Monday, April 30, 2012

Last Chances, Journals, and the Comfort (?) of Nature

First of all, a gentle reminder:  if you haven't already entered, today is the last day to enter the 2012 Big Poetry Give-Away.  To enter, leave a comment at this post.  I'm giving away a copy of each of my chapbooks and a yet-to-be-determined Adrienne Rich book.

Today is a landmark day for those of us who have journalled/blogged obsessively and perhaps wondered if what we're writing might be publishable in a different form.  On this day in 1952, the journal of Anne Frank was first published in English.

The Writer's Almanac post for today gives us this quote from the journal:   "'As long as this exists,' I thought, 'and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy.' The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles."

We find it in the place of the poem that the website usually gives us.  Does it work as a prose poem?  Certainly Anne Frank didn't see herself as writing poetry when she wrote this chunk of text.   Should an editor make this decision?  For those of you teaching literature classes, these questions can lead to some fascinating conversations.  For a more modern example of a chunk of text that has functioned as journal piece, short fiction, and prose poem, you could include Carolyn Forche's "The Colonel."

It's the birthday of Annie Dillard, a different Anne, a different journaller who also encouraged us to find our true selves and purposes in nature.  I remember reading A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek after years of hearing people talk about how much they loved the book.  Reading that book reminded me of reading Thoreau's Walden:  I had such high hopes, and each book was not what I expected.  In short, I was bored. 

I read those books when I was much younger, an adolescent.  It would be interesting to revisit them as a reader at midlife.

As I'm looking at past blog posts with an eye to reshaping them into a memoir, I'm inspired by the idea that journals can indeed be shaped into great literature.

I'm also intrigued by thinking about these writers (Frank, Thoreau, and Dillard) and their love of nature.  I wonder how this idea of nature as solace and comfort will be changing as nature turns into a rapacious avenger.  I haven't seen this change in memoir/journal/observation books yet, but I don't claim to have searched aggressively--actually, not at all.

But if I needed to write a dissertation, that topic would intrigue me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Political Roots, Vegetable Roots, Southern Roots

Today is the birthday of so many writers who have been important to me.  Carolyn Forche was born today, and a few years ago, I wrote a longer post about how groundbreaking she was, how vital her work has been to me.  Her work has been strongly rooted in the political, and I'll always be grateful to her for showing how many ways it can be done.

Today is also the birthday of Alice Waters, most famous for founding Chez Panisse, a restaurant dedicated to local and fresh food.  I will be forever grateful that she brought us ideas of slowing down and enjoying our food.  I love that she's shown us how delicious a plate of perfectly prepared vegetables can be.

We shouldn't overlook the fact that she's an activist too.  She's created the idea of an Edible Schoolyard, bringing gardening to many schools.  I'd argue that knowing how to grow food and working in a garden will serve many students better than P.E. courses where students play dodgeball.  She's advocated organic food.

I've been a variety of vegetarian for a very long time; I first started experimenting with vegetarian food when I was 16.  Chefs like Alice Waters paved the way for my own experiments.  I can no longer claim to be a vegetarian, alas.  On Thursday night, I ate a delicious pork chop for dinner.  But many days, I eat no meat, and I can go for many days eating nothing but fruit, vegetables, and beans.  Yum.

Today is also the birthday of Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and helped Truman Capote research the events that would be told in the book In Cold Blood, and then retired into a rarely broken silence.

Of course, once you've written a book as perfect as To Kill a Mockingbird, why write anything else?  And the transition of the book to film is about as perfect as can be too.  Even now, over 50 years after this book was published, this work feels relevant in all kinds of ways, no small accomplishment.

I will always love the spunkiness of Scout, the wisdom of Atticus, the kindness of Calpurnia.  How wonderful to have a big brother like Jem.  I love that Lee could address issues of social justice without descending into stereotype or preachiness.  I love that the flawed characters are not beyond redemption.  I admire Lee's decision to give us a realistic ending to the trial.

It's a powerful lesson:  sometimes you have truth on your side, but you won't be successful.  Sometimes you can't transcend your time period.

And the book reminds us that even with that knowledge, we must try.  We are not excused.  I would argue that all of these female authors--Forche, Waters, and Lee, along with so many others--call us to speak out for a better world, even if the odds of success are slim to none.  With some issues, like Waters with food, we may make successful strides.  With some, like racism, we will find ourselves moving forward and sliding backward.  With some, like the situation in El Salvador, it's too early to tell.

But witness is important.  Effort is vital.  We are like those medieval Cathedral builders, working on projects we may not live to see completed.  But we must play our part.

Friday, April 27, 2012

To Dream Big or To Dream Small?

Today is the birthday of two writers who have been very inspirational to me.  It's the birthday of Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the beloved Madeleine books.  I loved the character of Madeleine, who was a feisty little girl--yes, I'm seeing a theme here, Jane Eyre, Meg from A Wrinkle in Time, spirited females of all sorts.

But the books make clear that Madeleine is good at heart, even though her behavior may not always be.  There's one book where the girls meet a truly terrible child, a "bad hat."  I'm going to spend my day saying, "Well, you know, he's a bad hat" instead of "He's such a jerk."  Not that I would go around saying that about people.

I also remember the book where Madeleine had to get her appendix out.  I wonder if my fear of hospitals goes back to this book, even she lives through the experience with her typical bravery.

And what delightful drawings.  If I ever lived in France, I would expect it to look like that.

Some part of my writer's self would love to write books like the Madeleine books or the Amelia Bedelia books.  My nephew just discovered Amelia Bedelia, and he thinks they're hilarious.  Not every part ages well, since the language has changed, and we're all in Amelia Bedelia's predicament now.  Who says, "Draw the drapes"?  We'd all break out our sketchbooks, just like Amelia Bedelia does, when her employer gives her the to-do list with that task on it.

Those were the books that made me love to read.  What a wonderful accomplishment, to write books that spark a love of reading in children.

It's also the birthday of August Wilson, who represents a different dream for my writer's self.  He wrote a play for every decade of the 20th century, a play that represents the life of African-Americans during the twentieth century, one play for each decade. And each play is solid work.

He is one of those rarities, a person who was expelled from public school (when he was 15), but taught himself everything he needed to know from the library. 

What a sweeping idea, to write a cycle plays that capture the 20th century as seen by black people.  And he managed to avoid the pitfall of creating cardboard characters who exist solely to talk about the important issues of the age.  His characters are dealing with the daily dross we all must deal with.  His characters don't exist solely to explore racism.  His plays are much more nuanced than that.

If you took on a huge project, what would it be?  Would you break it into smaller parts or would it be a single sweeping work?  What are the big ideas that haunt you?  What are the small, daily objects and experiences that delight you?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Poetry Prompts for Poem in Your Pocket Day

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day.  Will I carry a poem in my pocket today?  Most of my clothes have no pockets.  I have tried to get in the habit of taking a volume of poetry with me to meetings.  Many of our meetings start late, and I have a few minutes to dip in and out of a book, to read a poem or two.

