Friday, March 30, 2012

Poetry Prompts Using Characters From Other Works

Some of us are about to start our April regimen of writing a poem a day. You might be like me, with lots of poetry ideas stored up that you itch to get started writing.

But maybe you're not inspired. So, I offer here a week's worth of poetry prompts. I decided to focus them all on fairy tales, myth, and other types of tales that already exist. That way, some of the work has been done for you.

Also, for those of you who teach, I've found these prompts lead to all sorts of interesting creations.

So, first you must choose a fairy tale, a Bible story, a myth, your favorite novel (or TV show or movie) or some other tale that has a narrative. Then try some of the following:

--Write a poem from the point of view of one of the minor characters. Don't limit yourself to the human characters. For example, what would Cinderella's pumpkin which was turned into a pumpkin and then into a coach and then back into a pumpkin say?

--Write a poem that's a prequel or a sequel. How are Cinderella and the Prince getting along 10 years after the Ball?

--If you're working with an older story, modernize it. For example, think about the big, bad wolf. What would today's big, bad wolf, come to blow down our houses, look like? A predatory lender perhaps?

--Take one of the strong images from the work and incorporate it into a poem that has nothing to do with the original story. Could you use the image of a glass slipper without mentioning fairy stories?

--Take strong images from several works, combine them, and see what happens. For example, take melting wings from mythology, glass slippers, red capes, a baby in a manger, and Oliver Twist's empty porridge bowl--put them all in a poem, and what kind of glorious mess will result?

--Take characters from two (or more) different works and have them collide. What happens when the Prodigal Son meets Cinderella during his travels?

--On a day when you have no time to write, turn the myth or fairy tale into a haiku (you remember haiku--3 lines, 5 syllables in the first and third line and 7 in the second).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Legends Leaving Us

We lost two great artists this past week:  Earl Scruggs and Adrienne Rich.  Both took their art forms in ways they wouldn't otherwise have gone.  The world is different because they lived amongst us.  At least they had both lived long, full lives, which mitigates the loss just slightly.

People reading this blog are likely less familiar with the work of Earl Scruggs than with the writing of Adrienne Rich, although you may have heard more of his work than you immediately recognize.  For example, he wrote the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies and his most famous work, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," was used in the film Bonnie and Clyde.  But even if you haven't heard those works, you're hearing his influence every time someone picks up a banjo.  He changed bluegrass music, country music and folk music forever; you could make the case that he also influenced other musical genres too, like rock.  Even people who don't know much about music can hear what he's doing with the banjo, how hard it is, how nimble his fingers must be to move the way they did.

I've written about Adrienne Rich before (most notably here).  I first became familiar with her work when I asked my favorite Sociology professor, "Aren't there any female sociologists?"  He gave me the work of sociologists studying motherhood, and I read Rich's Of Woman Born.  What an amazing book.  But I felt that way about all of her books.

Susan Rich wrote a great tribute to Adrienne Rich.  I found this part of her blog post most inspiring:  "When I think of poems that have been crucial in my life, poems that are sustenance -- that allow me to breathe in a world I need to believe in -- it's Adrienne Rich's work that I return to. Her passing has made me already recommit to my poems, to remember that living in a certain way is necessary."

Yes, let us recommit ourselves to our creative work.  Let us vow to live in ways that will bring about a better world!

Here are some quotes from Adrienne Rich which have been particularly meaningful for me:

"I know that the rest of my life will be spent working for transformations I shall not live to see realized. I feel daily, hourly impatience and am pledged to the active and tenacious patience that a lifetime commitment requires: the can be no resignation in the face of backlash, setback, or temporary defeat; there can be no limits on what we allow ourselves to imagine" (On Lies, Secrets and Silence, page 270).

"You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job, grant, scholarship, professional advancement, fame; no questions asked as to further meanings. And let's face it, the lesson of the schools for a vast number of children--hence of readers--is This is not for you (page 32, emphasis Rich's).

"All art is political in terms of who was allowed to make it, what brought it into being, why and how it entered the canon, and why we are still discussing it" (page 95, Blood, Bread, and Poetry, emphasis Rich's).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pictures from a Quilt Show


On March 17, I went to the Quilt Show by the Sea.  We saw all sorts of beautiful quilts, but the one above impressed me most; it was all hand quilted!

Below you see a detail from one of the panels; marvel at the evenness of the hand stitching:

We were talking about the quilt below, when a woman standing near us grabbed a corner of it in her bare hand, a big no no at quilt shows.  I said, "You're not supposed to touch them!"

She said, "I'm the woman who made it, so it's OK."  Happily, she wasn't mad at my attempt to protect her quilt from oils and other yuckiness on human hands that can ruin a quilt.

We were so lucky to be able to talk to her.  It was great to hear about her process.  She did the quilt by paper piecing, which explains the precision in the quilt.

She said, "It took me such a long time to finish."  When we asked her how long a long time is, she said, "Two months."  We all sighed, since it usually takes us much longer to complete our projects.  And something with all those little pieces would take me a small forever.

I much prefer to create quilts like the one below, something with long strips and not too many tiny pieces to stitch together.  I can keep long strips going together, but small pieces can go astray in all sorts of ways.

Below, a detail from the quilt.  Note the safari theme to the fabrics.  Then look at the larger quilt above.  Do you think the quilter is making a statement about zoos and windows?  Bars?  Or am I reading too much into it?

I love art quilts best.  We didn't see many art quilts, but there were some breathtaking ones:

Below, a detail of the kelp.  How do I know it's kelp?  Because the sign told me so.

Below you'll see the quilt I voted for as the one I liked best.  From a distance, it looks like a lot of the effects were done with paint or other effects. 

As you may be able to see below, it's all done with fabric.

In short I came away both inspired and a bit sad.  Once I had more time to quilt, to do more with my inspirations.  But that's not where I am right now.  I'll likely have time again.  So for now, I'll store up my inspirations.

For more pictures of quilts from the Quilt Show by the Sea, see this post on my theology blog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rain Training

It is oddly rainy this morning.  I say odd because we're in the dry season when it so rarely rains and odd because the forecast didn't call for rain.

I went out this morning for my morning run at the beach.  It felt misty, but not rainy, almost dewy.  Soon, however, the mist turned to outright rain.

There weren't many people out, just me and a few other stalwart souls who didn't have sense to come in out of the rain.

When you're a stalwart soul, you get some rewards.  I love the feeling of being outside when very few others are.  I love rain on my face, especially here, when the rain is not often so refreshing.  We usually get tropical downpours, which are steamy and pounding and kind of scary.  This rain was the kind of rain I could run through and not get soaked thoroughly in a matter of minutes.  I could enjoy the gentle patter of rain on the leaves and rain in my hair.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that I did cut my run short.  I've messed up my leg more than once by running in soaked shoes.  And I always worry that a gentle rain will soon turn harsh.

