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? which has sold over 30 million copies.  I have always wondered if people picked up that book without realizing its Christian focus and then were confused when what they thought would be a self-help book turned religious on them.

I have read that book, and while I didn't agree with all of its theology (it seems to discount free will in a way that makes me uncomfortable), I didn't find it egregious.  I also read The Purpose-Driven Church.  The tone of that book reminds me of the tone of many an increase-your-visibility books/articles/blog posts I keep reading today. 

Here's one reason that I won't be casting away my stable job to become an entrepreneur:  I am not a good salesperson.  My model is much more monastic:  I will quietly do my thing, and maybe people will discover it, and maybe not.  I've talked before about Jane Hirshfield's Buddhist teahouse theory of work (see this post), and it fits for my writing/creative world too.

Of course, I want it to be easy for people to find my Buddhist teahouse, which is why I put the button feature on my blog.

It's a struggle for most modern folks, I think.  Do we have the energy for self-promotion, which takes a lot of being plugged in, or do we really want to just run away and raise bees?  It's not only Rick Warren's birthday, but it's also Sue Hubbell's birthday.  In the 1970's, she and her husband bought 99 acres of land in the Ozarks where they raised bees.  She's written several books about that experience.  I vaguely remember reading them.

That vision of land in the country still speaks to me, and I'm not sure which part is most appealing.  Part of it is having space to spread out, and in my daydream, my neighbors are far away and quiet.  Part of it is the idea that I could be more self-sufficient, if necessary.  Part of it is that I spent my formative years reading books about going back to the land, and that reading has permanently re-wired my brain.

If you spent your formative years reading books in the Foxfire series, check out this Slate article.  It asks whether or not today's do-it-yourselfers are in the Foxfire mode.

My grandmother would scoff at it all.  She actually lived on a farm, and she remembered how hard it could be.  Sure, they didn't starve, but they worked hard for every calorie they ate.

So, wherever you are this Saturday, whether you're building your blog visibility or working on other do-it-yourself projects, whether you're plugged in or tuned out, I hope it's restorative for you. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Light, Language, Beach Glass, and Shells

Are you experiencing a bleak January where you live?  If so, you might enjoy my photo essay that celebrates color and light; it's on my theology blog.  Has anyone written a theology of photography?  The photo essay is less theology and more a celebration of different art forms and the way the light plays with them.

These are the days that drive people down to our shores on South Florida, and our weather has not been disappointing.  It's been rain-free, breezy, and warm.  The other night when we got ice cream cones on the beach, I marvelled at the variety of languages that surrounded us.  I'm used to hearing Western European languages here, but lately I've been hearing a lot of Slavic syllables--most interestingly at an all-you-can-eat Sushi place, where a work crew ate and talked in what sounded like Russian.

Now we shall take a break and sing "It's a Small World After All."

If you're craving the beach, you might take a look at Dave Bonta's wonderful poem about beach glass.

His poem reminded me of an experience many, many years ago where we took a crew of visitors to Edisto Island, in South Carolina.  Edisto has a reputation as the beach in South Carolina where you'll find the best shells, but that day all the shells seemed the same, like small communion wafers.  Before I gave it a second thought, I popped one in my mouth.  I loved the salty taste, the smoothness of the shell against my tongue.

I thought of communion wafers, which crumble or get sticky when mixed with saliva, and shells, which don't.  There's a poem lurking there, but it's not the one I wrote.


I stand at the best shell-finding beach in South Carolina,
but all the shells look the same:
bleached by sun and salt,
all their jagged edges sounded clean,
all worn into rounded disks.
A sea of communion wafers
stretches before me, and before
I even think about what I’m doing,
I kneel and select one, wipe
it with my calloused fingers,
and pop it in my mouth.
I slide my tongue across the smooth surface
that tastes of the sea’s mysteries.
I resist the urge to bite or swallow.
I suck it clean and choose another and another
until I have a pocket of shells
awaiting my mouth’s consecration.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Microcosm of the Real Estate Market in a Condo Sale

As the 20th century turned into the 21st, my husband and I bought a small condo a mile away from us for his mom to live in.  Yesterday, we sold that condo.

So much has happened in between.  My mother-in-law moved into the condo in January 2000 and lived there until her death in 2005.  Because she so enjoyed talking to the security guard downstairs, and because she didn't like not having to work as much as she thought she would, she got her license and became a security guard herself.  That job led her to meet all sorts of interesting people who enriched her last years.  I'm glad we were able to help make that possible.

We have been trying to sell that condo since her death in 2005, and in many ways, that journey has been a microcosm of the national housing market.  We priced the condo very high in 2005--housing sales made us think it should be that price, and if we'd put it on the market in 2004, we'd have probably gotten that price or higher.

But the market in 2005 was beginning to implode, even though we didn't realize how bad it would be.  The following years saw us chasing the market down, trying to come up with a price that would bring in buyers.  We did some freshening up of the condo as we tried to make it more attractive.  Some years, we just couldn't face the real estate market, and the condo sat empty.

You might ask, "Why didn't you rent the place?"  Well, because the condo rules don't allow that.  As an owner who lived there, I'd be happy about that rule.  As an investor in the building who lives elsewhere, it got to be annoying.

Along the way from 2000 to 2012, we were able to tap into some equity, which we used to improve our primary residence:  a bathroom remodel, a kitchen remodel, a new roof, a new AC unit.  We were happy to have the condo when we lost power at our house for several weeks during the disastrous hurricane season of 2005.  It hasn't been a total disaster.

Still, if you run the figures in stark black and white, what we put in and what we got out, it may end up being one of the bigger financial debacles of our life.  We ended up selling the condo for exactly what we paid for it in 1999.  Along the way, we've paid monthly maintenance fees, an assessment or two, taxes, insurance:  money there's no way to get back.  It could have been worse.  I'm trying not to torture myself by thinking of all the ways it could be better.

At these times, I like to remind myself of a quote I found in Ann Lamott's Traveling Mercies;  a friend of hers reminds us all that "if you have a problem you can solve by throwing money at it, you don't have a very interesting problem" (259).

As we drove to the closing, I said to my spouse, "This may be one of the last real estate transactions that we make."  Not the last, but one of the last.  At one point, between 1997 and 1999, we seemed to be buying and selling properties at a dizzying pace.  Now, barring unforeseen life changes, it's hard to imagine that we'll buy or sell more than two or three more properties before we retire/die/run off to a sailboat.

I think of myself as a child playing Monopoly, buying and selling properties, formulating ideas about real estate that have often influenced me as a grown up.  In the days to come, I may run a piece on how real estate these days is nothing like Monopoly.

As we drove home, I was surprised by my lack of emotions.  I thought I'd feel relief and euphoria.  Instead, I just felt very tired.  It's been a long haul to this finish line.  Careful readers of this blog may remember that I thought we were going to closing in September.  That deal fell through, as did an offer in November.  That one scared me a bit, as the owner offered our list price minus $1000 and couldn't secure financing.  We couldn't have afforded to lower the price much more--was the market plunging yet again?

Happily, we had another offer from a buyer who had been searching for awhile.  They had made at least one other offer on a different condo which had fallen through.  I imagine they were happy when we said yes.

Again, we see a microcosm of the national market, with some Florida specializations.  We've had a real estate market buffeted by foreclosures and tightening regulations.  Now to buy a condo you have to have 20% of the price as a down payment.  That knocks out a lot of buyers.  And the foreclosures make it difficult to ascertain the what the true price of a condo should be.

I thought I might feel sad--I've been very fond of that little condo, and it's been part of our life for many years.  But I didn't feel sorrow.  I didn't feel much at all.  We bought some steaks to grill and then we bought some ice cream cones at the beach.  It was a quiet celebration.