I started my Poem in Your Pocket Day by finishing a poem I started in early March.  My friend has suffered quite a trauma, a house fire.  I'm hopeful that she'll survive and create art out of it.  She will be happy simply to have her life return to normal.

A few months ago, she wrote this blog post, which I thought was quite poetic and made me hope that she gets a memoir out of this experience, in later years, when she can bear to return to it.

I saw her blog post and on Feb. 29, I wrote to some local writer friends:

"So, feel like writing a poem? Want a prompt? I've been thinking about ashes of all sorts, which led me to this prompt:

write a poem that uses imagery from _____'s burned house--or any house of your choosing, burned or whole--and your religious tradition, however you want to define that. Bonus points for including mythology or fairy tales.

Sure, you'll say that I have it easy, having celebrated Ash Wednesday last week.

Happy Poetry Play!"

Yes, I'm only just now finishing the poem.  Such is the Spring I have had.

Perhaps you don't like that prompt?  Here's another.  A friend burned a CD for us, with a Doc Watson album on it.  My favorite song from that CD had this line:

"What does the deep sea say?
It moans and it groans
and it thrashes and it foams
and it rolls on its weary way"

The ocean as weary--I usually think of the ocean as being nourishing or mighty or any number of other adjectives but never weary!

So, today I'll write a new poem, prompted by that lyric and that question, "What does the deep sea say?"

Other ways to celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day:

Put a poem in the lunches that you pack for loved ones.

Leave poems in random places, like a bench or a grocery store shelf.

Tuck a poem into a ream of paper in the copy room.

Leave a poem on the desk of a coworker.

Write poems as after school or evening activity.

Read a poem at a meal.  Contemplate--or discuss with others, if you're lucky enough to have dining companions.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

From Health Intake to Meetings: Pokes and Prods of All Kinds

Yesterday my day at work started with a visit to the phlebotomist.  I plan to do the tasks I need to do to get a wellness discount on my insurance.  Before the needle stick, I fasted for 12 hours.

It's amazing how much I get done in the morning when I'm not fixing my breakfast, eating my breakfast, making a pot of coffee, fixing my fussy coffee drink (which includes milk, sugar, and cocoa: coffee purists would tell me that I'm not drinking coffee), warming up my coffee drink, and cleaning up my breakfast things.

Of course, I didn't get any writing done because I went for a jog at the beach to keep myself from thinking how much I really wanted to be drinking fussy coffee drinks and eating breakfast.

My day at work ended with one of those meetings that leaves me drained.  The first 50 minutes repeated information that we'd already gotten several meetings ago, and frankly, the transmission of that information wasn't very interesting the first time we heard it.  Not for the first time did I think of Beckett and absurdist theatre.

At one point, I glanced out of the window and saw a beautiful butterfly.  What was a butterfly doing 2 stories up?  Feeding on flowers, of course.

I tried to see that butterfly as a sign or a symbol of hope.

Today is the birthday of Ted Kooser, who is also a symbol of hope to me.  Today's entry at The Writer's Almanac website tells us:  "Every morning, he got up at 4:30, made a pot of coffee, and wrote until 7. Then he put on his suit and tie and went to work. By the time he retired in 1999, Kooser had published seven books of poetry, including Not Coming to Be Barked At (1976), One World at a Time (1985), and Weather Central (1994). He resigned himself to being a relatively unknown poet, but he continued to write every morning. Then, in 2004, he got a phone call informing him that he had been chosen as poet laureate of the United States."

I love the narrative arc of this story:  one can work at a normal job (Kooser worked in an insurance firm) and go on to be poet laureate of the U.S.  I hang on tightly to those narratives when I must go to meetings that go from boring to combative to everyone being frustrated by our restrictions--all in the course of 2 hours.

And if I have trouble hanging on to that hope, I love that the universe sends me a butterfly to remind me of the possibilities of hope and resurrection!

Monday, April 23, 2012

When Your Spin Bike Comes Untethered

Lately, I find myself fascinated by news stories of people and their boats.  Last week, our local NPR station followed the progress of a man and his canoe as he circumnavigated Miami's canals.  Along the way, he saw a very different view of Miami and met some interesting people.

I wasn't the only one fascinated with his journey.  Along the way people offered him food and water, and I even heard one segment where a man offered the traveller his back yard hammock for the night.

Yesterday I read this story about a man who circumnavigated the Americas alone on his 27 foot sailboat.  These kind of feats have always captured me.  Most days, I have no desire to take a solitary journey, but I do admire that single-minded focus.

I've spent much of the last 4 months on the road, or preparing for the next journey, or recovering from the last trip.  Why am I so drawn to tales of voyage?

I do love getting away from normal life, seeing new vistas, revisiting beloved destinations.  It's easier for me to stay in the present moment when I'm not submersed in my daily life of work and home.  It's easier for me to focus on my reading and on my travelling partners when I'm away.  I don't fritter away as much time online when my online time is limited.

Or maybe there's a different explanation.  The other night, on my way home, I saw two boys, about age 10, riding their bikes.  The sun was setting behind them and bathed us all in an otherworldly, golden light.  The boys had longer hair than modern boys have, and that hair wasn't constrained by a helmet.

Go ahead and gasp at the lack of safety.  But I tell you, those boys looked so joyous.  They zoomed down one of my city's major roads with such gleeful smiles on their faces.  I smiled at them as they crossed the street, and one of them looked back at me with a grin so fierce that I wanted to go home and get on my own bike.  I wanted to tear down city streets on a bike I could hardly control with my hair flowing out behind me.

Instead, I'll return to the gym, to my safe, tethered spin bike.  I'll spend my day at work, spinning a tapestry of e-mails that few will read and that likely won't be important in months to come.  I'll solve problems and trouble-shoot, and in doing so, likely create new situations that require circumnavigation.

Ah, modern life.  I'm cleaner than I would be on a sailboat, and perhaps safer.  But infinitely more constrained.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Slivers: Various Games, Viragos, and Other Observations of Modern Life

--I am likely the last person in the U.S. to read The Hunger Games.  When we convened at my parents' house, my dad had checked the whole series out of the library.  My sister and I tried to read The Hunger Games while we were there, but we didn't get far.  My sister got far enough to know she needed to finish it, and when we went to Target to restock, she bought a copy.  Then she mailed it to me, because I, too, knew I wanted to finish.

--I'm fairly sure that Katniss will survive, since there's a trilogy.  Of course, I've been tricked by clever writers a time or two before.

--I had a restless night, and at one point, I woke up to read the book.  Finally, I decided to stop in the middle of one chapter because I noticed that each chapter ends with a revelation that made me want to keep reading.  It's a time-honored technique that continues to work.