My morning run made me think of similar situations.  Of course, I first thought of poetry, and other art forms which aren't as popular.  But those of us who write poems get a certain refreshing reward.

I also thought of laid off workers who are out there in a place that few of us would willingly go.  I wonder what kinds of things they're learning that few of us will ever know.

Maybe I have that kind of situation on the brain because I'm listening to people talk about The Hunger Games.  I have dystopias of all kinds on the brain. 

Yesterday I went to lunch with some co-workers.  We're all a bit fretful about the future of higher education and whether or not we'll have jobs in the coming years.  I'm trying to shift from crisis thinking to seeing opportunities that I wasn't able to see before.

What are those opportunities?  I don't know yet.  But I'm trying to train myself to be alert.  I'm trying not to give in to despair and hopelessness.

Running in the rain helps me practice optimism and see the advantages to a setting that others would see as grim.  It's training in more ways than one!

And no umbrella necessary!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Staring at the Sky

It's been quite a week, both celestially and terrestrially, for spectacular sights.  After reading this article in The Washington Post yesterday, I headed outside last night, soon after sunset.  Even in our light polluted skies, I could see the sliver of moon, the brightness of Jupiter nearby, with Venus beaming steadily above them.

I made my spouse come outside to look.  I got the camera and experimented with the night setting.

The night setting does expand the light and sometimes makes lit objects blurry, smeary, or jagged looking.  So, the planets expand into smears, instead of bright dots, the moon looks half full, instead of a sliver.  But you get the idea.

But how about here on earth?  If you live in the right part of the world, you're enjoying cherry blossoms.  Down here in South Florida, we have the yellow tab tree which has burst into full, buttery bloom.

I remember the first year down here, where these unremarkable trees suddenly flowered.  I asked my coworkers what they were, and they didn't know, and furthermore, seemed surprised that I was so enchanted.

The other morning, I saw one of the trees in full bloom, and a man beneath it, gazing up into its flowers.  He stood there for several minutes--maybe for even longer, since I drove away, and he was still staring up.

I don't have any pictures of my own for yellow tab trees, but if you go here, you'll see plenty.

I feel like I spend much of my life indoors, staring at screens.  And it's not just me:  "Owen Gingerich, a professor emeritus of astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that the spectacle in the western sky is so beguiling that 'even our graduate students are aware of what’s happening.'  That’s an inside joke because graduate students in astronomy do all their work now on computers and with equations and don’t spend a lot of time acting like Galileo and looking through telescopes" (from The Washington Post article link above).

It's good to get out, to remember the enchantments of nature.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gonzo Filmmakers, Gonzo Poets

Yesterday, we did watch the film Salvador. It was the anniversary of Archbishop Romero's assassination in 1980, and since I own Salvador on both tape and DVD, that was an easy choice--although if Romero had been available via Netflix streaming, I'd have watched it too.  We watched the film with Oliver Stone's commentary on, and we also watched the documentary that was on the disc.  Fascinating information.

Oliver Stone made this movie on a shoestring of a budget, which meant he had to be creative in ways that he isn't forced to be creative now.  He had to be accepting of some shots, because he didn't have the money or time to shoot scenes over and over again.  He talked about some scenes which were unanticipated or which he had visualized as happening differently, yet he had to accept what happened.  And those scenes are often ones that he has come to realize are better than what he had planned.

Over and over again, he talked about how he was pushed to the edge, pushed over the edge, and there he found all sorts of resources that he didn't know he had.  He talked about the quality that everyone involved with the movie adopted, a quality of making it up as they went along.  This quality led them to be more creative, to go in directions they wouldn't have otherwise gone--which led them to a movie that was better than what they would have created, had they had more money, time, and other resources.

He brought up Hunter S. Thompson and that whole school of gonzo journalists, writers who plunged themselves right into the stories that they were covering and creating a different kind of journalism.  His filmmaking experience with Salvador was similar.

He talks about the quality of moviemakers in their youth, about not knowing that you can't do certain things, and so you attempt all sorts of things. And they often work brilliantly.

Why and how do we lose that quality?  How can we get it back?

In some ways, new technology can have that effect on many of us.  So much is possible and much of it is cheap to use or at least try.  We can get our work out there in ways that we wouldn't have been able to do in decades past.  On the other hand, all that technology can be overwhelming.

What would I create if I didn't have a preconceived notion of what I should be creating?  What would I create if I just did whatever I wanted?

Of course, Oliver Stone did have a preconceived notion of what he wanted to create, as did those gonzo journalists in many ways.  But even when they weren't achieving it, they persevered, and often created something brand new.

As I immerse myself in what will be the last half of my life, I'd like to adopt a similar attitude, both in my writing and in other areas of my life.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fanny Crosby and Archbishop Romero

Today is the birthday of Fanny Crosby, writer of thousands of hymns, a birthday which dovetails interestingly with my recent posts about accessibility.  I wrote about her in this post on my theology blog, a post which covers some details of her life and work.  But she also interests me as a poet and a historical figure.

I can't imagine that many churches still sing her hymns on a regular basis; they're just too sentimental and mawkish for modern tastes.  But during her day, congregations and revival meetings loved her hymns.  She moved away from the focus on sinfulness and wretchedness that we would find in hymns that came before her.  Many people would have seen her hymns as showing authentic emotion, and would have loved singing them for just that reason.

She rarely wrote the music, instead concentrating on the lyrics. She often wrote 6 or 7 hymns a day, and because she was blind, she did all the work in her head.

She wrote hymns and cantatas, she wrote popular music and patriotic songs.  In addition to all this work, she also did massive work in rescue mission houses.  Her accomplishments would have been impressive in any age, but the fact that she lived in 19th century America, that she was a woman--how amazing.

I wonder if we would have heard more about her if she had been a male.  I wonder if we would have studied her work more if she had written fewer hymns and focused on a genre that was taken more seriously.  I wonder if it's her very accessibility that makes many of us dismiss her.

To be fair, I'll be the first to confess that I prefer a hymn written by the Wesley brothers if we must have a hymn from 19th century.  I find much of the hymns coming out of the 19th century to have a theology that's strange to me, especially in its adoration of bloody, rugged crosses of all sorts.  I much prefer other types of theology--like liberation theology. 

I have theology on the brain not only because it's the birthday of Fanny Crosby, but because on this day in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated.  Romero's life trajectory was an interesting one.  He was chosen precisely because his superiors expected him to cause no trouble, and instead, he becomes a leading voice against repression and other horrors in El Salvador. Although he's not strictly a liberation theologian, he's associated with that movement.