I woke up very early remembering that I had forgotten to tell the power company that we had sold the place.  I wondered if anyone had told the buyers how to get the electricity transferred to them.  My spouse reminded me that I'm not responsible, that they're grown ups who will figure it out.

This morning, I feel relieved.  When the next hurricane season comes, I won't have to worry about 2 properties.  I'm done paying property taxes on a place that just sits empty.  The next round of foreclosed properties can come on the market, as they are forecast to do in February, and I don't have to panic.

I will spend the morning thinking about tasks that need to be done:  calling the power company, doing some grocery shopping, feeling gratitude that this phase of our real estate life has come to a close.  I need to get back to my writing life too.  It's amazing how much time it takes to sell a property.  It will be good to get back to regular life, whatever that turns out to be.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"I'm Not Very Tech Savvy"

Yesterday, I wrote this post, a review of Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers.  By afternoon, a woman at Macmillan had written to me to ask if I wanted to add an audio file to my review.  I said I'd try but that I wasn't very tech savvy.

Why would I say that?  I'm much more tech savvy than most people.

The woman at Macmillan sent me a link to embed, which I did on the first try, and voila!  Again, I thought, I am too tech savvy.

It reminds me of when Nic Sebastian launched her whale sound site, and I said to myself, "Well, I'm not really web-active."

Only when I read her definition did I realize that yes, I am a web-active poet.  I don't hesitate to publish in online sites, I have two blog sites and a website, I'm on Facebook, I have posted videos . . .  what more would I require of myself?

Well, I don't use Twitter and I don't have a smart phone.  Even without a smart phone, I spend most of my day connected to the Internet in all kinds of ways.

When I said I wasn't tech savvy yesterday, I meant that I can no longer program a computer.  Once, back in 1978, I was part of a group of 7th graders who learned to program in Basic (a very old computer language, for you young folks out there who don't know).  I was the first one to write a program that worked that had the computer play Hangman.

I now only grasp the most basic aspects of coding.  However, I know I could learn to code if I wanted.  It would probably be simpler than many of the languages I'd like to learn.

Once I had friends who not only programmed their computers, but built them.  I remember a college friend who took his computer apart and soldered bits to his motherboard so that it would behave the way he wanted.  I was never that brave.

I have to stop saying that I'm not tech savvy.  When I say that to strangers, they probably think of me as one of those cranky people who refuses to use e-mail and would never buy anything online.  I am not that person.

I know that there are people out there (like a lot of the people I met/heard at the AWP conference last year) who would scold me for helping the Macmillan woman by putting a link to the audiobook in my post.  They'd have wanted me to ask for reimbursement.  And if I had a million people visiting my blogsite, maybe I'd feel more justified in doing that.

I did have a fantasy after my post yesterday on this blog that Arianna Huffington might contact me and say, "If you're so unhappy with our poetry reviews, I'll pay you $1000 a post to write about poets working today whom we should know."  Yes, $1000 a post--she gets enough web traffic--she can afford that.  It's a sweet fantasy, isn't it?

In the meantime, though, I'm happy to tell people about books that I've liked.  I'm happy to help promote the work of authors big or small, if they've written something wonderful.  I'm happy to be part of a conversation about books and ideas.  It's the literary life I've always wanted, although not exactly in the shape that grad school trained me to expect.

When I was in grad school, you really did need computer skills above the norm to use the Internet.  Now, how the world has changed!  I'd argue it's for the better.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Writing/Righting the World

Through a link that Susan Rich posted on Facebook, I got to this article, which would seem to claim to tell us what is wrong with poetry today (today being August 2011, when the article was published).  Here's the opener:  "The truth about American poetry is that it is in very bad shape. The professional poetry establishment has taken care to mark serious criticism coming its way as sour grapes, but the quality of poetry being produced by American poets regularly awarded the highest prizes in the land and recognized as the equals of past masters is not meant to last this pathetic moment of self-absorption and lassitude."

But if you read this article, you may find yourself wondering if you've fallen through a hole in time.  I routinely thought, wait, is it 1982 in this article?  Most of the work that Anis Shivani dissects comes from many decades ago. 

He's most vituperative when discussing the work of Sharon Olds, and his criticisms won't be foreign to feminist scholars:  oh, the body fluids, oh, the pregnancies, oh, the body parts.  Icky, icky, icky!  He claims that Jorie Graham is incomprehensible and Louise Gluck mired in childhood.  He has a bit of praise for Philip Levine before launching into vitriol:  "Unlike Olds, Graham, and Gl├╝ck, Levine does possess some measure of genuine skill."  If you read the following paragraphs, you'll find out that Shivani thinks that all that skill was used up in the early poems.

Again, I wonder where are the younger poets?  I have no problems with discussing the work of poetry elders, but that's scarcely representative of poetry being published and discussed today.  And certainly I would have had less problems with this essay, had it not purported to tell us what was wrong with the poetry world of 2012; it's an essay that explores some of the problems of the poetry world of the late 1970's and 1980's, although I could write a compelling case that those poems were written in response to some of the problems of previous poetry worlds.  Sure, we got a lot of menstruation and childbirth poems, but to readers who had never seen those issues discussed in a poem before, it was thrilling before it got tiresome.

If your reading time is limited, don't waste it by reading this article.  Instead, go to this interview with Nikky Finney, a poet whom Anis Shivani might have included in his discussion of "today's poetry world."  He'd probably find reasons to hate her too, but I found much inspiration in this interview.  For those of you who teach and who wonder if you make a difference, read this interview:  the work you do as a teacher is vital and important!

Finney talks about her childhood and about her parents, who had good jobs, but who were willing to sacrifice if that would speed the pace of social justice and reform:  "I understood very early in my life how important it was to do your day job, whether a plumber or lawyer or a teacher, and also get ready for your other job, that of being willing to put your comfort and safety on the line. There were kind, smart, incredibly loving people all around me who refused to sleep until they did something to try and change some of the strictures that were present in our community. If I ever became a writer I promised myself I would never forget this."

She's a political writer, no doubt, but she also understands the difference between polemic and art:  "I am absolutely politically charged in my life, but I’m also trying to take those things that might be seen as rhetorical, as polemical, and send them through my body and my spirit, and my artistic net, so that when that particular idea comes out through the other side of me it has shape of something both beautiful and  impactful, and the high imaginative notes of something, hopefully, you have never seen or heard before."

She provides an interesting antidote to people like Shivani, who seem to want to do nothing but tear down canonical and non-canonical writers alike:  "I’m not writing to be included in the canon. I’m writing to save something precious. I’m writing to get my pencil dimensionally around my little idea and work it out. Waiting for somebody to invite me to belong to something or be included in something was never my idea of being a part of this thing amazing journey called life. I just want to continue being a creative thinker and doer. I want to keep saving things and making history more inclusive by way of my particular alphabets and word arrangements."

In short this interview with Finney reminded me of why I think poetry is important, why I think poetry can transform the world, why I still have hopes for art forms of all sorts.  She made me want to return to my real work of writing/righting the world.

And this interview makes me so grateful for the Internet.  In pre-Internet times, those of us living away from literary centers wouldn't have been likely to see this interview.  But now, thanks to the ease of distribution, we can.  And happily, we have bloggers like Saeed Jones to alert us to these interviews, the way he did in this post.

Of course, the reason that I know as much about what contemporary poets are doing as I do is also because of the Internet.  I wonder how many web-active poets Anis Shivani follows?  He'd have a window to a very different poetry world if he followed more of us.  Granted, he might not like us any more than he likes the poets of an earlier generation, but his essay wouldn't feel quite as dated.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Jesus and Legos

Have you played with Legos lately?  Gone are the simple squares and rectangles of my youth.  Actually, they are still there, but they've been joined by many other pieces.  When I build things with my nephew, he's completed several structures while I'm still trying to figure out how some of the odder shapes fit together.