--I went back to sleep and dreamed strange dreams.  I was competing in some kind of race across a huge campus for a chance to attend UVa.  I don't think the stakes were as high as in The Hunger Games, but I felt under constant threat.

--My friend and I had a conversation about those games in the book as metaphor.  We may not literally kill our children in our society, but we do pit them against each other in ways that are soul killing.  Don't believe me?  Hang out with high schoolers who are thinking about college and report back to me.

--If you look at the statistics of who is in prison, you might tell us that we do, indeed, have games that pit youth against youth in a fight to the death.  We just don't televise it.

--Being in a gym on certain nights puts me in mind of various games.  The other night I noticed a guy who did a few reps on a machine, admired himself in a mirror while looking to see who else might have been admiring him, and then proceeded to click around on his Smartphone for 7-10 minutes.

--I wanted to say, "Dude, you're surrounded by people who are beating back midlife or who are cardiac patients.  You're in the wrong gym if you're looking for admiration."  I wanted to point out that he might develop more muscles if he spent more time lifting, less time on the phone.  But I'm no ripply-muscled person myself; maybe I should try his technique.  I shall pause now to allow you to collapse in laughter.

--Yesterday, on my way to spin class, a Camaro (new model) that was the deep-purple color of a bruise zoomed up behind me and whipped around me.  I noticed that the license plate had one word on it:  Virago.  So, we have a muscle car branded with that word that makes me think of all the words that strong women have reclaimed for themselves.

--Who did I expect to see as a driver?  When I pulled up beside the car, it certainly wasn't the driver that I saw:  a white-haired man of color.  Did he borrow the car from a tough daughter?  Was he playing with our expectations of gender and age?  Did he mean to request a different word?  Virile, perhaps?

--If I was writing lots of fiction, that set of details about the Camaro and upended expectations of the driver would find their way into my work.

--I am not writing much fiction.  Feel free to use this detail in your own work.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Dark and Stormy Night Prompts Thoughts of Literary Storms

Last night was a stormy, stormy night down here at the edge of the U.S.  Those of you on the Eastern seaboard should prepare to batten down your hatches.  This system is headed your way!

We got hail in parts of the county and long periods of lightning.  The sky was an angry purple, like a bruise.  I'd like to say it put me in mind of Jane Eyre, because today is Charlotte Bronte's birthday, but I'd be lying for the sake of a smooth transition.

Still, I do wonder about how often storms are used in literature.  Need a dramatic transition?  Throw in a storm.  Need something to prompt an epiphany?  A storm might be just what your story needs.

I seem to recall storms in Jane Eyre, but that may be filmmakers' decisions, not Bronte's. Oh, Jane, how I have loved you through the years!

I bought my first copy of that book through the Scholastic Book Club. Did anyone else have that experience in elementary school? You got a little newspaper with the titles and descriptions of books, and you could place an order every other week.

I first tried to read Jane Eyre when I was 12, and I remember not being able to wade through the first chapter. But just a few years later, I couldn't put it down. And I've been hooked ever since.

In graduate school, I reread Jane Eyre for a Victorian Novel class, and I remember thinking, all this childhood abuse. And look, the abusers act just like we know they act, and Jane Eyre protects the most odious abuser, even when she has a kind adult to tell. How did Charlotte Bronte know all of this? After all, she didn't have a decade of sociological research to draw on.

From that pondering would emerge my dissertation: “My Relations Act with Me as My Enemies”: Domestic Violence as Metaphor, 1794-1850. I looked primarily at 6 works, all full-blown Gothic or Gothic tinged. In each, I traced the realistic portrayal of domestic violence, even in works which had always been studied as full of the fantastic and unbelievable.

I always liked Jane Eyre better than Wuthering Heights, and I've always suspected the world could be divided into those 2 camps. Or better yet: are you a Bronte sister fan or a Jane Austen fan? Or maybe we should get down to the real nitty gritty: Dickens or Bronte sister (sister of your choice)?

I've always loved that vision of the Bronte children who grew up creating new worlds out of their imaginations. I've always felt sad that their adult lives ended so quickly, in sickness and death. Of course, to be fair, so did a good many adult lives in the nineteenth century. Nothing makes me appreciate my twenty-first century perch more than studying disease and sanitation (or lack thereof) and their effects on civilizations.

So, happy birthday Charlotte Bronte. Thanks for blazing that path for female writers everywhere. Thanks for giving us a plucky heroine like Jane Eyre, who knows what she wants and needs and isn't willing to sacrifice her deepest self in order to get it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Five of My Poems at "Referential": Now It's Your Turn

I am the featured poet at Referential Magazine, with 5 poems published there.  Go here to get to the links for each.

But wait, there's more.  Referential Magazine is a very cool concept, the kind of magazine that likely could not exist without an Internet.  Once a creative work is up at the site, others are invited to respond creatively.  It's more than just a comment section, although the magazine has that too.  Often, other whole works are published that have been created in response to an original work that appears in the magazine.

Here's how the magazine explains:

"At Referential Magazine we will be nesting a site that builds from one piece of writing (be it prose or poetry). From that piece we want other artists to submit “referential“ material. This material could be visual, auditory, written etc. We expect this project to evolve the longer it exists. We look forward to hearing from you."

I know that many of you are still working hard on your National Poetry Month goals, and having done the poem a day challenge myself, I know there comes a point when you need more prods and prompts.  So, I invite you to view Referential Magazine as inspiration.  Read my poems and write something in response.  Once you've got something you like, submit it to the magazine.  For more details, head over to this page on the magazine.

I love the concept of this magazine, and it would have been much harder, if not impossible, to do without an Internet.  Immediate links make this kind of creative conversation possible.

So, read my poems, and respond creatively.  I look forward to seeing what develops!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Creativity Retreat: Workshop Report

Hard to believe it was just a week ago that we were headed to the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge, in Arden, North Carolina.  On the way, we stopped for a late lunch in Saluda, North Carolina.  What a beautiful little mountain town!  I didn't think to take pictures though.

We had been through the area before back in February.  We ate at the fabulous restaurant, The Purple Onion, that we had so enjoyed before.  It was very busy--no tables, when we got there at 1:15, so we wandered down the Main Street and stopped in a gallery.

Yes, one of several galleries in this tiny, mountain town.  I asked the woman how long she had been there, and she said 24 years.  After lunch we wandered some more, and saw a real, old-fashioned general store, where you can buy overalls with your hard candy and cast iron pans, skillets, and molds of all sorts.  The store also has all sorts of historical/old objects as decoration--very charming.

You see these kind of Main Streets in small towns all across the North Carolina mountains:  stores that look like they'd be right at home in Asheville combined with real estate offices, along with cool restaurants, and the occasional store left over from the time of our grandparents and great grandparents.