It's a movement that focused on Jesus' message of how we are to treat the poor and outcast, a focus that took Christian eyes away from Heaven and to the Hells here on earth.  And El Salvador in the late 1970's had plenty of them.

Perhaps today I'll watch Oliver Stone's Salvador again.  It's a movie that stays true to Romero's life, even while collapsing the events of several real-life days into a shorter time period in the movie.

Will I sing the hymns of Fanny Crosby today?  No I will not.  But I'll be grateful for her example.  She shows how much can be accomplished in one human life, despite being blind, despite living in a time period that constrained her because of her gender, despite any number of setbacks. 

Likewise Archbishop Romero.  From a tiny country where he might not have made much difference, his life shines as an example of what can be accomplished when one is committed to social justice. 

Perhaps we should draw the same conclusion from Crosby's life; she, too, was committed to the poor and outcast, and she, too, committed her life to social justice.

We might think we cannot change the world, but if we'd only look, we'd see the examples of many people who did indeed change the world, despite being in an outpost of civilization, despite being constrained because of our gender or disabilities or nationality or any number of other things we think hold us back.

Fanny Crosby hoped that each hymn that she wrote would bring people to Christ.  What do you hope to accomplish when you sit down to write?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Accessible Writing

Yesterday's post made me dig out a poem I wrote about accessibility and poetry. I wrote it after hearing some sneering comments about the poetry of Billy Collins, whose work I happen to love. And then I got a batch of poems returned to me with a comment on the rejection slip: "Well, your poems certainly are accessible, aren't they?"

This experience reminded me of an earlier experience writing my dissertation, where I was criticized for writing that was too clear and sparkling. One of my committee members suggested that I "muddy up my prose."

It's like I tell my Composition students--you have to know your audience. Some people like poems that are accessible, and others don't. Some people value clear and sparkling writing, and some people want to know that you can write in academic code, which some might call jargon.

This poem was first published in The Xavier Review, and was reprinted in The Worcester Review.


He says the poems are accessible,
as if it is a bad thing, as if loose
limbed poems spread open their legs
to anyone who gives them a glance.
Those poems don’t even demand drinks
and dinner first. Slutty poems. Ruint.

Perhaps he wants a sulky
poem, one that lets itself be petted, who pretends
to like him, but always holds a part
of itself back while he tortures
himself with evidence of his poem’s infidelities:
other people, plainer than him, who profess
to understand this poem when he cannot.

Perhaps he prefers poems that ignore
laws of accessibility, that barricade themselves behind bars
and up stairs and through perilous mazes.
After tunneling through to the heart
of the poem, he’s so disoriented
that he can’t hold his head upright.

Better yet, poems that speak a language
of their own creation; only a very
few in the world understand how the words
are strung together in this idiom.
Instead of seeing it for the dying language
that it is, he proclaims its linguistic
complexity and pretends to understand.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Popular Literature, Popular Poetry

Today is the birthday of several writers of popular literature.  Louis L'Amour was born in 1908, and by the time he died, 80 years later, he had written 89 novels and over 250 short stories.  Wow.  he's most famous for his Westerns, but he also wrote historical fiction, poetry, science fiction, and non-fiction.  Much of his work is still in print.  Your English major self, your inner Literature Ph.D. might sneer at the quality of his work, but clearly something in his work spoke to readers of all sorts.

James Patterson was also born today.  Today's post on The Writer's Almanac tells us:  "He has published more than 70 novels, and according to recent data, he outsells Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham combined."  I must confess that his novels are too scary for me, with their tales of kidnapped women and torture.  No thanks.  But clearly, he's doing something right in terms of appealing to readers.

Here's a quote for the next time you write fiction:  "If you think of the story that you tell that's your favorite personal story, or funny story, it doesn't have flashy sentences. It doesn't have too much detail. It just tells the story. That isn't, for whatever reason, the way most people write books. But it seemed to me that there was no reason that it couldn't be the way at least one person writes books. I said: 'I'm going to stop writing the parts that people skim.'"
Today is also the birthday of Billy Collins.  I have never understood why so many people, particularly poets, dismiss his work.  Much of his work passes my test for poetry, which means it makes me see the world in a way I hadn't seen it before.  He does interesting things with image, metaphor, and symbolism.  Sure his work is rooted in the every day, but so what?  His work is accessible, but I see that as a plus, not a minus.  Who can count the number of people who love poetry because of Billy Collins?  He's done us all a great service.

Do poets sneer out of jealousy?  I suspect so.  But what would happen if we refused to see success as a zero sum game?  Just because Billy Collins is successful doesn't mean that we can't be.  In fact, because Billy Collins is successful, there's a greater chance for the rest of us.

Long ago, at the beginning of this century, I heard Billy Collins interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air (if it's in the archives, I can't find it).  He read the poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" and talked about what inspired it.  He said he had read Galway Kinnell's "Oatmeal," and his brain launched from there.
Let's take a moment to think about how much life has changed.  Upon hearing this interview, I went to the public library to check out a copy of the Kinnell book which had the poem.  Now, you'll see, I can link to it.

I read both of these poems, and felt my brain expand.  I wrote the poem below.  I've had a few readers tell me it's their favorite poem.  And once, I went to be a guest poet at my friend's Brit Lit class.  They were studying the Romantic poets, and I talked about how their work inspired mine.  The students were intrigued, and a few stayed after class to thank me.  It was very rewarding.

The poem below is one of the poems I read.  I've often wondered if readers with no knowledge of the Wordsworths would understand it.  Happily, we live in an age of easy Internet searches.

And if you're a creative writing teacher, I've taught the Collins poem, the Kinnell poem, sometimes my own poem, and had students write something similar, either with a real life person from the past or a character from a book, a movie, a TV show, some other element of popular culture.  It works very well for a lot of students--and sometimes, they come up with surprising juxtapositions.

This poem is part of my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.  I suspect the long lines will be scrambled on some of your computer screens, and I apologize in advance.


“I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.”
                                Galway Kinnell

I invite the Wordsworths over for breakfast.
William sits in my gloomy kitchen waiting for someone to bring him tea.
I encourage Dorothy to sit down.
After all, she has spent so many of her years waiting
on others, waiting for others.
The least I could do is fix her breakfast.
I have the menu planned, a bit heartier than my usual fare.
I try to cook, but Dorothy is having none of this.
Baffled at first by the pre-sliced bread, she tries to create thinner slices
and promptly cuts her finger.
Blood seeps through the stained tea towel (how can I be out of Band-aids?).
I assure her that I don’t mind.
The kettle shrieks amidst this chaos.
William sits in his chair waiting,
forever waiting for someone to bring him his tea.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

First Day of Spring, When Winter Moods Linger

Here we are, the first full day of Spring.  I find myself buffeted with bad news:  lay offs at work, a spouse dealing with sciatic pain that threatens to become a chronic condition, continued grim housing/economic news for our part of the country.  Yesterday a colleague told me of his sister-in-law, a woman around my age, who has just gotten a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. 