I thought of this yesterday in church when our pastor reminded us that Jesus talked about children as the Kingdom of God.  I thought of the complicated Lego structures that children build, and I felt uneasy with this metaphor.

I thought back to my series of poems where Jesus moves about, in a physical body, in our modern world.  I thought about a new poem, Jesus trying to create something with Legos.

I thought of the inspiration that we usually think about people getting in church--it's not likely we think of people coming away inspired to think of Jesus and Legos.  I think of all those atheists who are outraged about church, but who likely haven't gone to church in many decades.  They'd probably be surprised to realize I'm sitting there dreaming of poem ideas, not plotting ways to overtake the government and establish a Christian theocracy.

I can only speak for myself, of course.  But I haven't met many Christians who dream of taking over the government.  Like most of the nation, everyone I know thinks that taking over the government would mean taking on an impossible task.

I'll continue to think about this poem idea, Jesus and children and Legos, and hopefully, by the end of the week, I'll have a chance to write a new poem.  The first part of this week is full of tasks and full schedules, the kind that makes me want to weep.

But at least I have a poem to mull away on now.  That should make it easier to face my daily chore list.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Byron, Nostalgia, and Woody Allen

Today is the birthday of one of the most popular of British Romantic writers, Lord Byron.  If you came to this blog looking for a meditation inspired by his birthday, I'll refer you to last year's post.

If I could travel back to any literary time period, I'd go back to hang out with the British Romantics.  I've daydreamed about hiking through the Lake country with Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Coleridge.  I would have loved to be part of that household that issued the writing challenge that resulted in Frankenstein, along with several lesser works.

But then, my realistic self comes crashing in.  Would I really like to time travel?  No, not if I had to keep my current body.  As a female, I wouldn't be safe in most time periods; in fact, inside a female body, I'm not terribly safe in most of the world in our current day.  Would I really want to live in a world without the birth control pill?  Would I really want to live in a world where almost everyone suffered a tooth ache or two or three, before having the teeth yanked out of their heads?  Would I want to live in a world without antibiotics or anaesthesia?  No, I would not.

And yes, I realize that my status as an inhabitant of the 21st century, developed world delivers these luxuries to me in a way that I wouldn't likely experience, had I been born in the developing world.  I understand my phenomenal luck.

Yesterday, we watched a movie which warned against the seductive charm of nostalgia:  Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.  What a wonderful movie!  I haven't liked a Woody Allen movie this much since Hannah and Her Sisters.  I still like Hannah and Her Sisters best.  But Midnight in Paris was just as wonderful as everyone told me it was.

For one thing, it's a real English majors' movie, with lots of appearances by famous writers and lots of allusions to their work.  And I had just finished Paula McLain's The Paris Wife (see this post for a review), so it was a delight to travel back.

It was also a great twist in the story to realize that all the characters look back to a golden age.  The ones living in the 20's wish they lived in the 1890's, when life was at its peak in Paris.  I tend to do this both with literary ages and with my own life, often longing for time periods or places (like, say, grad school) that I didn't always enjoy whilst living them.

The movie itself is just beautiful, shot in golden, glowing light.  If only we could all live, or at least linger, in that light.  And of course, there's the backdrop of Paris, at least the lovely parts.  My first view of Paris was on the Metro, headed away from the beautiful part as we left the airport--what a shock to realize that Paris didn't look like Woody Allen's view, the popular view.  Of course, most of New York City doesn't look like the movies made by Woody Allen.  But that's not to say we can't enjoy the visions of cities at their most beautiful.

The actors manage to say the lines almost naturally.  So often, in a later Woody Allen movie, the lines sound stilted and odd (see this review of Vicky Christina Barcelona, for example).  You almost hear characters from older movies who have been trapped by more recent actors trying to channel those characters.  But with a few glaring exceptions, the dialogue and the acting worked.

The movie isn't a deep exploration of the dangers of nostalgia.  It's light and comic and perhaps a bit too frothy at times.  It doesn't attempt to explain how the characters travel through time.  If you're looking for a physics lesson, this movie isn't for you.

But if you need a little trip to Paris by way of the magic of movies, spend some time with this one.  You get gorgeous shots of Paris, lovely costumes, great music . . . there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Phone Call from Mitt Romney

It's been a week of many strange phone calls.  Yesterday I wrote a post about my phone calls that came about because someone used my credit card in unauthorized ways.  Some day, maybe I'll write about all the phone calls that one must make when one hopes to sell a condo (hopefully we'll close on Wednesday, but I've learned not to pin my hopes on any one buyer).

On Thursday night, we were watching Parks and Rec, and the phone rang.  We let the machine get it.  We heard Mitt Romney, imploring us to vote in the primary on Saturday.

This phone call was surreal on so many levels.  First of all, we're watching Parks and Rec, watching the characters plan a campaign commercial, and we get a phone call from a real life candidate.  Life imitating art or art imitating life?

Then there's the fact that we live in Florida, and unless Mitt Romney would like me to commit voter fraud, we are not eligible to vote in the S.C. primary.  Or was Mitt calling in advance for the Florida primary on Jan. 31?  But that primary is not on a Saturday.  And the Florida primary will only be open to registered Republicans, which we are not.

And to make this stranger, we once did live in South Carolina, and we lived there for many years.  But we moved in 1998.  How did Mitt get my number?  With the recent credit card fraud and the real estate implosion still lingering, my brain immediately started to spin nightmare scenarios:  you only think you sold those houses that you used to own when you lived in South Carolina; you still own them because someone filed the paper work wrong, and if you still own them, you're very delinquent on those loans.  Since our credit has not been impaired, I managed to quiet my brain.

Still, it was weird.  Mitt Romney thinks we still live in South Carolina, while my Florida friends and colleagues seem to forget that we ever lived there and that I still have family there. 

Yesterday, I had had enough.  When a colleague was winding up to spew about South Carolina bigots, I held up my hand and said, "When's the last time you were in South Carolina?"

She looked surprised.  "Never."

I've written about South Carolina before, about how the state is more complicated than many people, who get their news from God knows where, believe.  Most people's imaginations are stuck back in 1962, which I sort of understand, because South Carolina does have such an ugly history when it comes to race relations and those images are stark.  But the situation has changed.

I worry about the fact that I've lived here since 1998.  I worry that I will become one of those people who becomes narrower and narrower as they see and read about less and less of the world.  I worry about the fact that more and more, I tend to meet people who are just like me.

Once, I knew a lot of conservatives, and so it's easier to understand their world outlook.  I've moved among many different types of religious circles in my life, and so, I have some understanding of those populations that my liberal friends do not.  I feel like I speak many different cultural languages, but I also fear that could change.

During our recent funeral trip that wound through the southeast, we stayed on military bases because we were travelling with my parents and that's one of the ways they travel.  We talked about how few people anymore even know someone in the military.  It's one of the cultures that seems very foreign to the people I know.  But not so very long ago, it wouldn't have been.

When I drive from home to work and back, I go by a train station, and if the light is red, I look that way to see who's waiting, either for the Amtrak train or the local commuter train.  The other night I saw a guy in full Army fatigues with a huge duffel bag, and I was struck by how seldom I see military people down here in South Florida.

Of course, South Florida is diverse in ways that South Carolina is not.  South Florida is an intersection between North, Central, and South Americas.