At the retreat I led two workshops.  During the Saturday workshop, I led participants through the process of making a cross out of found objects (for more on this idea, see this post on my theology blog).  During my Friday workshop, we discussed blogging as both an art form and tool. 

As I thought about preparing for the workshop, I quickly realized that I had no idea what the participants might want to get out of it.  I planned for several directions that the workshop could go.  I decided not to use a computer.  Blogging software is fairly intuitive and easy to use--and I think there's nothing more boring than watching people operating a computer.  I thought a discussion would be more fruitful.

The participants ranged from a few experienced bloggers, to a woman who had to blog as part of a grad school course but wasn't sure how it would apply to regular life, to several people who had interest in starting a blog but hadn't yet, to one or two who really had no idea what blogging entailed.

We talked about all the ways a blog could function:  a private journal open by invitation only, a public journal, a place to create rough drafts (writing and other types of projects), a place to record artistic process, as part of an artist's platform, a community forum, a place to record family memories/pictures/artifacts, and as art form in and of itself. We had a great discussion, and most participants wrote down some ideas.

I'm calling it a success; one participant has already started her blog--hurrah.  Head here to welcome her to the blogosphere.

This retreat consistently has been the most generative of all the retreats and conferences that I do.  I come away with teaching ideas and ideas for my church and ideas for my school community and ideas for my own creative pursuits.  It's wonderful to be surrounded by that kind of creative energy that leaves me so inspired and refreshed.

Yesterday I began the process of sorting blog posts into a manuscript which will eventually become a memoir of a year lived in faith at work and at creative play.  I'm psyched.

And while I was working on the blog post at my theology blog, I had another idea, one for an eBook.  I think it would be great to have as a resource a collection of all these art projects that have some spiritual applications, and I've collected quite a lot of posts that could be used in that kind of book.  I'm thinking eBook because the photos would be so useful and would be cost prohibitive in a traditional paper book.  As I understand it, an eBook could even have some embedded video.

I love feeling inspired.  I hope I can hold on to that inspired feeling through the summer--and beyond!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wednesday Cycles and Associations

--For those of you mournful about middle age, read this article in The Washington Post.  Here's a taste:  "These two roles of middle-aged humans — as super-providers and master culture-conveyers — continue today. In offices, on construction sites and on sports fields around the world, we see middle-aged people advising and guiding younger adults and sometimes even ordering them about. Middle-aged people can do more, they earn more and, in short, they run the world."

--Several decades of midlife as evolutionary advantage?  I'll try to start thinking of it that way, while at the same time reminding myself that I won't be on this earth forever.  Time to get moving on the projects that mean the most to me.

--Thank goodness I'm not a ballerina--my glory years would be behind me, and my crippled feet would barely support me.

--What would it be like to be as thin as a ballerina?  I've never been that thin, even when I was 8 years old.  Sigh.

--But I've been healthy, and that's no small thing.

--My brain has been cycling like this since yesterday:  a smidge of despair, followed by looking on the bright side, followed by a pervading sense of descending doom, followed by a concerted effort to shake off gloom.

--I was able to hold on to the refreshed feeling from my retreat for much of the day. 

--Being conscious of trying to hold on to that refreshed feeling made me realize how many obstacles the world will throw up against a woman trying to hold on to feelings of renewal.

--I also spent much of yesterday thinking about my idea for a memoir and planning the first essay about finishing the assessment document on the feast of the Epiphany.

--I've already got a lot of rough draft material in my blogs and poems.  This morning, I came up with an idea for how to organize the rough draft material.  It's not a complicated idea, since I'm organizing the memoir by calendar and liturgical year.  But I want to put everything into one document, just to see what I've already got.  As I look through my blogs, I want to cut and paste as I go along, instead of the more cumbersome process of taking notes and making decisions before cutting and pasting.

--Even though I back up my blogs, I live in fear that one day I will wake up and my blogs will have been rendered inaccessible.

--"Live in faith, not in fear."  I must remember my mantra.

--This will be a day of expensive car repairs; the car developed a horrible, rasping brake noise during our travels.  Luckily, we made it back safely.  Unfortunately, the car needs rotors on each wheel, brake pads, the works.

--And we may have more repairs soon, if the tire warranty turns out to be invalid.  Turns out, the tires have dry rot.  Who knew that could happen?

--Another mantra:  Anne Lamott's quote from her friend John, one I come back to again and again: ". . . if you have a problem you can solve by throwing money at it, you don't have a very interesting problem" (Traveling Mercies 259).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Back from the Mountain Top, Full of Inspirations

I am back from time away, this time at the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge.  I led a workshop on blogging as art form and tool, which I may write more about later.  I also led a workshop on the meditative and creative process of making crosses from found objects, and I led a creation station in which people had the opportunity to play with fibers, fabric, and yarn to make scarves (you may remember this post, where I first played with this idea).

I first went to this retreat in 2003, and I found it so wonderful that I haven't missed one yet.  My long-term attendance means that each year, I have a chance to see old friends and to meet new people, encounters that make me very happy.  I also have the chance to play with all sorts of art materials and to come away inspired in all sorts of new ways.  I will likely write future posts about some of these experiences.

I also wrestle with wishing that my day to day life could be spent similarly.  I think many of us face this challenge when we return from retreats:  how to weave our retreat lives into our regular lives, how to integrate what we've learned into our daily lives.

Here's what makes me most excited upon my return.  For some time, I've felt glimmers about a book-length work I want to do, and on the long drive back, I was able to think about this book and to figure out an approach.  Back in November, I noticed (not for the first time) how many books are organized around a calendar year, and I thought about doing that for a book of poems.  But I didn't really have enough poems, and as I played with this idea, I'm not really sure a chronological approach of that sort works well for my poems.

I've been interested in memoir, and in blogging as a form of memoir in process.  But as I've said about blogs, I think that memoir needs a focus to be successful.  I'm interested in spiritual issues, but not ready to write a book of theology.  Could the world be interested in one more woman writing about a spiritual journey?

As I thought about all the memoirs I've read, I realized how few of them talk about work life in conjunction with spiritual life.  I've wrestled with how to integrate my Christian beliefs into the work setting without being oppressive to others.  I can't be the only one, and yet, when I read spiritual memoirs, I don't remember any that talk about work and spirituality.  I've read plenty of self-help books that claim to do so, although none of them have been useful to me in the ways that I wished they would be when I picked them up.

And then there's the other major aspect of my life, me as an artist, trying to carve out time and space to be creative and to create work of lasting import.  I've seen memoirs of work life, memoirs of spiritual life, and artist's memoirs, but rarely have I read the work of someone who is actively wrestling with them all at the same time.  And then, there's the element of being at midlife (hopefully the low end of my middle years) that complicates and enriches these questions.