I had a few moments of sober reflection before returning to work tasks.  What would I do, how would I feel, if I had that kind of diagnosis?  I would try to believe in miracles while preparing myself for the worst.  I would feel sad at the people I'd leave behind.  I'd feel sad that I wouldn't get to see my little nephew grow up.  I'd feel grateful for the time I had.  I'd wish that my work (both work for pay and artistic work) had made more of a difference, but I'd take comfort from the lives of artists like John Keats who would have died assuming that he died in obscurity, but now, he's considered one of the greatest poets of the English language.

I feel lucky that my main regret would be running out of time.  I feel lucky in the love that's been part of my life.  I feel lucky that I've had time, money, and space to be creative.

Of course, Spring reminds us that miracles do happen, that out of the Winter season comes new growth and life.  But it does seem a good time for some reassessment.  To use Spring metaphors:  are we growing the flowers we want to have in our garden?

I think it's time for me to think about not just reshaping an old manuscript of poems, but putting together a completely new one.  If I found out I was going to die in a year or two, I'd be sad about not having a book with a spine, and I'd wish I had a manuscript of newer poems ready to publish.

It's also time for me to start making a back up plan or two.  I do think we're seeing an education bubble which is unsustainable--and it's not just me, being the apocalypse gal (for example, see this story from The Chronicle of Higher Education).  Barring unfortunate news, like a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, I could have several more decades in the work world, but I'm not sure that the world of higher education will be there for me.

I will try to take courage from Spring's days of lingering light.  I will remind myself of what I wrote in today's post on my theology blog:  "Only by letting go (however painful that might be) of its current life, will that little seed find itself transformed. That seed, in its current form, must die, so that it can be reborn into a much more glorious life. That seed, once it lets go, once it faces death, will break through into a life of sunshine. That seed, once it lets go, will find much company. It will bear fruit, which means it has fulfilled its biological imperative--it has gotten its genes into the next generation."

Today seems like a good day for a poem. This one first appeared in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard (Pudding House Publications, 2004). The poem is based on real events, and I wrote it to remind myself of the possibility of miracles. 

Rainy Redemption

She told us the X-ray showed a black
spot on her lung. We assumed the cancer harbored
in her breast had set on an odyssey
for new land, and when we didn’t see her
again, we assumed the worst.

Three years later, the flowers bloomed in their annual
tribute to spring, and I saw
her in a parking lot. At first, I thought I saw a ghost, but I held her fleshly
form, still sapling-thin, and knew she had returned,
Lazarus-like, to live among us again.

Our culture focuses on the lost, the missing
in action, but we forget the world commits
to resurrection and reunion. The twig of a tree
sends sap to its tips, the crispy lawn returns
to a life filled with chlorophyll, muscles
wait for the mind to remember what they never forgot,
each generation resurrects the music of its elders,
babies look towards the sky for the familiar
face of the missing parent, history holds
us in its hands and offers rainy redemption.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Today is the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring.  I realize that most of the country has been having an extended Spring--not much winter to be found.  We could worry about drought and coming hot temperatures, but for today, let's just enjoy a temperate morning with some images of spring.

Butterflies are a classic Spring image.  You'd think I'd have more images of Easter eggs, but I don't.  So, butterflies it will be.  Above you'll see part of my church's ever-more-beautiful butterfly garden.

Above, a butterfly in western Georgia a few weeks ago who seemed to enjoy being photographed.  Below, a butterfly mosaic that was a community art project at Lutheridge in 2005 or 2006.

Soon I'll post more pictures from the Quilt Show by the Sea, but for today, enjoy this particularly spring-like square below.

Of course, flowers are traditional Spring images too:

Below, another square from the Quilt Show by the Sea.  A basket of flowers for your first day of Spring!

Below is a detail of a different basket of flowers, but the same quilt.  Note the woven basket, the braided bottom of the basket.

Real flowers are the best (except that they droop and wilt and decay)--may you have multiple bouquets which stay fresh days longer than you'd expect!

I'm always amazed at how Spring weather down here feels similar to the other cities where I've lived.  No matter what kind of winter weather we've been having, I feel happiness as the mornings get warmer, as the light lingers longer.  The air feels a bit softer, even if we haven't been getting much rain.  I feel myself inhaling more deeply and turning my face to the sky.  In a month, I won't be doing that; I'll be remembering that I forgot to put on sunscreen, and I'll try to shade my face.

But for today, I'll welcome the sun back home.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Other Songs to Avoid on Your Way to Work

On Friday, I wrote this post about music to avoid on your way to work--especially when you have meetings.

This morning, in spin class, I thought of another class of music to avoid before work:  the gotta go, gotta ramble, you're a great gal, but I'm not a guy who stays in one place for long.  Is there a female counterpart?  I don't hear those songs often, if not at all.

We spun away to the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See."  You remember it from long ago.  It includes this nugget, which will now be in my head all day:

"I'm gonna buy a ticket, now
As far as I can
Ain't a-never comin' back
Ride me a southbound
All the way to Georgia, now
Till the train, it run out of track"

So, even though my work day is not that onerous, I sit here at my desk, dreaming of southbound trains and driving west--well, driving north up the peninsula of Florida, and then driving west.  Interstate 10 goes a long way.  It's a big continent.

It's imagery that speaks to me, clearly.  Awhile ago, I posted "Boxcar Dreams" in this post about riding the rails.  And awhile ago, I came back to the idea of covered wagons and that journey west in a poem that begins this way:

Homestead Acts

During boring meetings, I sketch
covered wagons and sod houses.
I make lists of my possessions:
what would an immigrant need
and what could be jettisoned?

There's more to this poem, but it goes off in a different direction, and I still have hopes that it could be published elsewhere, and I don't want to jeapordize that by publishing it here.

I will try to focus my brain on the legitimate trips that are coming up, so that maybe it will shake loose of this fantasy of driving until the road runs out.  I'll remind myself of the aches and pains that come with that kind of trip.  I'll calculate the gas costs.  I work on my paper that I'll be soon presenting for the College English Association.  I'll make sure the Spring schedule is good to go. 

Or maybe I'll compose my own gotta go, gotta ramble poem . . .

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Doomed Youth and Doomed Writers

Today is the birthday of Wilfred Owen.  When I was an undergrad, I was taught that World War I writers like Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were the first to tell the truth of war.  I might make the same argument for some Civil War writers, but certainly World War I was a war like none other, and those writers, Owen and Sassoon, helped us discover what that war was like and what effect it had on people, especially the soldiers.

