Friday, November 30, 2012

Inheritance of All Sorts

One of the things I got accomplished over Thanksgiving was taking some of my grandmother's things and giving them to my sister and cousins.  I'm going through my eternal struggle to downsize and to get rid of things that I no longer use.

It's easier to do this with things that don't have much emotional value.  Old shoes?  Easy to get rid of.  My grandmother's Tupperware?  Not as easy.

Some of the items, like the Tupperware, I inherited with the anticipation that I'd use them more than I have.  I had a round cake carrier, a square one, a rectangular one with two handles.  Once I was the kind of person who baked a lot and took baked goods to all sorts of places.

I no longer live that life.  It's partly in an attempt to watch my weight.  I used to cook double baked goods:  one for the event, one for the house.

It's not like I have 4 kids.  I have a spouse, and he doesn't particularly care whether or not he has baked goods.

Now, even if I wanted to be that person who made baked goods for 1 or 2 events a week, I don't have that kind of time.  The Tupperware has perched in my cupboards, unused and lonely.

I feel bad about their loneliness.  Plus, that old Tupperware takes up lots of space.  And so, I wanted to send them on.  I gave my sister and cousins first dibs. They took the Tupperware

I also inherited all sorts of things that are useless to me.  I paid to have some of my grandmother's furniture shipped to me.  The sideboard came with the linens that had been stored in it for many decades.

These are the kind of table linens that need to be ironed.  I do not iron.  And so, I passed them on.

I also found several aprons that my grandmother had made.  I have no memory of her wearing them.  They're cute, but not functional.

My cousin's wife said, "I'll take these.  The girls can use them to play dress up."

I felt a small pang.  I knew that my grandmother would not have approved of her aprons being used for dress up.

But I like the idea of the aprons getting some use.  And so, off they go, to a new house and a new purpose.

I told my spouse, "If these girls were characters in my fiction, these aprons would set them on a course to become cultural anthropologists who write an important text that explores the apron as an object of self-expression in a culture that didn't give women many opportunities for either creativity or self-expression.  Or they'd become performance artists of some sort who create works with aprons and other mid-20th-century objects of femininity."

And of course, they'd subvert the dominant paradigm with their art.

My cousin's daughters are not characters in my fiction.  They will probably play with these aprons for a few years, enjoy the experience, and then move on. 

That's fine.

In an ideal world, they'd experience a connection with their dead great-grandma because of the aprons.  That may or may not happen.

And that's fine too.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wrinkles, Wardrobes, and Women of All Sorts

Today presents one of those constellations of birthdays of famous writers, all of whom have been extraordinarily important to me:  Madeleine L'Engle, C. S. Lewis, and Louisa May Alcott.  For more on all these authors, see today's posting on The Writer's Almanac, which alerted me to this alignment of literary birthdays.

These writers were important to me as I left childhood and moved into teenage years.  I feel like I've already written extensively about them--but have I?  I know that I've written a lot about L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, since this year marks its 50th anniversary.

Let me think about these books and these writers and what they've taught me.

I was reading A Wrinkle in Time and Alcott's Little Women about the same time, around 5th grade.  Like the protaganists of those novels, I was feeling like an alien amongst my peers.  I was bigger (taller and big boned) and with interests that they didn't have.  I was a voracious reader and writer.  I was smart in a culture and a time period  (back in 1975, in the earlier days of the feminist movement and the Title IX changes) that didn't always encourage brains in little girls.

These books gave me hope that I would be appreciated, if not by the masses, then by a few special people.  These books also emphasized that the larger culture often wasn't in tune with what really matters.

I want to say it was Little Women that made me want to be a writer, but I was writing stories before I read that book.

I discovered C.S. Lewis a few years later, when I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--and then it was off to Narnia!  I tried reading his books for adults, but didn't like the sci fi, and the theology was rough going.  But I did love The Screwtape Letters, a book which imagines Satan tutoring a young protege in how to get humans to misbehave.

Lewis, L'Engle, and Alcott emphasized the importance of staying true to one's values.  They were honest about how hard it can be to maintain one's integrity in a world that's set up to undermine us at every turn.  Those books were wonderful fellow travelers on the pilgrim's trail.

Yes, I look back and see myself as a pilgrim in all sorts of ways.  A girl devoted to books and writing?  That's a pilgrim.  A girl who charts her own course and closes her ears to those who would want to keep her restrained?  That's a pilgrim.

Those books encouraged me to believe that it could be done, that I could resist successfully and still find people who would love me.  Those books told me that even if few of my classmates were part of my tribe, that my tribe was out there, waiting for me.

Those books also taught me a lot about science and history and probably a lot of other subject that I no longer remember.  But more importantly, those books transported me.  On long summer afternoons, I lost myself in alternate worlds.  When we moved, I unpacked my books, those old, best friends, first.  Those books both kept me grounded and gave me wings.

I'd have to say, as a writer, I have similar goals.  I want to create work that both grounds the reader and transports readers.  I want to show that other realities, better realities, are possible.  I want to make people believe in magic and to give them the tools to make that magic manifest.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Of Narrative, Judgment, and Memory

If it was a week ago, I'd be telling my nephew his own story about the old woman who lived in a firehouse.  I first wrote about that story here.  I remember being fascinated by my nephew's lack of conflict (some might say lack of plot).  I remember wondering if he'd always be content with lack of plot.

I now know the answer:  no.  I told him his story, which is essentially a list of what you'd find in a firehouse.  He stared at me in disbelief when I said, "The end."  He said, "That's it?"  He had a look of distaste on his face.

Now we have plot of all kinds, although all of the stapled together books he created had the same amount of pages.  When I realized I would need more pages, I introduced my nephew to the concept of sequels.  I had a canoe captured by pirates and ended the story with the pirates not letting the boaters back into their canoe.  He said, "Then what happens?"  I said, "I don't know.  I'm out of pages."

He handed me another booklet and said, "Write me another, please."

I'm a sucker for a built-in audience.  I wrote another and another.  We illustrated them.  It was great fun.

During Thanksgiving week, I also noticed my nephew has discovered self-judgement.  I've always been fascinated by his creative process and by how accepting he has been of his work and the work of others.  He's never said to me, "That's stupid.  That doesn't even look like a flower."

I was fairly sure that wouldn't last.  He's still not critical of others, but he's started being critical of himself.  He had created a picture with crayons and later in the day, he tried to add paint to the picture.  Next thing we know, he's melting down in frustration.

My sister, his mother, asked what was wrong.  He said he'd had a good picture and he'd messed it up when he tried to paint.  And when he tried to fix it, he made it worse, which made him more frustrated and sad/angry.

Yes, I'm familiar with this part of the creative process--although lately, I'm happy to have time to create, even if it doesn't come out how I'd like.  I'm not sure when I'll have a chance to go back and revise all these drafts I create, but if I'm not churning out words and pages, I get really anxious.  I know so many talented people from undergraduate and graduate school, and so many of them have ceased creating.  That makes me so sad for that loss of potential.

I may not have published everything I wanted to publish yet, but piles of rough drafts make me think that maybe some day, I'll still have a chance.  And my rough drafts are often not as rough as you'd think, because I spend so much time planning before I start writing.

On Sunday, I was thinking about this issue of living up to our potential that we demonstrated as students.  I thought about the ways my younger self would have thought I was successful.  I said, "Of course, if I had told 19 year old Kristin that I was a paid blogger, she'd ask what that was.  She'd probably be very impressed that I can write a blog post that's read by hundreds of people."

She'd still want to know why I didn't have a book with a spine yet.  Nineteen year old Kristin is that hard-nosed kind of girl.

Sometimes, I wish I didn't have the kind of memory that I have.  Maybe I'd be easier on myself.  Or maybe I'd forget the basic fabric of my life.

Last night, my spouse said, "C______ really thinks we'd like the movie Dark Shadows."

I said, "You remember that we saw that, right?  In the theatre?"

He shook his head.  "I have no memory of that at all," he said.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that the memory was forgettable.  But how could he forget how much money we spent and how disappointed we were?

I worry that these memory issues of my spouse are symptoms of something larger and horrible, something happening several decades before I expected it to happen.  I'm trying to see it as a potential positive:  he's not wasting precious brain space holding on to bad movies.

After all, he's not blogging/journaling.  I think the reason I remember so much because I've written it down.  That patten of paying attention has served me well.  It's served me well as a creative person.  But perhaps in other ways, not as much.  I might be happier if I didn't have a record of daily life, with its disappointments and confusions.  Or I might be sadder, if I didn't have a space to puzzle through the issues.