So, I'd like to write a memoir that weaves together my life as a spiritual person, my life as an administrator who works in an office 40-50 hours a week, and my life as an artist.  How do these all work together or not work together?  And my organizing principal will be both the liturgical year and the calendar year.  I will have a complete draft (rough or finished, to be determined later) by next year's Create in Me retreat.

So, now for the necessary task of returning to work and trying to hang on to the inspiration and excitement I've experienced.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

One Week from Easter

A week ago, we'd have been celebrating Easter.  Here are some Easter symbols.  With a week of distance, can you write an Easter poem that uses one or more of these symbols but in a brand new way?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Williamsburg Windows

On our recent walking tour of Williamsburg, I was struck by the beauty of the colonial windows, both in terms of the reflections of the glass and what the windows contained.

I was first struck by the wigmaker's window:

Here's a close up of that window:

I've long loved church windows of all sorts.  Below you'll see the windows of the Bruton Parish Church, a still-practicing Episcopalean church:

Below you'll see a colonial form of advertising (a refractory is a home kitchen or dining room), outside of the King's Arms, where we had a delicious lunch. 

Of course, if you want to outfit your colonial kitchen, there are stores that could have helped you:

Graveyards have their own kinds of windows:

Modern stores also have windows:

Even in colonial times, shopkeepers would have wanted to appeal to gamers.  And musicians.  And anyone else who needed to entertain:

And who can resist a special window for writers?

Friday, April 13, 2012

All Our Absurdist Ghosts

When we were in colonial Williamsburg, there was one photo I was never able to capture.  Several times, a skinny, tall man in a Santa Claus suit rode his bike down the colonial street.  You see many things on the streets of Williamsburg, and happily, no cars!  You see carriages, and people in costume, and modern tourists.  But a man in a Santa suit on a bike?  In late March?  Several times in one afternoon?

It would have been the perfect post for today, Samuel Beckett's birthday.  Ah, Beckett, the one who helped birth the absurdist movement in literature!

I first read Waiting for Godot in grad school, at the tender young age of 25. I was baffled. It made sense to me as a response to World War II, as a response to the newly birthed nuclear age. But as a staged work? I could hardly stand to read it. How could audiences watch it?

Of course, not all audiences did. Some audiences greeted the play with the mindset of my graduate school self: "What on earth is this? We didn't come to the theatre for this!"

I used to work at a community college in South Carolina, and for some reason, we had a filmed version of the second act of the play, which I would show to my Brit Lit survey class. It was fun to watch their reactions. It's safe to say that Waiting for Godot was like nothing they had ever seen. And it's a great play to launch a discussion of how 20th century drama was so very different from the drama that had come before.

I am glad that my younger self had no vision of how life--just regular life, not post-apocalypse life--can seem so very much to resemble the lives of those folks who wait for Godot. Why are we here? Why are we doing this? Why don't we do something differently? Do you have a radish or did we eat them all already? Think about your daily tasks, especially if you're working in an office, and how much that play resembles office life.

Do we have hope? The tree sprouts leaves, after all. Are we really just living the same day over and over again? Some days I think we are, other days, I'm learning/doing something new--but often, the something new will become cyclical too. Are we just trapped together, the way that all of Beckett's plays suggest? Can we not escape? And where is God (Godot?) in all this.

Ah, the existential questions!

And yet, we're well-trained, aren't we? Our broken belts won't allow us to commit suicide, and we don't want to leave our lives of circularity, because what if there really is a pay off? What if Godot really does show up and it will all be worthwhile after all?

And so, in the meantime, we wait. We wait with the people around us, not necessarily people of our choosing. We wait, in hope and in despair.

It's called absurdist theatre for a reason.

It's also theatre that refuses to spoon feed us. What does it all mean? At the end of the drama, it's hard to determine. Beckett doesn't say, "Wake up you dopes! Shake off your chains!" Beckett doesn't say, "Don't worry. It will all be worth it." The audience is left to make up its own mind.

In the end, I still can't decide what I think of absurdist theatre.  It's fun to talk about, but I find it excruciating to watch.  I understand why people want a big musical with fun costumes.  Or a piercing social drama, that paints the good guys and the evil in uncompromising strokes.  But to watch people waiting?  And not sure of why?  It boggles the mind to think of it.

It boggles the mind even more to think of what a success it was.  But hurrah for literary movements without much chance of success that capture the hearts and minds of a substantial group of people.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What to do in Williamsburg when it's sunny

After our first visit to Williamsburg I wrote a post about what to do in Williamsburg when it rains.  On our last visit, we had beautiful, Spring weather.

What can we do in Williamsburg when it's sunny?  Plenty, as it turns out.

Of course, there's colonial Williamsburg to explore.  Above, the map of the town in metal, and below, a miniature.  Both are at the Visitor's Center.

Or maybe you'd prefer to take a carriage ride.

Or maybe ride a bike!

Sunny weather makes for a great sword fight!

For even more fun, assemble costumes and fight as your favorite superhero or superheroine!

Spring is a great time to work in the garden.

Is it more enjoyable to work in the garden in colonial clothes?

I love the gardening implements against a shed so much that I needed a close up!

Maybe instead of getting your hands in the dirt, you want to sit in a bench near the dirt and contemplate the tulips.

Or maybe you'd like to contemplate a colonial cottage.

Even a cemetery is nice on a Spring day:  a reminder to enjoy our time on this side of the grass.

Below, another colonial site, Jamestown, as viewed from the ferry.  The ferry's name?  The Pocahontas, of course!

When in doubt, skip rocks!

Or simply go to the pirate ship playground.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Visionary Dreams in a Time of Exile

--Early Easter Sunday morning, I dreamed that I was teaching again.  It was a new position, and in my dream, I remember talking about how happy I was to be teaching again and how I didn't expect to like returning to the classroom so much.  Is my subconscious trying to tell me something?

--Of course, in my dream, I was teaching a course in Russian film, something that I know nothing--nothing--about in my waking life.  In my dream I was also excited that I wasn't teaching Composition, and that I had a 2 course load.

--That's how I should have known it was a dream:  I was only teaching 2 classes, and they were both upper level. 

--I find myself fascinated with the escapades of the Miami Marlins' manager Ozzie Guillen, who may have ruined his latest dream job with his comment where he said he admired Fidel Castro.  Does he not know where he's living?  You can't say anything that's even remotely pro-Castro down here in Miami and expect people not to notice.  Or was he trying to be provocative?

--Either way, he's now suspended, and he's on everyone's radar screen.  I predict he won't last long.

--I'm happy to see that Dorothy Allison has lasted long and appears to be doing well.  Today is her birthday.

--Most people are most familiar with her book Bastard Out of Carolina.  I found that book a tough read, but well done.

--"Gritty" is a descriptive tag that was created for books like Bastard Out of Carolina.  "Powerful" is another one.