I've always been amazed by how many people were killed in World War I; if you were an English or French school girl in 1914, you'd lose most of your male compatriots by 1918.  The war would have long term effects in terms of marriage rates and in terms of changing views of women and work.

World War I also changed art and literature forever.  You could make the case that WWI made the Modernist movement possible.  Would the work of T. S. Eliot have been possible without Owen?  I could make the argument that we'd have had no "The Waste Land" without Owen and Sassoon paving the way.  I'm still haunted by Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and the soldier character in that novel is one of the most heartbreaking.

My students have always reacted favorably to the poems of Owen.  "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a great poem for teaching metaphor.  Many of them are still astonished at the idea that war was once seen as a great way to turn boys into men.  That idea seems to have died a permanent death.

Of course, we still seem to blunder into wars that we can't leave.  I haven't taught Wilfred Owen lately, so it would be interesting to see if students' attitudes towards him have changed after almost a decade of war headlines.  It would be interesting to teach Wilfred Owen beside the poems and movies about our current wars.  Would he seem more elegant?  Would we see him as still having a reservation, a hesitation?  Would we see Wilfred as holding back some of the more grim details?  Can the refining that comes with crafting a poem undo the message that war is a unique kind of hell?

Below is "Anthem for Doomed Youth," which is one of his more gentle poems.  

Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What Irish Monks like St. Patrick Can Teach Us About Living Our Creative Lives

If you came here hoping for a more spiritual post for St. Patrick's Day, let me direct you to this blog post over at the Living Lutheran site that I wrote. 

Or you might try this post at my theology blog where I talk about the life of St. Patrick:  "St. Patrick was born to a high ranking Roman family in England, but when he was approximately 16, he was kidnapped and spent 6 or 7 years as a slave in Ireland. While there, he learned the language and the non-Christian customs of the land.  This knowledge would come in handy when he was sent back to Ireland in the 5th century to solidify the Christianity of the country."

Or you might try this blog post about Saint Columba:  "Today we celebrate the life of Saint Columba, one of the great early Irish Christians, whom some would give credit for spreading Christianity to Scotland. He also helped spread literacy and founded a school for missionaries. He's one of the great monastics."  What my blog post forgot to point out is that Columba was essentially exiled to Scotland; he had to leave Ireland in disgrace after an argument started by Columba triggered a battle.

What do these two sainted monks, Patrick and Columba, have in common?  They were able to accomplish astonishingly great things, in circumstances where most of us would not have dared attempt them.  They headed off to awesomely tough lands and set up monasteries which turned into flourishing centers of education, art, and spirituality.

Of course, Celtic monks were famous for attempting loopy things--and accomplishing them.  Almost a year ago, Dave Bonta wrote this post about coracles, and he included this nugget of information:  "Though the ancient ocean-going coracles did probably have rudders (and according to The Voyage of St. Brendan, could be fitted with a sail), their relative unsteerability constituted part of their attraction to Celtic monks, for whom the ideal form of travel involved surrendering to the will of God and going wherever the winds and currents took them. Some of the more God-besotted ones set off without even an oar."

Without even an oar!  Imagine that kind of surrender:  I will get in a boat and God will get me where God needs me to be.

I wonder if we could have that same kind of surrender in our creative lives:  I will show up to do the work, I will send it out into the world, and I will surrender my expectations of what is supposed to happen.

I mention this element of surrender, perhaps because that's the kind of week I have had.  Often I have time for creativity almost every day, or I steal some time to make a submission or two.  At the very least, I have an idea or two for a poem that waits for me to find the time to work with it.

Not this week.  Last week we found out that 15 faculty members will be laid off, and 3 of them are in my department.  Our spring quarter starts in a few weeks, and they won't be with us.  So, in addition to all the administrator work that I had scheduled for this week, I've had to figure out how to staff 14 sections.  I've gotten to work early each day, and when the work day ended, I've trudged home exhausted.

This, too, shall pass.  I should look to the life of St. Patrick, who suffered as a slave, but was able to overcome.  And my life as a 21st century administrator is a life of ease and comfort, compared to the Celtic slavery that Patrick endured.

In these weeks where I haven't been writing as much as I'd like, I find it easy to slip into self-loathing and despair.  I worry about the publication opportunities I haven't pursued.  I think about the fact that I don't have too many decades left to write the work that needs to be created.

In short, it's easy to feel like I'm wasting my precious life.

Here, too, the Celtic monks can bring me comfort.  I should think about St. Columba, who some might argue was a man of massive mistakes, but out of those miscalculations came a thriving outpost of Christianity in Scotland.

Many of us might felt like those Celtic monks, trying to till a stony ground.  We may feel like the publishing world has shifted into something we no longer recognize.  Those of us who are working in higher education may wonder if we're headed to a time where very few people will go to college.  Those of us still making mortgage payments on homes declining in value may feel like the rules have changed, and we don't know how to play the game anymore.

We should take courage from the example of the early Celtic church.  Being sent to Scotland would be like being sent to a harsh, wild place--maybe like being sent to a barren planet today.  But just because we're inhabiting a barren planet doesn't mean we're doomed to failure.

We might find a completely different kind of success.

Of course, what we will have to master is the trick of letting go of our preconceived notions of what success will look like, so that we'll see the success that we're creating.

Celtic Christianity is one of the strains of Christianity that's healthy and thriving--and we can't say that about most ancient religions.  Yet if those Celtic monks had allowed themselves to be circumscribed by their circumstances, they'd be another one of those dead traditions that we might not have even heard of.

So today, as you drink your green beer or eat your corned beef and cabbage, think about those early Celtic monks without whom, we would not have this holiday.  Think about your own life.  How could you turn your corner of the world into an outpost where creativity can thrive?  How can your life provide comfort and courage to other creative types?  When you're having the kind of day/month/year that makes you feel like you're living on stony, thorny ground, how can you make good soil out of those circumstances?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Music and Meetings

Yesterday I wrote about spirituals, which made me contemplate other music that has brought me comfort through the years.

I've written about Woody Guthrie before.  We share a birthday, so his work has always fascinated me.  I have to admit that I tend to like other people singing his songs better than I like his voice.  For years the work Folkways:  A Vision Shared was never far away from my tape player or record player (and later CD player).  I think it's still easily available, and it holds up well.

In fact, in the past few years, as the nation has settled into this second Great Depression, the music of the first Great Depression has seemed more relevant than ever.

I also have turned to punk music during times of stress, but the rage and nihilism of a lot of that music can be debilitating.  A few years ago I sat in a meeting throbbing with anger.  When I realized how angry I was, I wondered why.  I realized that it was the music I had listened to on my way to work.