Not that it matters.  I first started keeping a journal when I was 12.  It's an established habit now.  That's my hope, at least.  These pages and blog posts make good rough drafts too.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pestilence, Captivity Narratives, and Other Thanksgiving Elements

I'm back from another one of our great Southeast driving tours--1 week ago, we'd have been driving across 4 states in one morning!  We listened to Paul Simon's Graceland, and I got a great idea for a short story that will be part of my ever-growing collection of linked short stories.  My spouse also practiced singing the music that he'll sing in concert on Dec. 1--in my sleep, Graceland, Paul Simon's latest So Beautiful or So What, and the chorale music swirled in my head.

I'm trying not to think about how I wish it was a week ago, how I can't believe how quickly the Thanksgiving holiday zoomed by.  While I also love the Christmas season, I begin to feel increasingly sad--the October to December time period holds the best holidays, if you want my honest opinion.  Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas:  what could be better?  I love the decorations, the food, the music.  Can you say the same thing about the Valentine's Day-Easter-Memorial Day corridor?  I can't.

My extended family meets at a big house at Lutheridge, a church camp.  It's not resort living, but we can cook, and it's a huge place with lots of room for rambunctious children.  There are plenty of walking routes and playgrounds and it's relatively safe, in terms of traffic and predators.

This was the first year without my grandmother, which was strange.  But we had a newborn with us, and the dynamic was going to be quite different anyway.  I felt sad at times, strange at times, but no more than usual.

When we arrive, time feels expansive, like we'll have vast swaths of unused time.  That's never how it turns out, of course.

Still, we had time to go see Argo--what a great film.  Some day, I want to do more thinking about captivity narratives and how they've changed from our earliest American Lit narratives of people captured by Native Americans to our more recent ones of hostages.  Are they really the same narrative?  I'm not sure.

Some years we go to the playground every day, and some years, we go to the track at the local high school, where my dad runs laps (6-9 miles worth!), and the rest of us play variations on games with balls.  This year, my cousin's daughter wanted to ride her bike around the track, so I jogged/walked quickly beside her, because she needed a push every so often.  The whole group only made it to the track once.  As my cousin said, nap times, with children crashing at various times, really had an impact on our play time.

My nephew has developed his narrative skills.  I may write a separate post on this later.  Still, we made books and wrote stories in the journal that he's keeping (yes, at age 6!).  One of the highlights of my trip was when he'd have me read the stories I'd written, and he'd say, "Write me another, Kris!"

We did some shopping, but not the kind of shopping we've done before when my cousins have been known to camp out for good deals.  One day, I went to the Frugal Backpacker and the REI store in the morning, and Walmart in the afternoon--what a contrast in terms of the residents of the area.  The Frugal Backpacker crowd had layers of clothes in interesting textures.  They looked like they had popped in to find a good deal on a kayak.  The Walmart crowd looked like they'd be unable to paddle a kayak.

Because we have 6 children who are 6 years old and younger, we had a variety of sniffles, and I expect that many of us have returned home with colds, like my poor spouse.  Once I got there and saw the runny noses, I went to Walmart and bought two bottles of vitamin C.  So far, I'm OK--but the parents of the newborn came down with pink eye while we were there, so I'll probably stick with my old contact lenses and avoid eye make up until I'm sure I'm out of the woods.

I'm trying not to think about last year, when I returned home with a more severe cold than I've had in years, along with my first case of pink eye.  I'm thinking of the larger issue of pestilence and decimation of the Native American population.

It's amazing that humans have survived as a species.  We're easily felled by flu and other germs.  Our newborns are unbelievably small and fragile.  I guess that what we have going for us is that we can live in a variety of habitats, and we can eat a huge variety of foods.

I didn't eat a huge variety of foods.  Even when we went out with our Jacksonville friends on Sunday, I ordered Thanksgiving dinner:  turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes.  Yum.  I could eat that meal every week and never get tired of it.

Now, it's back to regular life, whatever that is.  I have some writing deadlines approaching, as well as the usual variety of work activities.  I'm hoping that my spouse wakes up today with the worst of his cold behind him.  On Thursday, it's off to the specialist to see what he makes of the MRI of my spouse's spine.  I'm trying not to be frightened.  But I'm frightened.

It's good to be with my family and to realize that no one is living a charmed life.  I keep up with many people through Facebook, and I think a disadvantage to Facebook is that the short posts make many people's lives sound so idyllic.  When we're together in real time, we discover that every life has its share of difficulties.  Even the most perfect child has meltdowns.  Even the most vibrant people face health crises.  Very few people have perfect jobs.

Yesterday I got back to my job, and I was able to help people with a variety of small crises.  I needed that reminder that even if we have yet to live up to our full potential, our daily life can be important.  I may not be changing the world in the way I once envisioned, but there's something to be said for inserting kindness into daily life.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Self-Care, Not Chistmas Cookies

Today is the day that many of us return to work.  Maybe we've had a restful holiday:  good times with family and friends, a good meal or two, some downtime.  Maybe we've had the kind of holiday that involves lots of driving.  Maybe we've done a lot of shopping. 

And now, we launch into an ever-more-intense holiday time.  Maybe you find yourself reaching for a cookie at just the thought of it.

Now is the time when we need to be ever more aware of what we truly need.  Do we need to do shopping or do we need to declare a moratorium?  If you need a great, yet stern, lecture on not spending when you don't have the money, see this essay in The Washington Post.

What would happen if we kept to a strict schedule during this holiday time?  What if we went to bed early?  How can we make time for exercise?

Since so many of us will be going to social events where we're likely to overeat, maybe we could have a stripped-down eating plan for the rest of the time.  Now is the time for vegetable soups.  Make a big pot and take some for lunch or have some for a light supper before you go to those social events.

Hopefully, you've taken some time to do some budgeting of both your time and money.  Hopefully, you have a plan.

But even if you don't, remember that most of us feel frazzled during this holiday time, and we're often looking for a quick fix.  Remember that most of your cravings are a disguised (or not so disguised) yearning for self-care.  We reach for a cookie when we need quick energy or a happy memory or the feeling that someone loves us.

What is it that you really want when you eat that cookie?  Once you figure that out, you may be able to limit yourself to just one cookie or avoid it completely.  Maybe a hot bath would work just as well.  Maybe an early evening would make you feel more nurtured than a quick cookie.  Maybe it's time for a real meal.

As we head into December, I wish for us all the self-awareness that will help us get the self-care that we need.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Your Holiday Budget: The Time and Energy Edition

Yesterday's post talked about holiday budgets in the monetary sense.  For today, I'd like to think about the upcoming holiday season in terms of time and energy budgets.  I am often so enchanted by the holiday season that I say yes to way too many activities.  I'm so pleased to be included that I say yes, before I think about the rest of my life and obligations. 

I'm hoping that with a bit of planning, I can enjoy activities yet not find myself completely depleted and exhausted by the time I get to January 2.

Here are some suggestions:

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. Consider other ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Maybe this is the year to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Take time to help the needy, and if you have children, bring them along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go carolling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. My parents, along with social institutions like church, Scouts, and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. December is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Plan for how we'll get back on track if we get off track. It's important to remember that even with all the best plans, we may find ourselves overscheduled and cranky. Plan now to forgive yourself for those times. Plan now for how you'll get back on track.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Budget Now for a Sane Holiday Season

Yesterday in the U.S., we celebrated Thanksgiving. Many of us spent the day cooking, eating, and resting in a variety of ways. That's all about to change.  Indeed for a few brave souls, it already has, as they've headed to the stores for bargains, bargains, bargains.

You couldn't pay me enough to go near a store today.  I'd rather pay the extra money.  Instead, this Black Friday is a good time to do some strategic planning to determine a sane approach to the holiday season. Today is a good time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful December, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December?  How can we reach January with our budgets intact, our health robust, and our traditions strengthened?

Today's post will think about our monetary budgets and our shopping.  Tomorrow's post will remind us of other ways to keep the holiday season meaningful yet less stressful

--Make a budget now. Even as you're reading this, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores. Before you go, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need, albeit my needs are fairly simple. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Why give gifts at all?  I understand the appeal of shopping for children, but maybe this year is the one where we should think about why we give gifts to grown-ups, many of whom are perfectly capable of buying those items for themselves.