--My favorite Dorothy Allison book is an earlier collection of short stories, Trash.  I read that book over 20 years ago, but I still remember one detail:  a character buys several bags of frozen kale, which she can't usually find in her San Francisco location, and she keeps them in the freezer as both a comfort food and a comfort to know that she has them in reserve.  It's a food that reminds her of her childhood home in the U.S. South, and the matriarchs who cooked them, and her lesbian partner can't understand the appeal of these strange, boiled greens.

--That story made me think about the issue of exile, and how even citizens of a country can feel like they're in exile in their own home country.  It's not only Cuban refugees.

--All roads lead back to Flannery O'Connor, who told us that we can't go home again.

--What would it be like to teach a course on Southern Lit of the U.S. that includes both O'Connor and Allison?  Now that would be a dream job.

--My definition of Southern Lit has expanded because of living down here in South Florida.  What I would want to do in a Southern Lit class would take at least 2 semesters and would include some Caribbean Lit too.

--If that dream job ever comes, I hope it also includes a dream salary so that I can afford to take it.

--Is a dream that occurs on Easter more prophetic, more drenched with meaning, more significant?  In my tradition, we expect visionary dreams on Pentecost, not Easter.  But I'll take visionary dreams whenever they come.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

2012 Poetry Give Away: The Better Late than Never Entry

The only image I can manage to import is the one above.  But I've decided to go ahead and be part of this give away, even though you won't have images of the books--although you can look on the sidebar and see what my books look like.

I'm actually going to give away three books.  I'm going to give away a copy of each of my chapbooks, but to different people.  And because I am still sad at her death, I'm going to give away at least one Adrienne Rich volume of poems--which one?  I'm not sure, because I have loved them all so much.  And to be honest, this deadline has whapped me in the head after sneaking up on me, and I haven't had time to do my due diligence to be sure that I can get a specific title.  But I'm sure that I'll find a copy of one that I have loved in the next few weeks. And if I find several, maybe I'll give away several.

If you want to participate by giving away books of poems, go to this post on Kelli's blog--but you only have until midnight tonight.  If you want a complete list of the participating people, Kelli's blog has a sidebar--lots of good stuff being given away!

The blogs in my sidebar are the writing and creativity blogs that I read most frequently.  I wish I could say I had a big project, but my next big project soon will be to get centered and focus on my poetry goals again.  It's been a busy half year of travelling and craziness at work and more illness than usual, including my grandmother's sickness and death.  I'm ready for some springtime renewal that lasts through the summer!

So, if you want to enter my drawing, please leave a comment and a way to get in touch with you (an e-mail address is the usual route) if you're the lucky winner!  I'll do the drawing on May 1 and mail the books soon after.  I'll get your address privately, so no need to post more than an e-mail address.  Or we could all post our addresses and send poetry postcards--wait, that's a different project (in August!).

Lighthouses of the Writerly Type

The Writer's Almanac entry for today talks about 3 writers who have been influential for today's writers, whether we know it or not.  I can't resist commenting on this confluence.

Paul Theroux was born today in 1941.  I will confess to not having read his books, and yet I routinely daydream about selling everything I own and heading off to have great adventures, whether on foot, in an RV, or by sailboat.  Theroux is one of those writers who actually did that, and thus, leaves people like me thirsty for our own adventures.

He has this advice for writers:  ""Leave home. Because if you stay home people will ask you questions that you can't answer. They say, "What are you going to write? Where will you publish it? Who's going to pay you? How will you make a living?" If you leave home, no one asks you questions like that."

Oh, that's such dangerous advice for weeks at work that are particularly exhausting.  Yes, it's that week that comes up periodically because I am so bad at e-mail management.  The e-mail system finally threatens to cut me off unless I deal with my old mail, and so, I spend hours sifting through e-mails, wondering if I'll ever need them again, refiling them.  Sometimes, I'm struck by how much I've been able to accomplish through the days documented by those e-mails.  But more often, I'm dumbfounded at what takes up most of my time, the minutiae that will never matter.  Sigh.
Today is also the birthday of William Hazlitt (1778), whom most of us have never heard of.  Yet, in many ways, we can trace blogging right back to him.  He was one of those British Romantics who revolutionized the way we write essays.  He wrote in the first person, in a more rambling and discursive way.  Traditional writers were quite aghast at these developments, using language similar to what we hear about bloggers and other self-published writers today to criticize the nerve of these writers who think that the whole world should be interested in what they have to say.
Today is also the birthday of Anne Lamott, who wrote Bird by Bird, a book that may be one of the more widely used creative writing books of our day.  I pulled my much underlined copy off the shelf and was struck by how most (all?) of it is still very solid, very good, even almost 20 years after it was published.
Her book, and so many like them, inspired me to want to be a writer.  I was horrified a few years later when she started publishing her thoughts on faith.  Chalk that up to my snobbishness, to my fear, to my inner 19 year old who thinks she knows so much but she really doesn't.  Lamott's honest reflections on what it means to be a Christian really helped change me and shape me into the person I am today.  For more on Lamott as a theological writer, along with some great quotes, go to my post that I wrote today on my theology blog.
I have her latest book, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son, and I'll likely read it in the next few weeks.  I don't expect to like it as much as I like Bird by Bird, but I'll try to have an open mind.
In flipping through Bird by Bird again this morning, I was struck by the last chapter, where she offers consolation for those of us who aren't making the kind of publication process we might like.  She reminds us that even though we may not be making lots of money, or any, on our writing, that our writing still has all sorts of value.  Her book rests on this assertion, that the most important thing we can do as a writer is to believe in ourselves and keep showing up to write.  She says, "Lighthouses don't go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining" (Bird by Bird page 236).
Her students ask again and again why writing matters, and she finishes her book by answering:  "Because of the spirit . . . of the heart.Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life:  they feed the soul. . . . It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea.  You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship" (Bird by Bird page 237).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On this day in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was put to death by the Nazis.  Like Anne Frank and many other nameless victims, he came heartbreakingly close to surviving the war. 

Bonhoeffer was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.  A Lutheran pastor, he lived what he preached, actively resisting the Nazis and living in intentional community.  He was arrested for his role in an attempt on Hitler's life.

Here are some Bonhoeffer quotes for your Easter Monday:

Let's begin with one of his most famous works of theology, The Cost Of Discipleship.  Here's one of the most famous quotes from that book:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Here's another good one from that classic text:   “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

Here are some other great quotes:

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”  

“In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”  Letters and Papers from Prison

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Morning, from the Gardener's Eyes

I often find Holy Saturday an odd resting point.  Yesterday was no exception.

You may wonder why I find it odd.  I often go from the rush of the work week to the rush of the end of Holy Week (Maundy Thursday evening to Good Friday) and then there's the pause of Holy Saturday.  It's not always a pause, as we're often at church getting ready for Easter.  Some years, we're spending the afternoon decorating Easter eggs and making bunny cakes.  Some years we've hosted an extravagent-for-us Easter meal, but it's hard to believe we'll ever do that again.  I'm often so exhausted by the time Easter afternoon comes along, that it's hard to imagine being charming Easter party hosts.