No, I can't remember what I had listened to; it was likely Rage Against the Machine or the Violent Femmes.  I do remember this poem that came out of the experience.  It's now part of my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents.

Meeting Hell

During meetings, she conjugates
every French verb that she can remember.
In this way she sublimates
her desire to dismember.

He hears echoes of his high school teachers,
with their talk of potential and not living up to it.
He remembers taking a bottle to escape beneath the bleachers,
but as a grown up, he must compose his face and sit.

I shouldn’t listen to punk music from an earlier age
as I drive to my day of endless meetings.
I sit and stew with pointless rage.
I should focus on my breathing.

These adolescent coping strategies may not serve us well.
But they’re all we have during days of meeting hell.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spirituals: "A Wrinkle in Time" in Song

Last week was a tough week at work:  layoffs were announced, and we're losing 15 faculty members, 3 in my department.  I spent the week-end reading A Wrinkle in Time, and I found it a solace in ways that I always have with its tale of an epic battle and a spunky heroine and a good ending.

I've wanted to carry the book with me, as a talisman and comfort.  But my book is almost 40 years old, and I want to protect it, so I left it in the safety of my house.

In the car this week, I've turned off the news and listened to the Mavis Staples CD We'll Never Turn Back.  What a great CD.  As I've driven, I've thought of how often I've turned to spirituals for the same kind of solace that the L'Engle book offers.

Many of us first came to know of this music because of the Civil Rights Movement, and perhaps some of the consolations of the music come from knowledge of the successes of the Movement.  Like the characters in A Wrinkle in Time, Civil Rights workers faced enormous odds in their battle against the darkness.  Like the characters in A Wrinkle in Time, workers defeated monolithic, oppressive thinking not with force, not with violence, but with love.

I love the lyrics in spirituals that urge us to be strong, to not be swayed, to rest in the knowledge that good will triumph.  It's the same theme of A Wrinkle in Time, and it's probably the reason that I return to both periodically.

Of course, spirituals have a history that goes back further than the Civil Rights Movement. Tradition tells us that slaves sung many of those songs, or older variations, as they worked in the fields. 

Music historians would remind us that spirituals are but a subset of music that resists oppression.  I've also found comfort in the work of Woody Guthrie and in various punk and rock groups.  Perhaps I'll write more about that tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out We'll Never Turn Back.  You'll never hear "This Little Light of Mine" in the same way again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reading "A Wrinkle in Time" Again as an Adult

Last week, as I packed to leave for the week-end, I tucked Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time into my backpack.  I debated, because my book club might choose it for our next book.  But it's a slim book, and I've really been feeling pulled to it.  So, it travelled with us.

As with every time I've read the book, it pulled me right in, and never disappointed me.

How do I love this book?  Let me count the ways:

--There's the protagonist, Meg Murry.  What a spunky, feisty young woman.  Her behavior is far from perfect, but she remains sympathetic.  She's brave, even when she's afraid.  She makes me believe that I, too, can be brave.  She's not good looking in traditional ways, but she gets the guy anyway. 

--But the romantic love theme is definitely a small part of the book.  That was a plus for me when I read it as a kid.  As an adult, I wanted more.  But of course, there are the sequels, where Meg and Calvin get married and have children.  As an adult reader, I noticed the love between the parents more than I did when I first read the book.  I loved the message that you can have an unruly family and still be madly in love with each other.  Your spouse can be held captived on a hostile planet, but love can conquer all.

--That theme of love conquering all--what a great theme.  I love that the odds are long, and seemingly impossible.  It's not an easy battle they must fight. 

--The book is not afraid to talk about good and evil and the struggle for control.  It's a great theme, a theological theme, and there are so many ways it could go terribly wrong.  But L'Engle crafts her book with care and avoids the pitfalls.  As a result, we get an amazing book.

--I love that each parent is shown as not knowing exactly what to do.  In fact, you could argue that the parents are colossal failures in significant ways.  And we get to see Meg struggle with that fact.  And the family survives the disappointment of not knowing what to do.

--What a great family of outsiders.  I love that some of the family fits in, but most are odd in significant ways.  That detail seems right to me.  I love that they love each other anyway.

--It's a great touch that the mom understands how hard it is to be an outsider as a girl.  Her advice to her daughter Meg particularly touched me with this reading.  I loved the idea that sometimes you have to wait as you grow into the person you need to be.  That message resonated with me, and seems pertinent to us all, not just adolescents.

--My love of science may have started with this book.  How cool to have a lab off of your kitchen.  How wonderful that L'Engle was not afraid to have readers wrestle with essential Physics questions.

--This book was one of the first to teach me to love science fiction.  Interplanetary travel!  Tessering!  How I yearned to have these kind of adventures.  Books gave me these adventures, even when I couldn't pull off tessering on my own.

--Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which:  who are those three strange woman?  Are they really expired stars?  Conquered planets?  Guardian angels?  God in 3 incarnations?  I love that the book doesn't give a definitive answer.

--I love, love, love that Meg's flaws turn out to be her strengths.

--Meg is perfect, just the way she is.  In fact, all of these characters turn out to be perfect, despite their imperfections.  It's such a great message for a world that tries to get us to conform, to change, to squeeze ourselves into costumes that do not fit.  Meg doesn't have to slim down, to use the right make-up, to get a better hairstyle, to get the guy.  Meg doesn't have to settle down so that she can do well in school and get into a good college.  Her parents continue in their scientific pursuits, even though they aren't successful in traditional ways.  Charles Wallace is allowed to grow up at his own pace.  Calvin finds a family that fits him better, but he doesn't have to reject his birth family.

--But it's Meg I come back to again and again.  I just love that character.  I love all the characters, but Meg is one of my all-time favorites.

--What would Meg Murry do?  Maybe that will be my new motto.

--And the ending of the book shows us what to do, how to redeem any situation.  It's simple, really, but so hard to break us out of our prisons. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Consolations of Good Books and the Natural World

We are back from one of our great southeast driving trips.  We went to westernmost Georgia, to a newer Lutheran church camp, Lutheranch.  It was great to get away to such a different part of the country.  We walked in the country, petted horses, listened to geese:  all sorts of things we don't do in South Florida.  The moon rising over the lake was so bright that it woke us up at night.

On Sunday morning, I stood on a small dock to take pictures of the sunrise.  I heard no noise generated by humans or machines.  How rare is that?

For me, it's very rare.  Even right now, when it's very early in the morning, I still hear all sorts of humming from household appliances.  And I fill the silence with NPR shows that I've missed when I've been away.

In the sky, I could see planes flying away from the Atlanta airport.  We were only 60 minutes away from the airport, so I wasn't surprised.  We were far enough away that we didn't hear the noise.  Interesting to be so close to Atlanta, but still no human noise.