--Could this be the year that everyone makes their holiday gifts?  I know, it's too late for most of us to knit a sweater or to make anything elaborate.  But why not write a poem for the ones you love?  Why not begin to write the family history?  Why not make a sketch or two?  Make some cookies:  eat some and box some up for presents.

--Have this year be the year of found presents.  Give an interesting stone or shell that you found at the beach.  Make an arrangement of twigs and dried leaves. 

--Or, if you're not surrounded by nature, declare that this will be the year of regifting.  Go ahead and be open about it from the beginning.  Give the young film enthusiast all those DVDs you no longer watch.  Sort through all your baking pans and cookie cutters and give a few to your favorite chef.  Are you really going to read all your books again?  Give them away to people who might enjoy them.

--If you have people on your list who insist on presents that they can open, presents that are brand new and purchased especially for them, see if you can find a way for your gift-giving dollars to support local artisans or local merchants.

--Or use your gift-giving dollars to support farmers and/or artisans from less-developed nations.

--Don't forget that those gift-giving dollars can support the literary culture that writers want to keep thriving.  Give your gift recipient a book or a subscription to a literary journal. 

--Why not give the gift of poetry this year?  For all sorts of suggestions, see this post which contains a list of books arranged by subject and which readers would likely enjoy them.

Tomorrow:  Budgeting time

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Turkey Day Gratitude

It's time to turn our attention to turkeys.  I won't write a long essay.  After all, most of us will be off in the kitchen or spending quality time with our loved ones.  At the very least, we should be thinking about what makes us grateful.

What makes me grateful?  Having enough food to eat.  Much of the world can't count on that.

I'm grateful that the planet still sustains life.  While I'm sad for habitat loss, I'm grateful the next generation still has the opportunity so see wild turkeys, even if in improbable places, like church camps:

I'm grateful that children still draw their hands and turn them into turkeys (below, a family tree with turkeys!):

I'm grateful for whimsy of all kinds:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Poem to Prime Your Thanksgiving

I planned to offer this poem yesterday, but my post was getting a bit long with my memories of my family's farm.  Here's a poem that comes from those stories that my family told me and from the last time that I was at the family homeplace for Thanksgiving.

This poem was originally published in Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley.

Thanks Giving

Finally, I am with my own kinsfolk.
I do not feel a freak of nature anymore.
Here beneath this hook
where my great grandfather butchered hogs and deer,
I stare into faces familiar to me.
My future face.

I have the strong, solid body
which doesn’t belong to this age
of computers and office politics.
I was meant to be up at half a crack of dawn,
fixing a huge breakfast
before I plowed a field and put an addition on the house.
All in a day’s work.

The strength of my people lies
buried in my bones and brain,
a genetic code impossible
to diet or exercise away.
My hips would balance a baby
while I shaped bread dough and slaughtered chickens,
if only I would comply.

But I’ll submit to my genetic destiny on some level.
I will always awaken before sunrise,
always keep an eye to the sky,
track the weather like a second religion.
I’ll cook enough food for a small third world country
and share my good fortune with others.
I’ll tell the family stories
about strong women
with indomitable wills.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tuesday Gratitude: My Extended Family and the Stories that They Fed Me

Each year, days before Thanksgiving, I think of my female relatives across the U.S. South, many of whom have already started cooking the Thanksgiving dinner.  Heck, they probably started weeks ago.
My family on my grandfather's side (my mom's father) used to gather on the family land in Lexington, South Carolina for Thanksgiving, and I suspect that some of them still do. The land remains in the family, but the members that I remember most vividly, my grandfather and his siblings, have all passed on. We just lost the first member of my mom's generation of relatives.  It doesn't seem possible.

I remember some of my mom's cousins, especially Cousin Barbara, who gave me rides to the airport and rescued us once when my boyfriend's car broke down.  Every time we see Cousin Barbara, we laugh about that.  My boyfriend then, who is now my husband, is good natured, and my Cousin Barbara always reminds me that she and her sister-in-law saw it as a grand adventure to go rescue us in Augusta, Georgia at 10:00 at night.

Barbara's son, Burt, had a Honda Prelude, and he took us for fast rides on country roads.  My mom always looked vaguely nervous, but her cousins reassured her that our family would be the only ones using those back roads that crisscrossed between the family plots.  We never saw another vehicle.

Back then, we seemed a million miles away from civilization.  Now civilization, in the form of the suburbs of the capital city of South Carolina, has come to meet my family's land.

Burt also had an Atari Space Invaders game.  We had great fun playing it. 

It was a treat for a suburban girl to get away to a real working farm.  We ate food that had recently been in the ground or walking on the ground.  How many people get that experience?

In addition to farming, my Cousin Barbara had a greenhouse that seemed massive.  She and her sister-in-law grew poinsettias which they shipped across the nation.  If your house or church had a poinsettia in the 1980's and you were east of the Mississippi River, there's a good chance that my Cousin Barbara helped grow it.

More than anything else, I loved sitting around tables full of food, hearing stories from the past.  The men watched football, while the women ate, told stories, and cleaned up.  When I was young, I thought it was unfair, and from the standpoint of division of labor, yes, it was unfair.

But now that I am older, I think that I have had the better portion.  Can you tell me who won the football games that aired on Thanksgiving in the 1980's?  Probably not.  But you'll find the stories I was told woven through my own stories and poems.  They continue to nourish me.

I treasure those stories that were told each Thanksgiving, stories of strong men and women, stories that have found their way into my poems and short stories. My favorite story is of a female relative who had a heart attack while picking the beans, but before she'd let them take her to the hospital, she insisted on changing into clean underwear.

Like I said, those stories have sustained me in ways I couldn't have imagined then.  No matter what happens to me, so far, I've had relatives who have survived much worse and emerged stronger on the other side.

Tomorrow:  a poem that comes from those stories and from the last time that I was at the family homeplace for Thanksgiving. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hecticity Ahead

Did I just create a new word by writing Hecticity in the title?  I mean being in a hectic state.  Hecticity--sounds like electricity.

On Saturday, I wrote to my English history enthusiast friends on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the first one, centuries ago.  I said, "How shall we festivize this event?"

Festivize--a word I will love more than hecticity.  Festivizing is fun.  Enduring hecticity is not.

Our psychologist friends would tell me that when we tolerate hecticity, it must be working for us on some level.  Why do so many of us endure and even embrace hecticity?

Is it because we feel important when our to-do lists stretch long?  Is it because we want to be all things to all people?  We don't want to let anyone down?

Maybe we haven't done the work that it takes to get our priorities straight in the truest way.

For many of us, this will be a week of travel.  For many of us, this will be a week of lots of cooking.  Some of us will brave stores and do major shopping.

We may not take the time to do the activities that are most important to us.  Unfortunately, for many of us, this condition can last until the new year. 

As we move through the next few weeks, let's take notes so that next year we can remember what we treasured and perhaps we can toss the rest.  Let's take notes about the creative projects we wish we had time to attend to--that way, we have notes to refer to in January or February, when time becomes our own a bit more.  Let's do a bit of journaling so that when we're older, we remember these holiday times in more detail.

For many of us, it may be too late to make decisions about how we'll spend our Thanksgiving week.  But it may not be too late to do some planning for the weeks after Thanksgiving.  If we carve out some time to plan for the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's, maybe we won't arrive at 2013 in a state of complete exhaustion.

I'll have blog posts with ideas for how to plan/budget coming on Friday and Saturday.  For now, I have Thanksgiving prep of my own to be completing.  But maybe, before I do that, I'll take some time to write a poem. 

And if you need a poetic inspiration for prioritizing, see today's post on The Writer's Almanac.  The poem by Louise Erdrich is FABULOUS!  Here's a taste:

"Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.

Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood!

Today is the birthday of Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite writers, one of the writers who most inspires me. Every year I hope she's chosen for the Nobel Prize for Literature--she writes in so many different genres, and manages each one so perfectly. I've never finished a novel of hers and felt disappointed; how many authors can make that claim on you?

The first book of hers that I read was The Handmaid's Tale, a book which terrified me with its absolutely believable account of the takeover of the U.S. by a fundamentalist Christian faction. It's a book that holds up remarkably well; I just reread it a few years ago and still found it terrifying.