Yesterday's Holy Saturday was unusual in that we went to a wedding:  a beautiful ceremony followed by a fabulous meal and wine for every course.  And then we came home and watched the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, which I had yet to see.  I didn't find it offensive.  Tough to watch, in terms of the torture--and yet, the Romans were brutal in that way.

So, here we are at Easter morning.  Here's a poem for Easter.  It 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.

It first appeared in issue 3 of Eye to the Telescope.  The whole volume is devoted to persona poems and edited by Jeannine Hall Gailey.

The Gardener’s Tale

I liked to get to the garden
early, before the harsh
light of day revealed
all my mistakes, all the growth
I couldn’t contain.

I liked the pre-dawn
hours, when I knew
the flowers by their smells
as I rustled
their stems.

That morning I saw
him first. He asked
for bread, and I had a bit
to share. I offered
him olives and some cheese
from my son Simon’s goat.

We talked of ways to attract
butterflies to the garden:
the need for nectar
and leaves for the babies.
I showed him a tree
that had been ailing,
and he suggested a different nourishment.

I thanked him for his wisdom
and moved to the border
of the garden. I didn’t make
the connections until I heard
the shrieks of the women
and Peter nearly knocked me down.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pilate: The Ultimate Administrator?

When I was teaching more, when I taught texts of all sorts, I often asked, "Who are you in this story?"  It was a way to talk about characters, a different route in.  It seemed to work especially well with students who weren't used to talking about literature.

Of course, some of you will recognize this exercise as having spiritual roots.  It's very similar to one type of Lectio Divina, a way to dive deeply into a sacred text.  I've experienced and led similar exercises in spiritual settings too.

So, last night, as I'm at Good Friday service listening to the Passion of Christ according to the Gospel of St. John, I thought, "Oh my heavens, I'm identifying with Pontius Pilate!"

I don't want to identify with Pontius Pilate.  I'm doubtful of the depiction of Pilate, for one thing.  Historical records paint a very different picture of Pilate than the Gospel of John does.  The historical Pilate probably didn't hesitate before having Christ crucified.  The Gospel of John shows Pilate going to great lengths to save Jesus, all for nothing.  Of course, Pilate doesn't have the spine to say, "I won't have this man crucified.  It's wrong, and I won't do it."

Again, let me say, the historical picture of Pilate paints a man who was hard to the point of cruelty.  It's not the man we see in the Gospel.  Scholars suspect that Pilate gets to be a more sympathetic character because at the time the Gospel of John was written, the Roman empire was getting ever more serious about eradicating Christians. 

As I was listening to the Gospel for Good Friday, I was struck by Pilate's attempts to determine the right thing to do with this conflict that fell into his lap.  I could almost sense his frustration at having to deal with an issue that should have been handled at much lower levels than his.  I could see his irritation at having to deal with this Jesus, who was making no effort to help his cause.  How well I know his annoyance at all of these people who were bothering him with what seemed like such a trivial matter, considering the storm clouds that were gathering in the distance.

Those of us who work in administration will recognize aspects of our work lives in the Good Friday service.  Not a week goes by when I don't find myself saying, "I did not get a Ph.D. in British Literature for this!"  I find myself having to attend to all sorts of details which seem trivial to me, while the whole higher education world seems to be one of the next bubbles to burst and threaten the whole economy.  I find myself having to have similar discussions with students every week:  "Of course you failed the class.  You haven't attended the last 8 classes.  You only turned in 1 assignment out of the 5 required.  I don't see that the teacher treated you unfairly at all." 

Like Pilate, I find myself tugged in all sorts of directions.  That's the life of an administrator after all.  I wonder if Pilate spent time asking, "Am I working on this issue while neglecting that really important issue?  What's lurking out there?  What am I forgetting?"

Unlike Pilate, I do not have to make life or death decisions.  No one is crucified because of me. 

Well, not literally.  We could probably have fun arguing about whether or not student loans are a symbolic crucifixion.  I spend time worrying about students who take on crushing debt and then leave school before finishing their degrees.  What kind of future can they expect?  And then I say, "Well, it's a national problem, and who am I to think I can solve it?"

And so, I hear Pilate's thinking echoing in my brain as I wash my hands of the whole issue.  Like another character in the Passion narrative, I hear the crowing of the rooster.  I think of all the ways I collaborate with the Powers and Principalities that work to keep us in the dark prison of oppression.  Like Pilate's wife, I'm haunted by bad dreams.  Like Judas, I have 30 silver coins and a bad feeling.

Do I have the beginning of a poem here or am I stretching too far?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Indian Princesses and the Other Women Who Saved America

Today is the birthday of Sacajawea.  You may remember her as the woman who went along on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  You may not know that she was travelling with her newborn baby.  She's one of 5 or 6 women represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol (go here for the complete list).

I would argue for the presence of more women, but so many women who were important to the development of the U.S. are largely unknown.  I remember reading a historian who commented on the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement back in 2007.  The historian commented that colonists who migrated without women by and large perished.  Men without women planted cash crops and forgot to plant food.

Interesting to have my thoughts return to Sacajawea when they've so recently been focused on Pocahontas.  Interesting to think about how the future of the country, the future of the U.S. as I have come to know it, relied on these women.  Without Sacajawea, it's almost certain that Lewis and Clark and their expedition would have been slaughtered at first sight, without any chance to explain themselves.  But when hostile Native Americans saw that they were travelling with a woman and a baby, they saw the expedition as non-threatening.

And they needed her for her language skills, her navigational skills, her knowledge of what foods were safe to eat.  There were so many ways that she saved the men again and again.  Likewise, Pocahontas helped save the colonists in many ways.  Did she really lay her head down on John Smith's head when he was going to be executed and thus prevent his beheading?  Probably not.  But she saved him in many ways, albeit less dramatic ways.

From the Native American perspective, in hindsight, the Lewis and Clark expedition couldn't have been more threatening, although not in ways that hostile tribes might have anticipated.  The Lewis and Clark expedition opened up the west, and within a generation or two, settlers were pushing west, which meant pushing Native Americans off their lands (or killing them), wiping out the Buffalo populations, fencing the west . . . on and on the list of horrors could go.

Of course, when I was a young girl devouring the stories of Sacajawea and Pocahontas, I didn't think about those kind of things.  Even as a child, I loved stories that showed that women could do more than being simply wives and mothers.  Or was my thinking bound by gender?   Maybe I loved any story that showed humans doing more than their societies usually allowed.

When I was in grade school in the 1970's, some of my friends were part of a group called Indian Princesses.  It was kind of like Girl Scouts, only with a Native American theme--and girls got an Indian name!  I was so jealous.  I don't remember why I wasn't a member, and soon enough, I was a Girl Scout and forgot about the Indian Princess group.