I got a lot of reading done, since I have no smartphone and there was Internet connection.  Even if there had been, I'd have tried to stay unplugged.  I get so little time to read.

I read Jodi Picoult's Lone Wolf, which I enjoyed thoroughly, in all the familiar ways I enjoy Picoult's work.  I devoured Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank--also a great read.  But the best book of the week-end?  Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which was so wonderful I'll likely write a separate blog post about it.  I needed hope and uplift, which I wasn't getting from the Englander book.  So I switched to L'Engle, and spent a day enchanted, just as I have been every time I read that book, just as I have been every time I pick up anything written by L'Engle.

Last week was an extremely tough work week:  more lay-offs announced and this time we're losing some department members.  The comforts of good books and nature do not reverse those losses, but it was good to remember their consolations.

I like that L'Engle takes an unblinking look at the world.  Her characters have much to oppress them, from high school to a disembodied brain that keeps everyone under fascist control.  But to read L'Engle is to come away with hope that hard battles can be won, and so few authors can pull off that delicate balance.

Soon I will lace up my running shoes and head out to enjoy a different aspect of nature:  the ocean, a different consolation.  And then I will head back to work and try to stitch together the fragments.  I will keep the lessons of L'Engle front and center in my mind.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Promotion of Self and Others

I've been having conversations with my writer friends and other artists about self-promotion.  I feel like I'm not great at self-promotion, but I suppose I could be worse.  For example, I don't feel queasy about sending out a mailing that announces a forthcoming book, but if you do, the best piece of advice that I've seen is to think of it as sharing good news, not asking people to buy your book.  And others might say that if you can't ask your friends and family to buy your books, then how can you expect perfect strangers to buy your books?

In her book Making a Literary Life:  Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See advises authors to be compiling a list of addresses, and she says you should include everyone:  "These are the people who should know about your book.  They include--again--your old professors and schoolmates, your carpet cleaner, the guy who fixed your roof.  Before you say, 'Oh, I couldn't ask them,' think for a minute.  If these people aren't going to buy your book, then who on earth is going to buy it?" (page 221).

The other day a writer friend and I were talking about money, how it comes in and how it doesn't.  She has no problem selling her books but sometimes has trouble collecting the money--not because she doesn't ask/remind, but because institutions can be very good at ignoring bill collectors.

I've heard this piece of advice, and it strikes me as a good one for those of us who have trouble asking for money for our work:  create some sort of fundraiser.  I've heard of writers who do a reading with book sale proceeds going to support writers in MFA programs--for example, I've heard of a group of recent graduates who created a travel fund for students with a reading that they did.  How cool is that?

And of course, we can support our writer friends.  Many of us have no trouble supporting other people.  If we have a wide enough network, maybe we don't have to worry about promoting ourselves, as long as we're promoting each other.

Here's a great post about ways we can help our writer friends.  And of course, many of these suggestions we can adapt to promote our own work, if we're so inclined.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Relaxing in My Mythical Mountain Cottage

I do not have a mountain cottage, but if I did, I'd look for ways that my mountain cottage could help my guests and me relax.

Rocking on the porch is a time-honored way to unwind.

A hammock is often lovely.

To truly enjoy a hammock, do you need a book?

Maybe we'll need a more vigorous way to unwind.  A hike in the woods, the trail marked with blue blazes!

Don't forget to slow down enough to enjoy the flowers.

A nap in a cheery bedroom could be just the thing!

A fire in the fireplace works in any season if we're in the mountains!

A bath, complete with rubber ducky?

A desk with a mountain view, a bed that beckons at naptime--which would you choose?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Repairing the World with Needles and Pins/Pens

I've been published several times in The South Carolina Review, and I'm always happy to see my poem in its pages.  It's a well-done literary magazine.

The latest poem of mine to appear in The South Carolina Review is "Safety Pin Sisterhood."  It's based on a true story:  a young, female student appeared in my office with a broken shoe.  She said she would need to go home to get a new pair of shoes and could I please tell her Math teacher.  I thought that missing a class to go get replacement shoes was a mistake, and so I looked for a way to salvage her shoe so that she could get to class.

The experience showed me that I could stock some materials for future events:  safety pins and duct tape, neither of which I had.  Happily, my friend who was working nearby had a safety pin in her purse.

I saw the student later in the day, and our safety pin solution had held together.  Hurrah!

I wrote this blog post about it, and eventually, I created this poem:

Safety Pin Sisterhood

I pin a student’s sandal
back together again and think
of graduate school.

I could tell this student
about the meaning of a broken strap
in fairy tales. In a novel,
this broken sandal would have semiotic
meanings that we could deconstruct.

But in real life, this student simply
needs her shoe fixed so she can slip
down the hallways to get to class.
I am a woman of safety pins and staples,
a spare pen, and the schedule that shows
where everyone should be.

What would Wordsworth say?
I already know: the world
is too much with us.
Keats would not see the beauty
in a broken sandal made of cheap
materials from China.

But Christina Rossetti would offer
a secret smile, as would Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
They, too, were women
with a safety pin or a spare set of socks,
women who ignored the theories
about poetics that swirled
around them while quietly
repairing the world with needles
and bandages and great poems
scribbled in the margins.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Celebrate International Women's Day with Madeleine L'Engle

Yesterday, I wrote this post about the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time.  This morning, on my theology blog, I wrote this post about spirituality in children's literature, although to be honest, I don't think most children perceive the spiritual elements in the ways that adults do, especially in their reading lives.

Last night, when I got in from an extremely tough work day, I pulled other L'Engle works off the shelf.  A Wrinkle in Time has had so much press, that I wouldn't be surprised if most people didn't know that L'Engle wrote anything else.  But in fact, she wrote many other books that continued the journey of Meg Murry and the other characters that we first meet in A Wrinkle in Time, and she wrote several other series about other families.  She wrote poetry and books for grown ups.  She turned her journals into books of nonfiction. 

In short, she was amazing.  I especially value her nonfiction for reminding me that even amazing authors suffer setbacks and doubt and jealousy when others get the accolades and sometimes whole decades when nothing is accepted for publication.

If your reading time is short, explore A Circle of Quiet, the first of the Crosswicks Journal series.  It talks about her writing life and her life in an old New England farmhouse.  It talks a lot about family life.  It talks some about the New York theatre scene.  It dips in and out of spiritual issues.  It's an overview of other terrains she would explore in more depth.

I loved the last book in the Crosswicks Journal series, Two-Part Invention, an exploration of marriage and then end of marriage, as her husband dies from cancer.  Likewise, The Summer of the Great-grandmother explores our elders, what we owe them and the gifts they give us and issues surrounding their care.

I must confess that Walking on Water:  Reflections on Faith and Art is one of my all-time favorites.  Almost every page is underlined.  It's a book full of insights that made me gasp.