I must have become an Atwood evangelist, pressing that book into the hands of friends far and wide. I don't remember doing that, but I've had friends who tell me that I told them with great fervor that they must read the book (and I do have a tendency to do that). That book convinced several of us of the importance of women's reproductive rights. Women can have access to a wide range of jobs, but if we can't control our fertility, those opportunities won't mean much.

In later years, I'm also struck by the environmental degradation in that novel and more famously, in her later novels (Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood). When she was in Miami as part of the book tour for Oryx and Crake, she said that before she wrote the book, she did an amazing amount of research, and much (all?) of what she describes could happen: we already have the technology and the know how to do them.

Similarly, she said that when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale that everything that happened in that book was actually occurring to women somewhere on the planet in the mid-80's.

She's written historical fiction and contemporary fiction, in addition to her jaunts into science fiction, and she does them all spectacularly. Her poetry thrills me. Her nonfiction is better written than almost any other non-fiction being written today.

It's writers like Margaret Atwood that inspired me originally to be a writer. What they did, I wanted to do too. Margaret Atwood still inspires me, although with that twinge of sadness that comes from having to admit that I'd need several lifetimes of practice and honing to become as good as she is. But what a wonderful goal to have.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My First Photo Shoot

Yesterday I wrote this post about how I came to have a photo shoot at a Hindu temple.  I felt more fretful than that post would have led you to believe.  I worried about the fact that it wasn't my place of worship, and that we would offend somehow.  I worried about all of us making it there for our appointment time--down here, there are so many traffic-related obstacles.

But most of all, I worried about how I would look.  I thought about what I'd wear, about make-up, and I worried about how my hair would look.  I keep waiting to outgrow my adolescent wish to be so  beautiful that I take everyone's breath away, but I suppose it makes sense, given the culture I live in.

We had permission to take pictures on the outside of the temple, so I also worried about the weather.  What if it rained?  What if it was beastly hot, and I couldn't hide my tendency to sweat?

Eventually I convinced myself to relax.  I told myself that I'd be working with a professional photographer who had a vested interest in making us look good.  And for the most part, I was right.

I was also lucky:  we had good weather with a slight breeze that kept us cool, but didn't make it impossible to keep our hair in place.  I wore the right outfit almost completely by accident; we coordinated colors, but not much beyond that.

I wore a swirly, longer skirt, which was great, since most of our photographs were taken with us sitting on the concrete floor outside the temple.  I'm glad that I didn't know in advance we'd be sitting on the concrete, so that I didn't have to worry about that.  It was tough, sitting on the concrete and holding poses for as long as we did. 

But the photographer had it worse.  He had to lay on his stomach to take the shots.

Throughout the photo shoot, I thought of all the articles that come out that tell us how to look better when pictures are taken.  Of course, I read those articles and can never remember what to do when it's time to take a picture.  It probably wouldn't help unless I spent hours practicing.  And why do that, when I so seldom appear in pictures that will matter in any lasting way.

I'm not sure that the pictures that we took yesterday will matter in a lasting way.  It will provide a nice illustration to the article, should that article ever appear.  I wrote it almost a year ago, for a planned publication date of May 2012.  I'm thinking that if the magazine has commissioned pictures, that it will use the article and the pictures--but it may not.

I'm most grateful for my friend, who not only got us clearance to photograph at the temple, but who agreed to appear with me in the pictures in a national magazine.  Not every friend I have would do that.

It's also interesting to watch a freelance photographer in action.  I've always loved the idea of being a photojournalist, and I think that our photographer comes from that background.  He talked about his journalism background when we asked him if he'd Photoshop us into beauty.  He said that he comes out of a work environment, newspapers like the Miami Herald, where Photoshopping would be grounds for firing.  He told us of going to news conferences and wishing that he could move certain objects that were in his way, like a Coke can--even affecting the scene in that way was taboo.

Watching the photographer working reminded me of how difficult the job can be.  There's lots of equipment, much of it heavy, and wires/cables/cords.  There are the circumstances that one can't control, like weather and setting and the limitations of your subjects.  And of course, there's the instability of the job market. 

So, our photo shoot was fun, in a grueling kind of way. It's not as glamorous as it looks--always a good thing to remember.  Our photographer was patient and gracious and personable.  We had the advantage of a beautiful day spent in peaceful surroundings that brought a deep contentment. It was more than worth the temporary pain from sitting in strange poses on a hard floor, more than worth the anxiety that I always experience at the thought of having my picture taken.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Today's Agenda: A Photo Shoot at a Hindu Temple

Today I have a photo shoot at a Hindu temple.

How often does a writer and an administrator get to say that?  So let me say it again.

Today I have a photo shoot at a Hindu temple. 

That sounds very glamorous, doesn’t it? A photo shoot, a Hindu temple.

You're probably asking yourself, is she the one taking the pictures?  Nope, not this time.  I'm the subject.


Some time ago, I was commissioned to write an article about the new face of ecumenism for The Lutheran magazine.  My article talks about how when we talked about ecumenism 40 years ago, we were talking about reaching out to Catholics or Baptists, or maybe Jews if we were adventurous.  Now an ecumenical outreach might include Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others.

My article, at least as I originally wrote it, talks about doing yoga at my friend's Hindu temple with my Hindu friend.  And so, today, my Hindu friend and I will got to her temple, and a photographer will take pictures outside, which is allowed.  We will not be holding yoga poses.  It is not that kind of magazine.

A photo shoot at a Hindu temple.

It sounds so very Eat, Pray, Love, except that my article is written about an entirely different topic, and there won’t be a movie, and if there was, Julia Roberts would probably not play me.

It didn’t pay quite as handsomely as a blockbuster memoir and movie would pay.  But it did pay, and it will be a publication, and who knows where these things may lead?

And in the meantime, it's fun to tell people that I have to be out of the office today because I have a photo shoot at a Hindu temple.  I'm trying to say it breezily, the way that Julia Roberts might say it, if she played me in a movie.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Holocene Extinctions, Poems, and Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls

Last night, after talking with a colleague about the endangered status of full-time Humanities teaching jobs, I came home to read a bit more of Craig Childs' Apocalyptic Planet, which continues to fascinate with its tales of lost cultures of the past.

Then, after my spouse came home from making music on old-fashioned instruments and with his voice, we looked at the catalogue from the World Wildlife Organization.  For certain amounts of monetary donations, we get plush stuffed animals.  I started thinking about how many of those cuddly creatures are rapacious predators in real life.

I wondered how many of them could survive as a species for the next decade or two.  Some will surely go extinct.  For that matter, we all might.  We're in the middle of one of the great mass extinctions, after all.  We don't really see it, because we're in the middle of it.

Childs says, "The postapocalyptic scenario of people living in the fresh scrap of their own collapsed societies is more Hollywood than reality.  Collapses tend to take time, an evolution in themselves.  Rome wouldn't have known it was falling even as poverty and decay spread, aqueducts failed, schools dissolved, and armies stretched untenable distances.  The city was still standing, still occupied, the whole while" (p. 120).

We're in the middle of such a collapse, perhaps a much larger one, but we still don't see it, at least not on a daily basis.  This morning I ate frozen raspberries:  raspberries in mid November!  I don't dare calculate the fossil fuel costs in getting me my breakfast.  If I start looking at my food through that social justice lens, what will I eat?

This morning, I worked on a poem.  At first it wanted to be a preachy poem, all about corn and how it permeates all of a toddler's diet, from the chicken feed to the fuel used to get the chicken nuggets to the store.

Michael Pollan did this so much better in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

So, I tried again.  The first stanza still had a bit of way too much preachiness:

In the midst of the 6th great die off,
she orders Christmas presents for the children: 
plush toys that support
a fund to sustain
wildlife habitat.  She wonders
if these creatures are doomed
already.  She imagines a plush
toy that makes humans cute
and cuddly, instead of rapacious predators


Again, I started, and this time, although I'm not done, I'm closer to satisfied.  I told myself that I couldn't use the words Holocene or extinction or fossil fuel footprint.  The speaker adds cashews to her raspberries and yogurt as she orders Christmas presents.  Some readers will understand the implications (hey, raspberries aren't in season at Christmas!  hey, cashews come a long way for your breakfast!), but some won't, and that will be fine.

Now it's time to start thinking about the day ahead.  I have pumpkin cinnamon rolls rising (from a Smitten Kitchen recipe found here).  There will be meetings later in the day.  I may need sweetness.