And I probably romanticize my own past.  I didn't really meet a huge diversity of people in my little liberal arts college where I earned my undergraduate degree.  And even during our grad school years at the University of South Carolina, we met primarily people more like us than different.  Sure there was the occasional Egyptian student who came to our sewing Saturdays (the first Muslim I ever knew) or the student from South Korea who called to congratulate me when I passed my Comps, but for the most part, students were white and middle to upper class from Protestant backgrounds.

You don't need me to tell you that the nation is becoming more polarized every day.  I wish I had some snazzy solution, a neat way to end this blog post.  But I do not.  I used to think that our writing was a solution, that by writing the truth about our lives, we'd make the world more diverse, and everyone would become more tolerant.  My idealistic self still believes that.  My cynical self knows that people tend to read material that supports their world view, material written by people just like them.

I can't solve this, so I'll choose to go with my idealistic self.  I'll write in the hopes that I'm changing the world, or at least leaving a record that will be important later.  I'll continue to engage in conversation in the hopes that I can remind people of the humanity of us all, even if we have divergent religious beliefs or political beliefs or economic beliefs.  I'll be seen as that strangely optimistic woman tucked away in an office that's full of poetry books with fiber art on the walls--that's not a bad mission in life at all!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Stealing Credit--with Writing Prompts for Free!

The first time we ever had a credit card stolen, back in the mid-1990's, I was astonished at what the thief bought:  stuff at T. J. Maxx, stuff at Home Depot, stuff at a few other discount stores.  I thought, if you're going to steal my credit card, go ahead and shop at high-end stores.  Why T. J. Maxx and not Saks?

Yesterday as I looked over the credit card statement, I noticed a charge at Best Buy, where we almost never shop because it's so noisy.  The charge was for $50 even, which I thought was odd.  It was made last Tuesday, and my spouse and I were positive that we'd purchased nothing from Best Buy last week.  So, I called the toll free # for the merchant.

The woman said, "Oh, yes, you bought a digital download for your X-Box."

I said, "I don't have an X-Box." 

"You don't?  Could you have bought something from your X-Box?"

"I don't have an X-Box."

You can imagine the rest of the conversation:  questions about my e-mail (the person who made the purchase was using an e-mail that's not mine), and then the information about police reports and the like.

So, I spent an hour or two wondering whether or not to cancel the credit card.  After all, it had been one week, and there had only been one strange charge.

I hate cancelling the card, because I have some of my bill payments and charitable donations set up to charge to that card automatically.  Cancelling the card results in hours of phone calls and updating. 

But with the next phone call, I knew we had to cancel the card.  My spouse took the call and asked me, "Did you charge a donation of $1500 to the March of Dimes?"

He was joking.  I would like to eradicate birth defects as much as the next person, but I can't afford to make a donation that large.

Oddly, I feel less outraged about someone using my stolen information to make a charitable donation than to buy a video game.  I feel more outraged about a video game than someone using my stolen credit card to go to Home Depot, where I imagine someone finally able to afford the materials to fix their plumbing.

Actually, I don't feel outrage at all.  By the end of yesterday, I simply felt exhausted.

So, here's what I really want to know.  Did the person who bought the video game also donate to the March of Dimes?  And why the March of Dimes, and not, say, Oxfam or Habitat for Humanity?

As I have said before, some things must remain a mystery.  And yet, if I was teaching a fiction writing class, I'd form this into a creative writing prompt.  And if I was teaching a Composition class, I'd give them a writing prompt something like this:  "You have a stolen credit card and one week to use it without any penalties.  But you cannot buy anything for yourself, your friends, your family, or anyone you know.  What do you do?"  Or maybe I'd ask this:  "You have unlimited funds, which you must donate to a worthy charity--only one.  Which charity do you choose and why?"  I'd have my students start by writing an opinion piece, and then I'd have them turn that piece into a research paper where they would research the charity of their choice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Snow Day Diversions--and Aimee Nezhukumatathil reads in South Florida tonight!

On this day, in 1977, snow fell in the Miami area; it hasn't happened since.

I say that snow fell, but really, some flakes drifted by.  In many ways, that's the kind of snow I like best.  I've spent almost all of my years in Southern places, where snow of any variety can shut down the place and falling limbs can cut electricity.

A snow day is no fun without electricity.  Well, it's fun for the first hour, and then it gets chilly, dark, and perhaps smelly.  And then, it gets cold.

I'm trying not to be jealous of the Pacific Northwest people who are enjoying a snow day today.  After all, what would I do with a snow day?  I'd probably watch old television series. 

You may remember that during December, I watched all of season 1 of The Walking Dead (see this post for more).  I'm eagerly awaiting season 2.  On Sunday, after being surprised by seeing Bryan Cranston in the movie Larry Crowne, we cued up Breaking Bad.  I'd heard so many good things about this show, and I was prepared to like it, even as I worried about the fact that the show has been on the air since 2008, and we don't really have that much free time.

Well, compelling as the first several episodes of the series are, I doubt we'll be watching many more.  I can't tell which horrifies me more, the main character's descent into amorality or the depiction of his cancer treatments.  Periodically, I had to walk away from the living room to remind myself that I am still on the lawful side, that I do not have cancer, that I am O.K.

When I was very young, I avoided reading books in the first person because I found them similarly intense.  I would feel more and more anxious as I was reading until I had to put the book down.  Now, books rarely have that effect on me, but filmed narratives still do.

Breaking Bad is a masterful work, don't get me wrong.  It does amazing things with scenery and with symbolism.  Bryan Cranston deserves every award there is for the way he inhabits this character and makes you forget about his performance in Malcolm in the Middle.  But I know that the story, already dark, is going to get darker and the violence more brutal.  Will there be even a breath of redemption?  I doubt it.

Maybe it says something about me, that I need some hope or I walk away.  I think about those literary theorists that I read in grad school, and I know that they would sneer at me and deem me a naive reader or hopelessly unsophisticated.

But real life can be pretty grim, and some days, I spend a lot of time wishing/praying/hoping that it doesn't get grimmer.  I don't need complete escapism--for that, I would turn to something different.  But I do need just a whisper of hope or a teaspoon of joy or something that explains to me why the characters don't just shoot themselves and get it over with.

So, if you're lucky enough to be enjoying a snow day, I wish you good reading, compelling viewing, and some ice cream made of snow. 

If you're in the South Florida area, you might be in the mood for a poetry reading.  Of course, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival is going on up, but if you want a free reading, head to Broward College, the South Campus (intersection of Pines Blvd. and 72nd in Pembroke Pines).  At 7:30 tonight, Aimee Nezhukumatathil will read--and it's free.  If you plan to buy books, remember to bring cash or your checkbook.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Life Lessons/Reminders, So Far, in January

--Your healthy lifestyle practices are still there, awaiting your return.  Your muscles haven't gotten as flabby as you fear.  You can forsake cookies for breakfast--go back to smoothies or porridge!  You'll remember how to like vegetables.

--Your creative practices wait for you too.  Begin again.  Write the stanza, write the sentence.  Build.

--What you fear may not come to pass.

--Even if what you fear does come to pass, it likely won't be as bad as you imagined.  You may have odd moments or whole days of comfort.

--If you ache with loss, a brief cry is a surprisingly refreshing way to deal with those emotions.

--The car is a fine and private place to have that brief cry.

--It's not a good idea to evaluate your life's progress when playing music from your wayward youth.

--Re-evaluating your life while putting away the Christmas decorations to music of your wayward youth poses particular hazards.

--Re-evaluating your life while putting away the Christmas ornaments while your spouse is playing old Air Supply songs is particularly deadly.

--Why is your spouse listening to horrible pop music from the 80's?  Didn't you cement your relationship early on with your hatred of 80's pippy-poppy music?