Last night, I reread chunks of A Circle of Quiet.  I loved its message that family love will carry us through the tough times, that art is worth it, that it will all be OK.  I love it because it holds up well, even though it was published in 1972.  It's the kind of book that a reader can dip in and out of.  Ah . . .

Here are some L'Engle quotes to whet your appetite.  What better way to celebrate International Women's Day than by rereading L'Engle.  Her fictional heroines are spunky, but the people she depicts from real life, most importantly, her self portrait, show that spunkiness is not limited to fictional realms.

“God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too.”  (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, page 19)

"We tend, today, to want to have a road map of exactly where we are going.  We want to know whether or not we have succeeded in everything we do. It's all right to want to know--we wouldn't be human if we didn't--but we also have to understand at a lot of the time we aren't going to know." (A Circle of Quiet, page 187)

"I am grateful that I started writing at a very early age, before I realized what a daring thing it is to do, to set down words on paper, to attempt to tell a story, create characters.  We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are, to see through plastic sham to living, breathing reality, and to break down our defenses of self-protection in order to be free to receive and give love" (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, page 67).

"I do not have to make the repulsive theological error of feeling that I have to see cancer as God's will for my husband.  I do not want anything to do with that kind of God.  Cancer is not God's will.  The death of a child is not God's will.  . . . I would rather have no God at all than that kind of punitive God.  Tragedies are consequences of human actions, and the only God worth believing in does not cause the tragedies but lovingly comes into the anguish with us."  (Two-Part Invention, page 172)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tesser Well: In Praise of "A Wrinkle in Time"

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was published 50 years ago this month.  Many of us already know the difficulty that she had in getting the book published; my memory is that she sent it out for 10 years before it was accepted, and even then, the publisher had deep misgivings.

It's one of those classic publishing tales that gives us all hope.  The author believed deeply in the book, which was published against all odds; the book went on to win prizes and has never been out of print since.  Tomorrow I'll write more about L'Engle.  Today, I want to think about the book that started my L'Engle obsession.

I remember that my 5th grade classroom had a small bookcase.  We were welcome to read any of the books there.  I was a voracious reader who was always on the prowl for something to read.  One day, I pulled A Wrinkle in Time off the shelf.  I'd thought about reading it before, but something put me off.  However, on that spring day, I had no other choices that looked better.   And so, I decided to give the book a try.

Right away, I was hooked by the main character Meg, who was stubborn and bossy and plain, but bewitching to a boy named Calvin.  I loved Meg's family.  I wanted to know what happened to their father.  And wow, what a story that was.

Did I understand the physics?  Can I tell you what it means to tesseract?  I didn't then, but I read lots of stuff I didn't understand--it never stopped me.  No, in fact, it stretched me.  We worry to much about what kids can and can't understand, although I am in favor of some censoring if the violence in a work is too graphic.  But rejecting a book because of the physics?  Never.

Some have rejected the book because of the spiritual elements.  Those elements didn't hit me as a child.  I imagine that when I reread the book in the next few months, I'll wonder why I didn't see them.  But as a child, the religious symbolism of many books didn't hit me.  For example, I read all of the Chronicles of Narnia and rarely glimpsed the allegory.  I just loved the story.  I wanted an enchanted wardrobe with a world behind it.

Luckily, I had that wardrobe--grown ups would call them books, but I saw them as a magical way to transport me to other places.  L'Engle did that transporting better than most children's authors.

Of course, it helped that she didn't see herself as a children's author.  She wrote for everyone, and that's one reason why we got books that didn't talk down to children.  She knew that children could handle big topics like love vs. totalitarian thinking; she didn't flinch.

I am grateful, profoundly grateful, to authors like L'Engle, authors who have split my world open again and again.  I am grateful to authors who take me to other places and to those books, such a cheap way of exploring other worlds.  I would love to be one of those writers who creates a book like A Wrinkle in Time--and now that I have a nephew who's getting to the elementary school reading age, maybe I will.

For a great retrospective of the book, head to this NPR site where you'll find a link to the All Things Considered piece on A Wrinkle in Time.

Tomorrow:  more about L'Engle and her inspirations as a writer and creative person.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From Detritus, Sturdy Shoots Can Grow

Yesterday I got to do one of the favorite aspects of my job:  I got to go on a field trip with a class.  Yesterday, I went with a Biology class to the Ann Kolb Nature Center in Broward County.

The Ann Kolb Nature Center is an amazing place, a preserve of mangrove trees and natural habitat.

I love the casual feel of a field trip, and I'm always humbled at how welcome I feel, both by the students and by the faculty member.  After all, it's not all pleasure for me. I'm there to observe the field trip, much the way I'd conduct a classroom observation.

How wonderful it is to get away from my office world of computer screens.  How great to learn new things.  For example, mangrove trees are one of the few specimens that can tolerate having wet roots in brackish water.  They thrive on this condition that would kill most trees.

And they're one of the few trees that can move.  Well, not exactly like you and I move.  But by sending out new roots, they'll appear to have moved inches or feet away from where they started out.

I learned about detritus, that delightful muck created mainly by decomposing leaves.  This detritus makes a great incubator of new trees.

We learned about how the trees grow a bulbous thing that helps them heal from things that bite them.  As one student said, "Scabs!"

We didn't see much wildlife.  Often, the protected nature of the park means that birds find shelter, but not yesterday.  We saw a bird of prey overhead and a lone seagull and some birds that may have been herons.

I never took these kind of field trips when I was in college Biology classes.  We did dissecting, but we never got out of the building to have the naturalist's experience of observing the natural world.  What a shame!

One of the reasons why our Science students get to go on these field trips is because we're not really set up in terms of our lab to do dissection.  So, out of necessity, Science faculty created these great excursions.  Our Marine Science and Oceanography students routinely go snorkeling to see the coral reefs before they disappear.  Science faculty go to local parks, like the Ann Kolb Nature Center, and they go to explore the Everglades.

Higher Ed folks spend a lot of time trying to decide whether or not we're offering the same kind of rigorous education that colleges and universities used to give students.  As I go on field trips, I can say that on some level, students are getting a better Science education than I got.  And in many cases, they get to see habitats that aren't found throughout most of the rest of the U.S.; we have unique coral reefs, and since mangroves can't tolerate cold, very few other students will have a chance to learn about them by touching them and tasting them.

Yes, tasting the leaves--some mangroves deal with excess salt by extracting them through their leaves.  Students weren't forced to lick the leaves, of course.  They could simply observe the salt deposits.

I'm certain that I never interacted with the natural world in that way when I was a student.  It was great to remember that some of the administrator work that I do behind the scenes enables these kind of student interactions with the natural world.