But more importantly, Thanksgiving comes in just one week.  It's going to be 84 degrees here today.  Clearly I cannot rely on the weather to put me in an autumnal mood.  Maybe cinnamon-scented baked goods will.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Poetically Painting the Same Planet Twice

Today is the birthday of Claude Monet, the man who "spent the rest of his career exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice. In a single day, he would often paint the same subject half a dozen times, from slightly different angles and in slightly different light, spending no more than about an hour on each canvas" (quote from today's entry on The Writer's Almanac website).

Some days, I feel like I'm doing something similar in aspects of my writing, but that bit of knowledge about Monet gives me hope.  I often think, oh, honestly, how long can I keep writing about the dullness of the modern office and still have people be interested?  The popularity of Monet's water lilies gives me hope that it can be done.

I'm also intrigued by the fact that Monet planned and planted the water lily gardens that gave him his subject for the last 30 years of his life.  It makes me wonder about my own artistic life.  How can I surround myself with inspiration?

I've been reading Craig Childs, a writer who gives me that inspiration.  What a poetic science writer!

In his latest book, Apocalyptic Planet, he visits places on the globe that are already experiencing the kind of events that could wipe out life on our planet.  For example, the first chapter has him making his way through an intense desert landscape.  Last night, as I became too exhausted to read, he was exploring an iceberg.

Even when he's writing about impending loss, he's got such a beautiful style.  He talks of his surprise at touching a melting iceberg and finding it cold.  He considers the iceberg:  "Was this some poor, dying wastrel, or was it getting what the ice always wanted, turned back into liquid after thousands of years of being chained into a molecular solid, now freed drip by drip?" (p. 42).

The book is also chock full of scientific facts, all sorts of information I didn't know about deserts, about the history of the earth, about the planet.  Fascinating!

Childs has been here before.  He has led the kind of life that makes me both envious and anxious.  He's the type of guy who sets out on foot, without the latest equipment, with just his knowledge and a walking stick to get him where he needs to go.  I remember reading The Secret Knowledge of Water, which explores the idea of water in the desert.

The earth has been here before too.  The planet has survived die-offs even greater than the Holocene Extinction we're experiencing now.  Of course, that's little comfort when we consider all the species gone forever.

I wonder what kind of poems will come from reading Childs' latest book.  After I read The Secret Knowledge of Water, I wrote the poem below, which was published in The Ledge.

Floods and Desert Canyons

My friends assume I’m dry
and barren. They do not know of my secret
spots, a cup of water here, a pool
collected there. An occasional visit
from you keeps me hydrated.

I boil away with my own dreams and ideas.
I blaze with words, my surfaces
too hot to touch. My pitiless gaze
burns as I survey my culture,
dream of new life forms.

You surge through my carefully constructed canyons.
In a matter of minutes, you change the landscape,
sweep away the detritus.
You carve me into intricate
forms, unconsidered before I met your force.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tuesday Technology Thoughts

Some day in the future, when people marvel how we used technology--and how we failed to utilize its full capabilities--they may think of the morning that I've had.

I got up and tracked the movements of my package that's coming from Amazon.  Yes, I love tracking my packages.  I track other things too, like the progress of a plane that contains my loved ones.

I don't have that tracking info sent to my phone.  I'm surrounded by screens, so no need for that.  I've resisted upgrading to a phone that does more.  I know I'd love having access to that data, and then, boom, there's another monthly expense that seems impossible to cut.

My package contains an old-fashioned book and an old-fashioned DVD.  How strange to think that in roughly 10-15 years years, the DVD has gone from being new technology to old technology.

I'm buying a DVD copy of A Christmas Story.  Yes, I know that cable runs it incessently, but we don't have cable.  We've owned this movie on a VCR tape that we made illegally and on an official VCR tape.  Now I'll upgrade to a DVD and wait for whatever technology comes next.

The book that will come in that box?  Craig Childs' Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth.  It looks at all the ways the planet is threatened.  I can hardly wait to dive in.  Yes, give me a good book that talks about the Holocene Extinction, and I'm so anticipating the joy of reading it that I can hardly wait.

But wait I must.  I didn't download the book to my computer.  I don't have a portable reading device.  If I was buying a new device, that might be the one I'd be most likely to purchase.  But again, I'm resisting.

I may write more once the box gets here:  what does it mean that I have ordered a movie steeped in nostalgia, a movie set in the sepia-toned past, along with a forward-looking yet eschatological book?  I am a self-admitted apocalypse gal.  And I am prone to getting swamped in nostalgia.  Hmm.

After tracking my package, I got set up to address envelopes.  In the past few days, I've prepared a lot of poetry packets for submissions to journals.  Some I've submitted electronically or by e-mail.  An equal amount are going out in the U.S. Mail.  In envelopes with stamps.

But I don't mind.  I love stamps.  My grandfather Roof collected them, and so did I for a few years.  I love mail of all kinds, whether it comes to my electronic mailbox or the one outside my house.

As I addressed envelopes--by hand, with a pen--I listened to one of the episodes from yesterday's The Diane Rehm Show.  You can listen too by going here.

Diane Rehm interviewed Deb Perelman, who has just had a cookbook published.  But before that, she's been a very popular food blogger.  I have only recently heard of her, but she gets thousands of people visiting her blog every month.  I'm thrilled when my numbers get close to 100 a day, but I doubt that many of those people stay there very long.

Her story reminds me of how technology has made all sorts of interesting options available.  Deb Perelman writes her blog and takes her own pictures with a normal camera.  And her work is published daily, with daily readers.  And now, she's got a book out with paper pages.

She said that 80% of the book is new recipes.  She said she didn't want readers to feel shortchanged, as she thought they would if she simply collected the recipes that have been available on her blog for free.

It's an interesting issue.  Some would tell you that there are plenty of readers who will pay for a book so that they don't have to slog through all your blog entries to find the ones they want.  I'm not so sure.

I have been sorting through my old blogs as I look for entries that could lead to good essays for the memoir I'm planning.  As I've sorted, I've kept a different file of blog entries that could make good stand-alone articles.

Daily blogging does leave one with a lot of possible material.  And we've seen that it can lead to further publications too, as with Deb Perelman.

As I listened to her interview, which is well worth your time, I found myself yearning to be discovered in a similar way.  I remind myself that she blogged in relative obscurity for many years before she came into this success.

And I remind myself that blogging has led me to some writing success I wouldn't have had otherwise.  I was in touch with my editor at the Living Lutheran site yesterday; she found me through my blog a few years ago, when I didn't have much traffic at all.

I will continue to work on various projects, never knowing which might be the breakthrough project.  I've got a wide variety of theological and spiritual writings.  But I've also got recipes, fiction of all kinds, teaching ideas, writing prompts, all sorts of larger possibilities. 

Last week, a colleague asked me if I would leave our current school if I got an offer.  I said, "What kind of offer?"

We chatted about it, and I realized yet again that I don't want to leave administration to go back to endless Composition classes.  But to be a poetry professor?  Perhaps. 

I said, "If a publisher called me and said, 'We hear you've been working on a memoir about living a spiritually authentic life in an office setting that doesn't always support that idea.  Here's an advance so that you can quit working and get us a manuscript by June,"--if I got that phone call, I'd be turning in my letter of resignation."

But then we talked about how big the advance would need to be.  I'd like for it to be a clear sign:  a million dollar advance is a much clearer sign that a twenty thousand advance.

My brain returns to the future person analyzing how we used technology in the first part of the twenty-first century.  Will that person understand why I so much wanted a publisher to sweep in and award me a big advance? 

Or will that future person say, "She had all the publishing tools right there, inside her computer.  Why didn't she do more with those?"

Monday, November 12, 2012

Beauty and Other Myths

Today is the birthday of Naomi Wolf, who turns 50.  I don't really see how that can be possible, since she's just a few years older than I am, and I'm only 27.

Oh, wait, I was only 27, when Wolf's first book, The Beauty Myth, came out.  She came to the University of South Carolina to do a reading, and some of us went to see her.  After the reading, she was so gracious as she chatted with us.  I was deep in dissertation revisions, and she rolled her eyes and said something about needing to get back to her dissertation.  Was she enrolled in grad school?  I assumed that she was, but if so, it's not mentioned now.  Still, at the time, it gave me an odd comfort.

When The Beauty Myth came out, I was in the throes of all kinds of self-loathing.  I'd never worked on such a big project as my dissertation.  Now, the revisions and the having to please various committee members would not freak me out as much as they did then.  Then I worried I was caught in a cycle I'd never be allowed to leave.