--Some mysteries cannot be explained, and we must be content to leave them as mysteries.

--It is good to remember that life could be worse.  You are not on a sinking cruise ship whose captain decided to take a different route.  If your body parts are all working relatively well, you've got good fortune that many people cannot take for granted.  If you've still got people you love on this side of the grave, then you are not alone and desolate.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Persona Poems at "Eye to the Telescope"

If you like persona poems, you must go straight away to the current edition of Eye to the Telescope.  The whole volume is devoted to persona poems and edited by Jeannine Hall Gailey. 

Gailey gives us a great introduction to the persona poem, along with a link to a longer exploration of the form:  "The definition of persona poetry is poetry that is told from the first-person perspective of a character who explicitly is not the poet; the word 'persona' is derived from the Latin for 'mask.' I like persona poetry because it allows poets to use a lot of the tools available to fiction writers; it gives poets the permission to use the imagination, to free themselves from the strictures of autobiography. Speculative poets already push the limits of imagination in their work, so this is a uniquely ambitious kind of project. I also like persona poetry because in it, you can choose to retell stories from a different perspective—often a perspective left out of the original story."

Gailey gives readers a wonderful variety of persona poems here.  What a treat.  You'll find poems by writers whom you likely already know, and you'll probably discover some new poets.

One of my poems appears, "The Gardener's Tale," which tells the story of the first Easter morning from the view of a gardener.  It was inspired by the piece of the Easter story where Mary thinks that Jesus is the gardener, which made me think about the fact that there must have been a real gardener and made me wonder what he thought of all the commotion.  Scroll all the way through the volume to get to my poem--and enjoy the poems along your way!

I've always wondered if one of the dangers of writing persona poems comes from the reader not knowing the original text to which the persona poem alludes.  As I read my poem this morning, I wondered if people who knew nothing of the Easter story would still like my poem.  I hope so.

Many of the poems in this volume of Eye to the Telescope allude to narratives unfamiliar to me.  Will I do the research to discover the originating text?  Honestly, probably not.  But I still enjoyed what I read.

At least in this age of Google and other search engines, it should be easy to get more information, should a reader desire it.  I'd still prefer a notes section, but I'm lazy that way.

What I'd really like is a section where poets talk about their writing process.  How did they choose the approach they did?  If they're writing about a minor character in a work, why that character instead of others?

I don't offer the two paragraphs above as criticism.  I could come up with several valid reasons for excluding a notes section.  I know that many writers and scholars would tell us that having writers explain risks having too much explanation.  Plenty of people would tell us that the poems should stand on their own.  And I know that having writers talk about their writing processes really takes us in a different direction.

This morning, as I was reading the poems, I got an idea for a different persona poem.  What would Nellie Olsen say if she got a chance to remember Laura Ingalls Wilder and that time on the prairie as a grown up?  I know that the woman who played the character on television has written a memoir, which I plan to read.  But I think I'll write the poem first.

I love writing persona poetry especially if I'm ever tired or feeling like I have no ideas.  When feeling that way, I'll often turn to it before I turn to any other type of poetry.  I often feel like a huge part of the work is done, but my brain can still go in ways that surprise me. 

I've found that my students often feel the same way.  I've had great luck with teaching persona poems in classrooms of all sorts, from the poetry workshop to the Intro to Lit class to Composition classes.  If Winter leaves you feeling uninspired as a teacher, see if a persona poem interlude might not recharge your classes.

And if you're in need of a boost, read through this wide-ranging variety of persona poems and let your mind play with possibilities of your own.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Marching with Martin

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King.  By now, he's become a national hero; we often forget how radical he was, how long were the odds that he would succeed.

I've written about King in many places, in many contexts.  Here's my favorite MLK blog post from this blog where I talk about my students who think I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.  Even when I explain I was born in 1965, they still don't understand--they don't know that in 1968, when King was killed, I was barely walking, much less marching.  I tell myself that when I was young, I had gaps in my education too.  But I read a lot, so I didn't have the kind of history gaps that many students do.

That post includes a chunk of poem yet to be written about marching with Martin Luther King in Sunday best clothes.  We also forget how much the Civil Rights Movement knew how to use the new medium that was television.  Some baby boomers like to brag about how they brought the Vietnam War to a close earlier than would have happened without their protests.  I say that they'd have been even more effective if they hadn't looked so scruffy, so in need of a bath, when those nice, suburban people turned on their televisions.  The Civil Rights marchers in their dresses, suits, and dress shoes--seeing those people attacked by vicious dogs and fire hoses prompted a much more sympathetic response.

I think we also forget how rooted the Civil Rights Movement was in the Christian tradition, especially the parts of that tradition that encourage us to resist evil.  I've written about that aspect here for a post on the Living Lutheran website today.  And here's a post from my theology blog that's full of quotes from MLK, and a link to a great interview where Tavis Smiley reminds us that King's life was about 3 things:  "justice for everybody, service to others and love that liberates."

Here is my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice."  It inspired the following poem, written around 1996.  It was first published in The Evening Reader, a small periodical based in Newberry, South Carolina.

Arcing Towards Justice

Martin Luther King said that the arc
of history is towards justice,
and I must arc
towards justice as well:
ignore the politicians who would leave
children to starve
and adults to rot in prisons.
Some days I slump towards despair;
I don’t believe I can even save
myself, much less others.

Like Harriet Tubman, I cannot tarry
long in the swamps of despair.
I must go back, stretch out my arms, ferry
others to safety:
teach them to write, to analyze,
to dream the world they would want to inhabit.
I must teach them not to suckle
on the hatred spewed
by scared, old, white men
who are losing power, and so spurt poison.

I can build an ark of activism
for the diaspora of the dispossessed,
a sanctuary where we wait
for the old, white men to choke
on their own vituperative, vindictive vitriol.

We won’t even have to remove the mantle
of authority from their cold corpses.
It has been ours all along, from the moment
we claimed it as our own,
decorated it with our own bright threads,
chose our own best ways to wear our multi-hued
mantles, beacons to gleam and glitter
in the dark days of exile,
like comets arcing through the skies,
lighting the way home,
as a legacy of hatred burns
into harmless, intergalactic dust.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Young Hemingways in Love and in Paris

I've spent the last 10 days reading Paula McLain's The Paris Wife.  My friend, our school's one remaining librarian, told me that it had gotten lots of good reviews and that readers across the nation really seemed to like it.  The premise was interesting:  the young Hemingways, before fame, in love and in Paris. 

The story of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest's first wife, was interesting enough to keep me coming back to the book, but the book wasn't interesting enough that I couldn't put it down--thus the fact that it took me almost 10 days to finish this book that's not exactly dense and challenging.  It's one of those kind of books that makes me glad to be alive during the first decades of the 21st century, instead of being a woman in the 1920's in Paris.

We may tend to view that time and place through a sentimental lens, but McLain deftly shows us the challenging--and difficult--aspects of actually living during that time.  We see Hemingway writing his great works by candlelight--yes, candles!  In one of the most wrenching (for me as a writer) moments of the book, Hadley loses a satchel that contains everything that Hemingway has ever written; she leaves it unguarded on the train, and someone steals it.  And because he wrote it by hand, before we had copying machines and external hard drives and all the things that make it possible for us to have multiple back-ups, it was simply gone.

I also noticed that travel of any kind of distance was a grueling and time-consuming endeavor.  I often forget what a miracle the airplane is; I tend to focus on the inconveniences, like taking off my shoes, which means I have to get to the airport much earlier.