I remember wanting to be an Indian brave.  I made things that I called bows and arrows, and I pretended to hunt.  Happily, I never got the Physics of bowmaking down, so I never shot an arrow.  Small animals were safe when I was on the hunt.  I also practiced being very still and blending into the landscape.

My childhood imagination was captured by life on the Plains and Prairies, and less by life as earlier colonists lived it.  My adult brain continues to be inspired by people who envision new ways to live their lives.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Week Musings on Homelessness and Safety

Last night, I left my office about 8:45 at night.  As I exited the stairwell, I heard shouting from the direction of the breezeway where students hang out.  I looked that way and noticed a man with a cart turning from the sidewalk into my school's parking garage.  He was agitated and shouting, but I couldn't see anyone else with him.  In other words, it wasn't a fight.

As he got closer, I could discern words.  Lots of profanity.  Sentences that seemed threatening:  "You can't tell me what to do, you damn, white bitch.  I'll do whatever the fuck I want.  I don't have to look like a fucking white person."  On and on he went.

If he hadn't been cursing at such high volume, I'd have probably let it all go.  I'd have seen him as a man with a cart taking a short cut through our parking garage.

But a short cut to where?  All that's behind us is the port.  Once upon a time, you could wander through the port, but not after September 11, 2001.

Was he talking to me?  I honestly have no idea.  But his agitation worried me.  I knew that classes were about to let out, and I worried about the safety of the students and the safety of the man with the cart.

So, I did what I've been trained to do; I went to the security guard.  Happily he was there.  He came out and we listened to the man with the cart, who by then had gotten to the back road behind our parking garage.  Hopefully, the man with the cart just kept going.

You might be saying, "Why is this so strange?  Your school is by a port in a fairly large metropolis."  Or maybe you're thinking that I reacted like a typical white, middle-class woman who felt threatened by someone who seemed homeless.  Maybe you're thinking, "Hey, it's Florida--lucky for the man with the cart you didn't have a gun."

Here's what made me feel strange all night:  just hours before, my suburban church helped serve dinner to homeless people at the downtown church.  The man with the cart (and yes, I assumed he was homeless) could have been one of those guests.  And here I was, reporting him to the security guard.

Of course, I wouldn't have called attention to him if he hadn't been agitated and cursing.  I'd have whispered a prayer for him and wished that I had more to offer.

I also felt strange because it's Holy Week, and while normal life goes on, I have all sorts of other narratives in my head, narratives of Last Suppers and crucifixions and betrayals of all sorts.  How would Jesus have handled the cursing, agitated, homeless man?  Invited him to dinner?  Cast out his demons?  Let him go about his business?  Called the security guard because that's why we pay these experts?

It's also been a tough week at school, as we face our first week without our colleagues that we lost in the lay offs.  I feel like all my nerves are exposed.

I also felt strange because of all the race dialogues (or monologues or screaming fits) we've been having about race in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shootings.  I'm aware of my white privilege, my class privilege, but the way I move cautiously in the world because of my gender.  I'm also aware that I'm a tall, white woman, a mid-life woman who isn't tiny, which also buys me privilege.

Did I feel threatened by the man with a cart because he was homeless, because he was male, because he may have been a different race?  No, I felt threatened because he was agitated and cursing.  And he was wandering around a parking garage, where people drive fast and carelessly and aren't looking out for pedestrians.  I saw so many ways it could all go wrong.

I drove home trying to convince myself I'd done the best I could.  I've written about these issues before, mostly at my theology blog (go here for a meditation on why homelessness is so difficult a social problem to solve and here for a meditation on the fact that we're a society that allows pregnant women to sleep on the streets).  I wish I had a problem-solving way to conclude.  I wish I had some pithy insights.

I wish that I lived in a society that took care of the underclass below the lower classes so that I didn't have to ruminate upon these things on a rainy Maundy Thursday morning.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Travels: Academic, Colonial, Air

I have been travelling; it's strange to return home to news of tornadoes in other parts of the country.  But our travel day yesterday was relatively calm.  Even the delays that we experienced on Thursday weren't as upsetting as they could be; I just settled in to read.

On my flight up I read Amy Waldman's The Submission, a great book about September 11, art, and race.  The central question:  can a mostly non-practicing Muslim create a suitable memorial to September 11?  The book answers that question early on:  yes.  Then the book asks a different question:  if a Muslim artist creates a memorial, can the fact that a Muslim created it detract from its purposes?  This book is a great meditation on class, religion, immigration, gender, and skin color.

On the way back I read Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, another book that contemplates skin color, gender, and class.  It's a heartbreaking book, and I confess to skimming parts, especially the dog fighting parts.  Yikes.  But it's compelling, and it makes me realize how fortunate I've been, how damaging poverty is, how tough to escape.

What did I do in between?  I went to the College English Association conference in Richmond, where I presented a paper.  I wrote about poet children of scientists who contemplate God in their poetry.  The paper went fairly well.  It was held during the second to last session, so we had a very small audience.

Once again, I tried to see the presentation as a speaking engagement, and less as a paper reading.  I have mixed feelings about it.  I liked the conversational style.  I think what I disliked about my paper is that I had no sweeping insight.  My paper concluded that we see a wide diversity of responses to the question of God in the poetry of children of scientists.  But the audience seemed receptive.

Like I said, that audience was small.  We had 3 panelists, the moderator, and 2 other people.  One of them was my mom.  When they moved to Williamsburg, I decided to submit a paper proposal to the CEA since Richmond is close by.  My school has no travel money, so being able to stay with my parents was an important factor in my decision to participate.

My mom decided to make the drive to Richmond with me.  I was pretty sure it would be OK if she slipped in to hear the presentations.  The CEA doesn't seem too rigid about checking everyone's badges.  In fact, since my presentation was so late in the conference, I thought we might be grateful for an extra audience member.  I was right.  It was great to spend time with my mom in this way.

Of course, it was great to see other family members too.  My sister and nephew came down, and we had a great time together.  Before they came, we went to Williamsburg and wandered the colonial streets.  We went to Jamestown, but lacked the energy to fully explore the ruins (good to save some investigations for later).  My dad told us all sorts of colonial details he's picked up from living in the area and reading some key books.  Great fun.  It was a very full 5 days.

I've come away with some great poem ideas.  I've found myself intrigued again by Pocahontas.  Once again, I am astonished that those settlers were able to survive.  I think about how bad life must have been in the Old World to embark on a voyage to the New World.

It is hard for me to believe that it is April already.  I need to shift gears before National Poetry Month gets away from me altogether.  I need to think about Easter, and the fact that Holy Week is upon me.  I need to make sure that all my other projects are on track too.  And then, of course, there's a department to make sure is running smoothly.  But first, to finish this blog post and to go to spin class!