It was also 1992, during one of the more brutal recessions, when I was on the job market and fretting that I wouldn't find anything.

When I'm stressed, I eat, and so I had packed on some weight during my dissertation writing process.  I was depressed about that.

Naomi Wolf's book couldn't have come at a better time, although it didn't magically fix my mental woes.  Still it was a comfort to read, "You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all.  The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her" (p. 290).

I dug out my copy of The Beauty Myth, and there's her autograph.  And there's a flyer about the events the University sponsored for Women's History Month.  How I miss that university culture!  When I think about all the interesting thinkers and entertainers who came through Columbia, South Carolina when I was in grad school.  And I got to see them for free or for a few dollars.

I will not be reading Naomi Wolf's latest book, although I will continue to wish her well.  My reading time is much more constrained, so reading a treatise, feminist or otherwise, about vaginas is not on my agenda right now--although if I found the book in the public library, I might check it out and give it a scan.

And knowing the writing skill that Naomi Wolf has always exhibited, I imagine I'd end up spending the afternoon in deep reading.  And that experience would make me happy.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In Praise of Military Veterans

Today is Veteran's Day.  Before it was Veteran's Day, it Armistice Day, the day that celebrates the end of World War I.  World War II was far more brutal in terms of lives lost and far reaching impact, but World War I was the war that stripped away all sorts of illusions and also showed us how technology might be used for destruction (think mustard gas).  I've written a longer post about Armistice Day here.

Now Armistice Day has become Veteran's Day, a day perhaps less somber than Armistice Day or Memorial Day.  On Veteran's Day, we celebrate all veteran's, but on Memorial Day, we celebrate those who died in military service.

I do wonder about the future of Veteran's Day as fewer and fewer people know any veterans.  Or maybe as we wind down two wars which have lasted more than a decade, we're all about to meet more veterans.  I think of college students.  When I first started working at my current school, we had one or two veterans attending.  I suspect the reasons are many, but the main one was that most people eligible for VA benefits had already finished their schooling, while younger military folks were off fighting.  Now, as more soldiers come home, we're seeing those numbers increase.

I have some older, Baby Boomer friends who are anti-military in ways that make me think they've never met many military folks.  I understand their Vietnam War era issues, but their world view seems a bit narrow to me.

Of course, my world view is shaped by my experience as the daughter of an Air Force officer.  My dad had finished his active duty by my early childhood years, but he continued to serve in the Reserves until he retired.

In some ways, we were lucky, since he wasn't wounded in the many ways that others who served in the Vietnam War would be.  He joined the Air Force because he knew his draft number was coming up, and he didn't want to be drafted into the Army.  I remember the shock I felt when he told me that fact.  I always thought he had joined because of his patriotic feelings.  And he joined fairly early in the effort, 1962 or so.  I hadn't thought that the draft had been in force back then, but it was.

So, he joined the Air Force and trained to become a navigator.  Along the way, he met and married my mom.  They were stationed in France, the last troops to be in France before Charles de Gaulle kicked them all out.  Because they were in France, they could travel all across Europe.  They had a view of the world that they shared with me and my sister.

Because of my dad's Reserve duties, we, too, travelled all sorts of places.  One year, his two week active duty tour required him to go to Denver, and so we all went and had a huge 5 week adventure in the western states.  Along the way, we stopped to visit many of their friends that they'd made in during their Air Force days in France.  He more often did his two week tours in the Pentagon, which meant that my mom and me and my sister had lots of time to explore the D.C. area--we went to every museum and attraction before it was all done.

My parents have continued to go to fascinating places because they served.  My mom is great at devising trips where they fly Space A.  If there's room on the plane, they can go.  They need to have flexibility in terms of travel and accommodation, but my mom has always been great at that.

I'm hoping that our current and future VA administrations will take care of veterans the way my parents have been taken care of.  We may not always agree with the wars that have been waged, but veterans are men and women who served their country in a unique way, and they deserve to get the benefits promised to them--and more.

Here's a picture of my father during his active duty days:

He's the one kneeling in the far lower right as you look at the picture.  I'm amazed by how young they all look, and at the same time, the sort of timelessness of the picture.  Air Force uniforms haven't changed all that much since this picture was taken.

Did he really change the world by serving in France and flying missions to Asia?  How can we know for sure?  Perhaps the Soviets didn't invade West Germany because they knew of nearby troops.  It's hard to argue that his missions to Asia brought an earlier end to the Vietnam War, since it would continue for a lot longer. 

But we often do not know the impact of our work.  We must do the work that is required of us, even if we're unsure of its import.

Many active duty military people and veterans have done that work.  So few of us are aware of what they do, and today is a good day to stop and to feel some appreciation--as well as the hope that some day wars will cease and this kind of service won't be necessary.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Secret Movie Night

Yesterday, I called home and left a message.  I said, "I'd really like a Secret Movie Night tonight.  Let's have burgers and wine and a Cadbury fruit and nut bar and watch a movie."

I realize that the term "Secret Movie Night" might make grown-up readers think of all sorts of illicit adventures, but we got that term from our nephew.  Some years ago, my brother-in-law instituted Secret Movie Night, where he and my nephew would watch a movie on the laptop or iPad.  Later, they'd add the element of eating dinner in pajamas.

To me, the phrase says that we need a retreat, and we need something special but not too expensive.  Our week left us wrung out in all sorts of ways, and it was good to withdraw.  We had the dinner I envisioned while watching We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I'd read the book by Lionel Shriver, so I wasn't expecting it to be a cheery, uplifting movie.  It wasn't.  But it was extraordinarily good.  As I read the book, I couldn't imagine how they would adapt it into a movie, but they did.  It's compelling, but not too creepy.  And it makes me say, "Oh my heavens, my life could be so much worse."  I needed that reminder at the end of a week that included a referral to a neurosurgeon for my spouse and his beleaguered spine.

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther, and I was struck by today's entry on The Writer's Almanac, particularly this bit:  "Luther's ideas and his writing led to the Protestant Reformation. But toward the end of his life, he was so overwhelmed by the scope of the revolution he had caused that he stayed out of the limelight, at home in Germany, raising a family, gardening, and playing music."

Being a good Lutheran girl, I'd always assumed that Martin Luther felt great satisfaction at his life's accomplishments.  I was always taught that he hadn't meant to launch a revolution when he posted those theses to the Wittenberg door. But I have assumed that after years of confrontation with the Catholic church, after being hunted and under threat of death, that he would have felt victorious at the end.

I love Luther's coping mechanism: to immerse himself into home life and music. It's good to remember that even as we go out to fight the battles that must be fought, it's good to have retreat time and times of self-nurture.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Leave to Grieve

I'm trying not to feel spooked about today.  But I've already spilled coffee, noticed that an unmended seam has expanded, stepped on something that happily was a thumbtack and not gum.  Maybe I'm just worn out.  Maybe the day will improve.

Regardless of my irritations, the day could be worse.  I have one friend headed to the funeral of her brother, while another one returns home from the funeral of his mother's husband.  I say mother's husband, because she married him late in life, and stepfather connotes something different.

I'm amazed at how stingy bereavement leave can be.  My South Carolina state employee friend gets 3 days, and my Florida state employment friend gets 2.  I get 5, and my bereavement leave covers all sorts of loved ones.  Under Florida law for state employees, if your stepfather dies after your mother and he have divorced, you have no bereavement leave.

Meanwhile, there's no bereavement leave to mourn the losses of midlife.  My spouse has gone to his GP to explore MRI results, and it's worse than we thought.  On the one hand, the pain that he's been feeling all year does have a physical cause.  On the other, his poor spine!

Next in line, the neurosurgeon.  I'm trying not to be scared.  I'm reminding myself that in the realm of "for better and for worse," there are many scenarios that could be far worse.  My spouse is still on this side of the grave, and surgery techniques have improved since the 1970's when our mothers had back surgery, and it's not cancer or any of the other scarier diseases.

I suppose I could take a personal day and weep.  But I'll stay at work and try to be of use.  I'll expect gravity to be working overtime today, and I'll tell everyone that my contact lenses are bothering me so that they won't suspect that I'm feeling weepy.

There's one thing I've learned:  administrators should avoid weeping on the job.  It spooks everyone.  They look for layoffs.

Maybe I'll plan a treat.   Maybe two!  A morning treat and an afternoon treat.  Something that won't spill.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Politics Poetry Prompts

In the months leading up to the election, my friends in less divided states or states that weren't important in terms of the Electoral College told me how lucky I was to live in Florida where my vote would really make  a difference.