Of course, some elements of being human haven't changed.  McLain does a great job of describing the Hemingways in love in the early days, and the brutal emotions caused by the unravelling of that love.  She describes Hemingway's ambitions in great detail, as well as his ugliness towards those early champions of his work.  She also shows the mental instability at the root of Hemingway's ugliness to all those people who loved him.  I came away feeling more sympathy for Ernest Hemingway than I expected to.

Hadley is the true hero of this novel, as you would expect.  I adored her sturdy adaptability.  I felt righteous indignation for the ways that she was treated.  I wanted her to go out and find her own career, but of course, because it was the 1920's, she didn't have those opportunities.

Yes, it's good to be a writer in 2012.  The publishing industry may be imploding in ways we can't control, but we have so many more options than Ernest Hemingway did.  Think about how many more people are reading these days than in the 1920's.  Think about how many more ways there are to get a book than in the 1920's.  Think about the fact that I can get on a plane and be in Paris by the end of the day; in the 1920's, I would have been on an ocean liner for several weeks.

It was moderately enjoyable to spend time in Paris with the Hemingways, via this book, but in the end, I'm glad I'm not stuck there.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Poets at Midlife

I love NPR for many reasons, but chief amongst them:  their commitment to poetry.  On their main page, I found this article which purports to talk about poetry volumes coming out in 2012, books being written by newer poets, poets who aren't your parents' poets, poets in their 30's, 40's, and 50's.  You can have fun making your own list.  I need more time to think.  I was a bit annoyed, as I always am, to find mention of poets who are already famous, poets who probably don't need this boost.  Much as I love Lucille Clifton and mourn her loss, in so many ways, she is my mom's poet in terms of her birth year and topics covered.  And can anyone truly not have heard of Jorie Graham? 

Let me stop here to admit that most people probably have not heard of Jorie Graham, especially readers who aren't part of the poetry world.  But the poets on this list, by and large, seem firmly established in terms of reputation. 

My complaint is minor.  Overall, I'm happy to see such a fine group of poets with books coming out in 2012. 

I've been thinking about the overall process of growing older, the strange part of the passage which is midlife.  Two weeks ago, at my grandmother's funeral, I saw third cousins whom I hadn't seen since I was in my teens.  How did we all get so much older?

One cousin--the child of my mother's cousin, which makes him my 3rd cousin, I think--I remember for having an Atari set.  Atari--how cool!  What a huge leap beyond Pong, which had been the only video game I had ever seen, until the Thanksgiving when my third cousin and I spent huge swaths of time playing Space Invaders (or was it Asteroids?).  That same cousin later had a Honda Prelude, which we thought was the sportiest car possible, and I vaguely recall that he let me little sister drive it--my little sister, who hadn't had her driver's license very long.

And now these third cousins, frozen in adolescence forever in my brain, have children who are adolescents.  How did this happen?

Ah, it happened the way it always happens, right?  People get older and have children and those children get older and soon they're zooming away in fast cars, off to college or parenthood or jobs or jail.  Of course, hopefully not jail, but I felt I had to throw that possibility in because if you look at any extended family, you'll see at least one or two members making stupid decisions and spending some time in jail.

I also have midlife on the brain because last night a group of us from work went to a local happy hour to celebrate the completion of a doctoral degree of our colleague.  I spent the evening looking at the swarms of people and being intrigued by the diversity of the group.  Plenty of midlife folks coming by for a drink after work.  That guy with the dog with a bandana--local dude coming to a local bar or a poser?  Lots of women in glitzy clothes--single women looking for action or women who work in a glitzier environment than mine?  Lots of men talking with each other--a gay subscene or men waiting for women or courage?

I found myself interested in the bar itself, a bar that once was a wreck of a building in an abandoned cityscape across from a grim hospital.  Now the hospital has had a lovely facelift (yes, it's the same hospital that has my lovely tiny gym attached to a wellness center).  One of the abandoned factories has been transformed into an urban farm.  And now, a bar that promotes "beer, bourbon, and burgers," and we all flock there, as if we've never tasted bourbon or burgers or beer before.

That experience made me feel young again, while at the same time making me feel unbearably old.  It made me consider being an urban homesteader, which doesn't appeal to me as much as heading off to the country to reclaim an orchard.  It made me wish I had investment capital so that I could transform a stretch of paved-over bleakness.

I remind myself that it would be a lot of work.  What I really want:  more time for writing projects.

I woke this morning with an expansive sense of well-being that comes with a three day week-end.  What will I do with that extra day?  Working on a writing project of some type, to be sure.  Catching up with laundry, yes.  Making a pot of broccoli cheddar cheese soup.  Spending some time with friends.  Maybe something different than usual, like collaging.  Some time with a book or two.  Insert sigh of contentment here.

Such are the joys of midlife.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Simplicity Practices for the Spiritual and Not-So-Spiritual

Over the holiday break, I read Jan Johnson's Abundant Simplicity:  Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace.  Like almost every other woman in the U.S., I frequently wonder if there's not more to life than what I'm living.  I'm a sucker for any magazine article that promises to show me a new way to organize my closets, my desk, my finances, my calendar, my life.  I'm particularly drawn to material that promises more simplicity.  Johnson's book was a delightful read.

Now, her book didn't teach me much that I didn't already know--but it's good to be reminded.  Also Johnson roots her ideas in a spiritual depth that one doesn't often find in those pop culture writings that call to me so loudly.  Johnson reminds us that we're not just cleaning up our spaces and our calendars for the joy of getting organized.  No, we're making space for God.

If you're the kind of reader who finds any mention of God to be an immediate deal breaker, then you should avoid this book  Johnson comes out of the Christian tradition, and so does this book (to explore her book in theological terms, go to my review on my theology blog).  But even atheists could learn something from this book, although their motivations may end up being different.

Johnson talks about how we live in a land of plenty which can be as debilitating as living in deprivation.  She explores what kinds of needs we may be attempting to address when we shop, often for items that we don't need, items that duplicate what we already have.

Then she gives us some practices to help us get in touch with what we really want and how we really want to live.  She gives concrete actions that we can take to pare down our stuff, to gain mastery over our calendars, to keep our free time free, to make time for what's truly important to us, and to free ourselves from worry.

Readers of this blog have probably sensed that I struggle with worry and fretfulness.  Here's a quote that spoke to me:  "Yet we're reluctant to let go of our worry.  We worry about not worrying.  Many of us even believe that worrying about something earns us the right for nothing bad to happen." 

And then she says this:  "Such distortions are the enemy's work, convincing us that worry is a form of responsible vigilance" (153).  She's using the traditional idea of "the enemy," Satan.  Even if you don't believe in divine incarnations of good or evil, play with that idea for a minute:  worry as not just frivolous or a time waster, but downright evil.  All the time we spend in worrying prevents us from taking action to improve the world.  Hmm. 

Here are some more choice quotes for your Friday: 

"Our purchases always make it obvious when we're serving two masters" (137):  what does your spending say about you and what you value?

"As an introverted, task-oriented person, I confess I love email because I love getting a job done without having to actually talk to anyone, but I also know that God is teaching me to be more relational and that using email can work for or against that, depending on how I use it.  So my goal is to use it as I use speech:  to impart grace to others" (145).

Again and again, she reminds us that the purpose of speaking should be to "impart grace" "promote kindness" (64).

"If we knew that the most important things we ever did would occur as a result of interruptions, how we might live differently?" (109).

"Delayed decisions are often about fear of making wrong choices" (81).

"In the meantime, it's important to dream and ponder, What would my life be like if I weren't afraid?  What if I chose to trust God a little more today?" (32, italics in original quote).

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Crying at Work, Crying Over Work

Over and over again, I hear people say that there is no manufacturing in America, that we've shipped it all elesewhere.  That idea is simply not true.  We still have plenty of manufacturing on our shores--depending on how you define terms, we're either first or second in the world for manufacturing (a fact I got from this NPR story; go here to read/listen).