Ha!  While I do think my vote has been counted, it has not been lost on me that our state's votes didn't actually help choose the President.  Yep, we're still counting absentee ballots down here, while the election has already been determined.

We had an incident in Miami-Dade county on Sunday where various political "leaders" were making decisions at cross purposes.  Yes, we'd expand early voting, but we wouldn't tell the police so there wasn't parking available and people who voted got parking tickets or had their cars towed.  The mayor shut down the process, and some other official reopened it.

My Jacksonville friend said, "What are you people doing down there?"

I said, "It's typical Miami.  It's a 3rd world country down here.  It's a wonder no one got shot."

Seems there should be a poem in there somewhere.  I also noticed how many of my friends and colleagues had loved ones die on Election Day.  And of course, so close to Halloween and the feasts of All Saints and All Souls--again, I see some poetic connections.

My favorite poem of this political year comes from January O'Neil.  In this post, she gives us "You Bring Out the Mitt Romney in Me."  It's inspired by  "You Bring Out the Mexican in Me" by Sandra Cisneros and "You Bring Out the Boring White Guy in Me" by Jim Daniels (poems and links at this post).

On Election Day morning, I realized it had been several weeks since I had written a poem, and her post inspired me.  I thought about other candidates, but what tumbled out was "You Bring Out the Monk in Me."  As I was writing it, it seemed like it might turn out to be one of the more insipid list poems I'd ever written.  But I kept going, and it took surprising turns, and I think it might end up being a love poem.

I like these poems not only because they're interesting poems and great examples of the list poem.  It's also a great way to explore our prejudices.  If I was teaching a poetry class, I'd include a module on the list poem.  I'd start with simple ideas, and end with these examples.  I'd encourage students to use their lists to explore deeper topics.

I wonder how this exercise might work in a Composition classroom.  Could students make lists of prejudices and stereotypes and then explore them both in a poem and in an expository essay?  I think they could.  And of course, there are some seeds for a researched essay in there too.

Maybe you're ready for a non-political prompt.  Here's a list poem that may take you in a different direction:  spiritual, captivity narrative, which will you choose?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Content of Our Character on Election Day

A friend wrote to me yesterday to ask if I was waiting in those long Florida lines that she was seeing on her T.V.

Nope--but we did wait longer to vote than I've ever had to wait.  Still, it was only 35 minutes waiting in a line outside in gorgeous weather (I'm so glad we don't vote in July or August!), and everyone was in a good mood.

I saw such a diversity of people:  all ages, a variety of ethnicities and skin tones, and equally split amongst genders.  Down here, it's tough to tell about class and employment by the state of our clothes; most of us waiting in line wore fairly faded and raggedy clothes, but that doesn't necessarily mean what it might elsewhere.  I heard English and Spanish, but no Creole:  not many Haitians in my neighborhood, I guess.

While we were waiting, I said, "Obama will win in a surprise landslide.  You heard it here first."

My spouse laughed and said, "We heard it here only.  You're the only one who thinks that's possible."  He gave me that smile that makes me feel like a treasure he's found.  He said, "You do have remarkable abilities when it comes to predicting hurricanes, so we'll see."

This was my first election where I needed my reading glasses, although if I had squinted, I could have made out most of it.  You may have heard about our amendments to the state's constitution that made our ballots so long; I couldn't have read those without my glasses, but I had already read them and made decisions--and written them down on my sample ballot.

What I really needed was more light.  The privacy booths didn't let in much light, and I could have used more.

When I first opened my ballot, I saw the non-English language, and at first I thought I had the wrong ballot.  Then I realized I had opened it from the wrong direction, so I was looking at the amendments section, which was written in 3 languages, one of them English.

My spouse and I voted and went home.  We made BLT sandwiches, with lettuce that he's been growing in containers in the back yard.  Delicious!

Then it was time to wait--and wait and wait and wait.  I snoozed and tuned in and snoozed and tuned in.

Was it a landslide?  I heard NPR's Maura Liasson call say that Obama won the electoral college vote "in a landslide."

It wasn't the landslide that I half expected, but it wasn't the razor's edge of a win that wouldn't have surprised me either.  Still, I'm glad that it was decisive.

I'm glad for all sorts of reasons, but I didn't want the first time we elected a minority candidate to be seen as a fluke.  We did it once, and then we did it again.

And did you notice how many women we elected as a nation?  I watched the returns on PBS, and at one point, they reported on 3 races, with three women winners, and they remarked on how rare that would have been until, well, now.

And the first uncloseted lesbian won a Senate seat.  Hurrah!  And there were gains in the gay marriage front.

I like these movements towards inclusiveness.  For the first time, I feel I can make a much stronger argument that we really are a nation where these things are possible.

I think about all the times in the not-too-distant past whenI asked my Composition classes which we would elect first, a minority male or a female of any color.  We had great discussions, and they often wrote good essays, but we all agreed that it would take decades for that to happen, if it was even possible in our lifetimes.  But now, it won't surprise me if we elect a woman in the next 10 years.  It won't surprise me if it's a woman of color.  Could we be ready for a lesbian of color to be President?  That would say something about our nation's inclusiveness.

We awake this morning to a world of sobering challenges:  climate change and economic issues and large chunks of the nation out of work, and so many people feeling hopeless.  There was a moment last night, after it was clear that Obama had won, where I thought, hmm, I wonder what happens to my job over the next few years.  I work in a for-profit college, and the days for for-profit colleges may be numbered.  I'm making plans and saving money.

But for now, let me not think of rising seas and vanishing jobs.  For now, let me be happy that I live in a nation where so many of us participate in this democracy, where we seem that much closer to Dr. Martin Luther King's vision of a world where we're judged by the content of our character.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day Ponderings

--If I never hear the phrase "voter suppression" again, that would be fine with me.  I cast my first vote in 1984, and I can tell you, it was harder to vote then.  I had to prove that I couldn't be at the polling place before I was allowed to have an absentee ballot.  This year, I've had a multitude of ways to cast my ballot:  absentee/mail-in, early (in all sorts of ways), and today in person.

--A colleague at work who firmly believes in orchestrated voter suppression calls me an optimist.  She is convinced that Republicans will steal the election, and we will never know the truth.  She also believes that a team of 4-6 people, one of whom was George Bush, orchestrated the September 11 attacks.  She says she's cynical.

--I say that she's the opposite of cynical.  In a weird way, she has more hope for humanity, albeit in a negative way, than I do.  I have seen how humans work together, or don't work together, as the case might be.  I don't believe that humans can work together to the extent it would take to steal a nationwide election.  I don't believe that many humans could come up with a plan and then convince so many other to go along--and then they'd all stay quiet about it.  Plus, I've met too many elections officials, workers, and volunteers.  It's really hard to steal an election.  There are so many safeguards in place, among them the honesty of all those workers.

--That last sentence shows that I am truly an optimist.  I've seen too many amazing things not to be a fierce optimist.  Nelson Mandela walking out of jail, Eastern European countries set free:  those are just two of the events that keep me from falling into a pit of despair.

--Plus, I know a lot of Republicans.  They're not that different from Democrats, aside from the radical fringes of either side.

--Let's face it, most of us want the same things.  We want a safe world for our kids.  We want to belive that the future will be better than the past.  We want basic human needs to be met.  We don't want to go to bed with full stomachs if others are going to bed starving.

--Our political system is set up so that nothing too radical is likely to happen, no matter who gets elected.

--And let us not forget that we do have a voice, and we can make a difference.  The people who whine most about having no voice often can't tell me the name of even one of their House or Senate representatives.  But those people representing us do listen.  Go here for one of my favorite stories about a phone call that I made that helped change the course of a bill.  An antipoverty bill seemed doomed to failure, but a variety of religious and social justice organizations mobilized and changed the future of that bill.

--On this day, I think of all the people of the past who had no voice, no vote, the people who fought and organized and protested and wouldn't go away, and now, people like me get to vote.  Black men have had voting rights for longer than females have.  Of course I will vote today.

--I like to vote on Election Day.  The lines are shorter, because more polling places are open.  But more than that, I like the idea that across the nation, people of all sorts are doing this one activity.  I know that many votes have already been cast.  But I like to vote on Election Day.