Of course, a lot of those manufacturing jobs are done by machines.  And many of the jobs done by humans don't have the middle-class level of pay that they would have had in, say, 1962.  To understand that fully, I read a fabulous article in The Atlantic (written by the same person who reported similar information for the NPR story):  "Throughout much of the 20th century, simultaneous technological improvements in both agriculture and industry happened to create conditions that were favorable for people with less skill. The development of mass production allowed low-skilled farmers to move to the city, get a job in a factory, and produce remarkably high output. Typically, these workers made more money than they ever had on the farm, and eventually, some of their children were able to get enough education to find less-dreary work. In that period of dramatic change, it was the highly skilled craftsperson who was more likely to suffer a permanent loss of wealth. Economists speak of the middle part of the 20th century as the 'Great Compression,' the time when the income of the unskilled came closest to the income of the skilled."

We are no longer in a time of great economic compression.  Some manufacturing jobs pay workers far more than a worker in 1962 could have ever dreamed of making.  But most do not.

The article does a great job exploring the decisions that corporate people make on a day by day basis as they decide what to manufacture in the U.S. and what to make in other countries.  The article also does a great job in exploring what separates a low-skill and high-skill worker in manufacturing.  And it's all highly readable and understandable, something I don't often find in articles which explore manufacturing; usually I'm either weighed down by the tedium of economic theory or by the angry political viewpoint of one side or another, or by the shallowness of the article.  Happily, this piece is an exception.  If you read only one piece of writing on manufacturing and the future of American jobs, turn to this one.

I've been thinking about U.S. jobs, about whether or not there are careers that we can count on anymore.  I used to think we could count on educational jobs, but even first grade teachers are being laid off where I live.  I think of caring for the old as an expanding industry, as the baby boomers age.  But if the last 30 years should teach us anything, it's that no industry is safe.  You can wake up any morning to find your industry has shifted right out from under you.

It's enough to make a girl cry.  I loved Kristen McHenry's post about crying at work:  "To cry, to well up, to lament, blubber, keen, or wail--all are unforgivable. Crying, one shows an unseemly level of engagement, a lack of ability to maintain objectivity and distance; one shows weakness, femininity and its inherent manipulations, that are you easily broken, that you are sickly in hue, a wreck, battered, without backbone, pallid and brittle and girly and irrational."  It's a wonderful post, a prose poem that explores terrain we've all likely experienced.

In my current position, I have to be careful not to cry.  I'm an administrator in a college that doesn't have as many students as we once did.  If people see me crying, they'll assume the news is bad and that the news has to do with them.  Not good.

When my grandmother lay dying, I called my sister while I was at the office and quickly dissolved into tears.  I remember saying, "I'm glad I have an eye infection right now.  It explains why my eyes are red and puffy when I see people after this conversation."

Yes, most of our workplaces give us many reasons to cry.  There are many people and circumstances designed to get one's goat.  I loved Kathleen Kirk's recent post about goats, goatherds, and goat cheese:  "Bob was reminding us at church yesterday of the vigilance it takes to remain nonviolent in life, down to not letting someone 'get our goat'--that is, not letting someone provoke us into being cranky and irritable in our own actions and speech.

Bob told about a job interview, and a boss's warning about a certain manager:

'This guy seems to know how to get a person's goat,' he explained.

'No worries.' I countered, 'I’ll leave my goat at home.'”

I've been working at leaving my goat at home!  Some weeks are more of a challenge than others.  Some weeks, I dream of running away and starting a goat farm and selling goat cheese at some farmer's market somewhere.

My spouse would remind me that goats are mean and viciously destructive and that we should raise something else.  Tropical fruits, perhaps.  On our great Southeast funeral trip, we talked about raising buffalo.  Could they survive in a central Florida ranch?  Surely summers on the Great Plains are as hot as summers here--hotter, even.  Do buffalo need a cold season?

I try to remind myself that every job has its annoyances.  Every job involves a fair amount of tedium, since humans can't run on high levels of adrenaline very long and stay alive.  Dave Bonta has a great post on tedium where he explores how our lives have changed since the Industrial Revolution: 

"Those elders who had no choice but to knit if they wanted to stay warm in the winter might think today’s hobbyist knitters slightly mad, unless back in the day they happened to be of a creative bent. But I’m told that when an Amish man draws up a cost/benefit analysis of a project, the labor required to complete it will be listed as a benefit rather than a cost.

I imagine it was only after the Industrial Revolution that tedium became a nearly inescapable condition of life — and with it the necessity for diversion on an industrial scale."

Now it's off to check my prizeless Three Kings' Bread that I have baking in the oven.  I realized that the bread is fairly low-fat for a holiday bread, and it hits my craving for sweets in a far more healthy way than cookies or cake.  So, today, I'm baking another 2 loaves.  Baking bread soothes me in a way that few other activities can.

I think of my grandmother, who got up every morning and started the dough for the bread (yeast rolls) that she served every day with the midday meal.  She also made several pies a week to go with the meals that relied on food that she and my grandfather grew in their backyard garden.  She sewed all of her clothes for most of her life--this fact explains why she rarely wore pants, which are much more difficult to make--as well as clothes for my mom and sister and me, and a variety of blankets out of scraps.

She would scoff at the idea that she was an artisan, yet I think of all these younger women and some men, flocking to these activities now.  I think of the urban gardeners described in the article in The Atlantic, growing food on the roof of a building that houses the offices of one of the last small-scale manufacturers of after-market precision auto parts still in the U.S.

I yearn for a job that satisfies my yearning to be an artisan, to make stuff with my hands, to grow stuff, to nurture the next generation--yet that still gives me time and energy to write, to read, to think.

Ultimately, I think it's unreasonable for me to look for a paying job that satisfies all the needs of my working self, just like it's unreasonable to think that a best friend or a significant other can satisfy all my emotional needs.  I'm working on being happy with a job that pays the bills but leaves me some free time to bake bread and to write and to work on whatever creative projects intrigue me without having to worry about translating my creativity into profit.

I'm trying not to be scared that my job and that the entire higher ed industry will vanish.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On to South Carolina

So far, the 2012 presidential election hasn't interested me the way that past elections have.  I have taken a "come back to me when the Republicans have winnowed out the crowd a bit" approach.  The winnowing has begun, and now it's on to South Carolina.

People who don't understand South Carolina or the states that make up the southeast are often content to paint in broad, stereotypical brush strokes that involve images from the slaveholding past and Civil Rights era ugliness.  Outsiders tend to think of Southerners as ignorant, gun-toting, sweet tea drinking rednecks who tend towards obesity and snake handling religions.

As with all stereotypes, some of this is true.  But especially in the past twenty years, the region has changed substantially, with more Hispanic people settling in, with more manufacturing coming to the region, with more retirees from the north, with universities achieving national prominence.

South Carolina doesn't always behave like political pundits would have us believe.  Jesse Jackson won the Democratic primary in 1988.  This is the state that recently elected a female, a child of Indian immigrants, to the governor's office.  I wouldn't expect that behavior from a state that's thought of as so conservative. 

I'm still not as interested in political discussions as I once was.  I'm tired of the outrage of others and exhausted by their despair.  I tend to steer away from politics unless we can have a conversation that will leave me inspired.  And so far, although it's early in the race, I'm not feeling inspired.

I still believe that big government can accomplish some things that we can't do on the local level.  I'm not one of those cranky people who thinks that big government is the problem.  I see problems on all levels of government.  I also see potential.  But right now, I'm not seeing much in the way of solid solutions--not from candidates, not from colleagues, not from essayist and analysts, not from government workers.

Maybe I don't see those ideas because I live in a part of the state of Florida where Republicans rarely visit.  Our ad time costs so much to buy that I can watch T.V. in peace, undisturbed by political commercials.  Maybe if I lived in Charleston or Columbia, South Carolina, I'd know more about the ideas and plans that Republican candidates have.  Maybe I'd know more about what they'd do if elected.

I doubt it.

Maybe those ideas will come.  After all, it's early yet.

And yet, it feels so very late.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Turning to Return Again

This morning, I returned to running (I will use the word running, even though less kindly other people might use words like "slow jogging," "lumbering," "slogging," "shuffling").  It's been almost 2 months since I ran down the Broadwalk at the beach.  Again, I wonder, why have I denied myself this pleasure?

Well, for the better part of December, I didn't run because I couldn't inhale without coughing.  And then there was travelling and then there was my eye infection.

And then there was laziness.

I had perfect conditions for running this morning:  a light breeze, 68 degrees, the moon setting to my west, the sunrise settling in to the east.  I settled in and ran 4 miles fairly effortlessly--a run I did not deserve, to be sure.

I have returned to running before and not always with such lovely weather conditions.  This summer I started running again after a multi-year pause.  It was hot and humid, even before sunrise.  I wasn't in the better shape I'm in today.  And as I ran, I thought, why have I denied myself this pleasure?

It's a lesson I learn again and again, both in exercise and in other areas of my life (see this post about yoga, writing, and marriage, for example).  I bake bread, and I think, why don't I do this more often?  I return to writing short stories after a long absence, and I'm overwhelmed with joy to be doing it--and again, the question, why don't I write more fiction, if it brings me such joy?  I phone or meet an old friend again, and I'm thrilled that we can pick up our friendship again as if there had been no absence.

I am glad that I can return, again and again, to the people and the activities I love.  I am glad that I am not punished by having them taken away from me.

It's a good lesson to remember, as many of us return to regular life.  Those of us who live on the academic calendar are likely starting classes this week or settling in to the classes we started last week.  Those of us who spent December eating cookies for breakfast (but they were homemade!) must now return to vegetables.  Those of us who haven't exercised in awhile must now limber up those muscles.

Here are two poems to inspire you to have faith in your muse, in your muscles, in your priorities, in the belief that it will all work out alright.  The first appeared in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature and the second in Emrys.

One Fast, One Slow

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Muse to Her Poet

You worry that I am some Ulysses,
headed off to distant lands the moment you turn
your back, easily seduced by goddesses,
and ever needful of new adventures.

You are the one who sets sail
for the distant island of your novel, sidetracked
from your true vocation by thoughts of the fruits
of fame, the warmth of characters
to put through their paces.
You are the one who often strands
herself on the dry, dusty shores
of academic writing, pursuing the metaphors
and symbols of other poets
while neglecting your own.

I am your muse, your Penelope, waiting
ever, always patient. I weave
even when you’re unaware, distracted
by those undeterred suitors of easier pleasures than mine.
I pluck out the threads that don’t match,
keep the tapestries safe,
keep my faith in your return.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Rosanne Cash, to Inspire and Fascinate You

I started yesterday by hearing Krista Tippett interview Rosanne Cash.  I came to Rosanne Cash by way of her CD, The List, a great collection of Cash covering classic songs, songs on a list of 100 songs that her dad, the famous Johnny Cash, told her she needed to learn.  It's a great CD, one that my spouse and I enjoy singing along to on car trips.  I also have Cash's memoir, Composed, which I haven't read yet, but may make more of an effort to get to it after hearing Tippett and Cash yesterday.  I'd also like to get her CD Black Cadillac, which has some wonderfully poetic songs.

Cash talks about showing up every day to do the work and not waiting for some bolt of inspiration from the Muse:  "Well, my friend Steven Pressfield, he wrote this great book called The War of Art, and he has this great line in it. He says, 'You have to show the Muse you're serious.' You know, you can't just expect to be hit by these beautiful bolts of inspiration and lightning. You have to keep showing up even if you don't get hit for a year or two years. Just show the Muse you are serious. And then that the relationship there feels like love to me. I mean, it feels like the heart opening."

She also talks about the idea of catching songs and then the conversation moves towards mathematics and physics--fascinating.

Throughout the course of the conversation, the women talk about her creative process, about composing as therapy, about her father and his death, about God and religion, about recovering from brain surgery, about whether or not her songs can stand without music as poetry--and it's a fascinating window into how music helps the poetry of the lyrics.

She also talks about Twitter, about how Twitter builds community and about how Twitter functions as boot camp for song writers:  "If you can say it succinctly and somewhat poetically or with humor in 140 characters, that's great for refining the skills as a songwriter."  She learned to knit via Twitter--well, she met a knitting teacher.  I think the actual instruction, at least the first lesson, was done in person.

She talks about mystery and about getting ideas during the middle of regular life:  "There are mysteries, you know; fractals are a mystery. And songwriting is somewhat mysterious — there are mysterious moments. And I like living with the questions, rather than the answers. Tom Waits said this great thing about songwriting. He said he was driving in a car on the freeway and he got an idea for a song and it was just, you know, like overwhelming him, the idea for this song, and he couldn't get a pencil and there was no paper. And he's on the freeway and he finally just looked up at the sky and said, 'Don't you see I'm driving?' And I feel that way sometimes too. Don't you see I'm getting my child off to school or helping with homework or, you know, just trying to be available?"

It's a great interview, well worth your time.  You can go here to listen to the show or to read the transcript or to explore videos or other resources.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Makes an Idyllic Sunday?

A week ago, I'd have been eating bacon for breakfast while looking for bad guys with my 5 year old nephew.  We were blessed with warm South Carolina weather, and so we could run outside.  We stayed in R and R housing on Ft. Jackson, and we were the only ones there, so we could make all sorts of noise without bothering anyone.  The cabins were on a lake, and we could have contests seeing who could throw pine cones and sticks the furthest.

Later, the whole family headed the the Horseshoe, that lovely quad at the University of South Carolina, where both my spouse and I completed graduate degrees and my sister earned her B.A., and almost a century ago, my grandfather earned a B.A.

How I love a Southern land grant school, with its historic buildings and large open areas!

We had a great time walking and climbing trees and seeing the buildings that had been built back near our old stomping grounds of Gambrell Hall and the Humanities buildings since we graduated.

The school was on holiday break, so all the buildings were locked up tight.  Still, plenty of people were walking dogs and riding scooters and tossing frisbees.  Idyllic.

It leads me to wonder why I don't do these things more often.  For the past week, the walk on the USC grounds has been one of the favorite memories that my brain keeps circling back towards.  Why don't I enjoy these kind of outings more often?

Well, one reason is the one that we all wrestle with.  As a point of contrast, let's think about my yesterday.  I ran a lot of errands and completed lots of tasks, tasks which had been postponed because of my trip to South Carolina.  It was satisfying in a different way.  It's great to have a working hose between the dryer and the outside wall, but not nearly as wonderful as constructing paper guns and chasing each other and discovering treasures in the pine straw.  It's not nearly as fabulous as climbing cneturies-old trees with their low-slung branches and enjoying the holiday decorations that still festooned the campus.

I will likely always continue to wrestle with the issue of balance.  I want more time out in nature, but I want more time to write.  I want a clean house, but I don't want to be so obsessed with chores that I neglect the humans in my life.  I want more time to read, but I also want to socialize with friends.

I'm grateful that I get days like last Sunday, days that remind me not to get too mired down in the daily minutiae.  It will be an important reminder, as our new school term launches this week.