--I remember past Election Days.  I remember going to vote with my parents as a child; I thought that voting was just the coolest thing that adults got to do.  I remember 4 years ago when my spouse and I walked to our polling place.  We saw a multicultural group of much younger voters walking in the opposite direction with "I voted" stickers on their clothes.  They were so jubilant.

--Not every Election Day can be a day of jubilation.  But it can be a day of gratitude:  it's an amazing concept, this idea of participatory democracy, no matter who wins.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Eve

It seems there should be some kind of tradition for the day before Election Day, something beyond screening the phone calls.

I did have fun in Williamsburg.  I picked up the phone, and the voice asked to speak to my father, or any other person registered to vote who resided at the address of the phone.  I said, "I'm registered to vote in Florida."  The caller was completely flummoxed.  He said, "Well, I do need to talk to Florida registered voters, but that's not this phone call."  I said, "I'm your only option."

Encountering a voter registered in a different state was clearly not part of the script.  Finally, I decided to stop this agony.  I said, "I'm going to hang up now so that you can keep calling people on your list so that you're more likely to make your quota."

No, I don't want to spend today fending off the telephone callers.  I don't want to see one more political ad.  I'm weary to the bone when it comes to talking about election issues.  If one more person utters the words "voter suppression," I may have to stuff my ears with cotton batting and refuse to leave my office.

I'd like something more life affirming than those fountains of spewing negativity.  I'd like good food to eat.  I'd like to spend some time visioning a brighter future.  I'm tired of feeling fearful.

I predict that we won't be put out of our collective misery by tomorrow night.  I predict that there will be too many ballots still coming in that have to be counted by hand.

I could be wrong.  Maybe all the polls are wrong, and one candidate is headed for a landslide victory, an unmistakable event that doesn't demand a recount.  It's happened before.

Maybe today I'll  do some mending. I have holes in seams that need a few stitches. I have buttons that need to be returned to clothes.  Restoring my clothes to order always restores calm.  Sewing a straight seam feels soothing.

Maybe I'll spend some time today writing a poem.  It feels like a long time since I've done that.  That would feel life affirming. 

Maybe I'll prepare some poetry packets for submission.  That would feel like a vote for a brighter future.  Or maybe I'll start working on the essays that are due in December.  That, too, would feel like a vote for a brighter future.

I created a harvest stew that I'll take to the office for lunch (maybe I'll post a recipe later; it's very simple, but not vegetarian).  I have zucchini muffins made by a friend.  I'll be sure to eat nourishing food today to keep up my strength for what's to come.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Walking Gallery: Art Trek Dania Beach

On Thursday, a colleague called and asked if I wanted to be part of a flash mob type gathering on Saturday.  She said we'd dress in black and walk from her studio to a new gallery that some of our student alumni had just opened in Dania, FL.  We'd hold paintings and walk; we'd be a moving gallery of sorts.

I thought it sounded intriguing, and so I went.  It happened much as she had in mind.  We began in the studio that she shares with her spouse.  I love artists' studios.  I love the supplies, the tools, the works-in-progress, the sense of potential and creativity at work.

We had a variety of people walking:  painters, poets/writers, fabric artists, students, a child.  We tried to keep several feet between us.  We walked on the sidewalk and held the paintings out to the streets.

At one point, we heard distant sirens drawing closer.  I thought of all the social justice gatherings I've attended in the past, all the times I didn't get arrested.  I peacefully protested nuclear weapons at the Pentagon; I demanded that the U.S. divest from South Africa to show disapproval of apartheid.  I thought of the AIDS marches, the pro-choice marches, all without incident.  Would this be the time I got arrested?  Are there laws preventing people from holding their paintings and walking on a sidewalk?

Of course not.  The sirens weren't about us at all.  A few cars from the sheriff's department blared by us, and we kept walking to our final destination.

We talked about doing this more often.  I would have liked some way to convey to motorists what we were doing.  We walked past political poster after political poster.  I'm sure those motorists wondered what we were protesting.

I saw the opportunity for promotion.  I know that a flash mob is supposed to seem like a spontaneous thing, and thus, alerting the media early subverts that idea.  Still, it seems like a shame to lose the possibility of explaining the importance of the arts.

I remind myself that it's not my flash mob.  Maybe that wasn't our purpose at all.

Still, it was fun to gather with other artists, to hear about their projects, to take a short walk on a Saturday with glorious weather in support of an arts district.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Shelter in Place--the Paid Time Off Edition

For the past 3 years, this week-end would be the one I would spend at Mepkin Abbey: communing with monks, walking the grounds, reading, reconnecting with friends, and working on writing projects. But because of a series of events, we moved our monastery trip to February, and I found myself home alone while my spouse flew to his board meeting in North Carolina.

I decided to go ahead and take yesterday off. I'd gotten my Paid Time Off leave time approved, and the end of the year approaches, when my PTO evaporates. I decided to have a day spent in writing projects and contemplation.  I had planned to have a monastery-like week-end here.
It both happened that way and didn't happen that way. I did get some work on writing projects done, but not the ones I planned to work on. I did do some cooking, but not the bread baking that I planned to do. To be fair, even the Mepkin monks no longer do their own bread baking, since Brother Boniface died. I walked the grounds here, but I was mowing the lawn.

Once again, I am struck by how easy it is to get a variety of projects done when one doesn't have to go to work.  I put together the care packages that I've been wanting to complete and get mailed.  I went to the post office and got a free parking space, and even though there's always a line at my post office, it moved quickly.

I went to the library.  I got books that are hot off the press, including the new Barefoot Contessa cookbook!  I always feel like I've won a rare prize when I find a book at the library that I'd consider buying, so I get to read it for free.  I also got Gretchen Rubin's Happier at Home, which I read much of yesterday.  I'll do a more complete review later, but for now, let me just say that I liked it much better than her original happiness book--but the stuff that I liked about The Happiness Project is still there:  it's rooted in her daily life, and it's got good lessons for all of us as we try to live good lives.

I'm most intrigued by silence issue.  One of the things that exhausts me most about work is the constant interactions with people, people who are often not in a good mood.  Not all my days are like that, but far too many are. 

So, yesterday, I looked forward to having minimal interactions with other humans. It both happened that way and it didn't.  I had a few interactions (at spin class, during errand running), but for the most part, I didn't talk much.  I didn't talk much, but I had NPR on most of the day. Our NPR station doesn't switch to music until much later in the night, so my day was filled with talk.

By the end of the day, I was feeling a bit of anxiety. I often feel a bit of anxiety as the sun begins its slow descent. But I think I also felt anxiety because of the coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Would I feel the same anxiety if I didn't live on the other end of the hurricane corridor? There's that survivor's guilt that comes from having dodged a bullet. There's that terror in knowing that the odds are against me. How long before it is me without power and water, picking up the sticks of my smashed house/life?

After our disastrous hurricane season of 2005, I was desperate to move.  For a variety of reasons, that didn't happen.  In the years since, I've noticed that no place seems safe on a wrecked planet.  At least you can see a hurricane coming, in a way that you can't with tornadoes or earthquakes.

I am amazed at all these people who are so surprised/outraged that it's day 4 or 5, depending on how you count, and they still don't have power restored.  Really?  Really???!!!!   I could have told them that it would take time.  After Hurricane Wilma, we had people down here who were without power for 3 weeks.  And our storm was much smaller.  Our power was restored after 8 or 9 days, and I understand the exhaustion that comes from being plunged back into parts of the 19th century.  My friend, who got power restored even later, came over to take a hot shower and to bake the muffins that she eats for lunch.  I told her to stand under the hot water until it ran out.  She did.

But I am also so deeply sad for the people who lost everything.  Still, part of me thinks, didn't these people watch the Weather Channel?  I spent all of last week-end monitoring the storm, and I knew it would be a disaster.  These people in the path of the storm could have evacuated, unlike me, where evacuating would take at least 8 hours.  Why didn't the people at the New Jersey shore load all their valuables into their cars and flee on Sunday?

Ah, hindsight, my mother would say.

By the end of the day, I was ready to turn off the radio.  It's not as quiet in my neighborhood as it is at Mepkin Abbey, although both places have gun noise in the background.  I should explain:  we usually go to Mepkin Abbey, which is deep in the South Carolina rural countryside, during hunting season, and in my neighborhood, I'm always hearing noises that might be cars backfiring, firecrackers, or guns.  Those of you who live in more peaceful, less populated places might be horrified, but down here on the southeastern, non-Keys tip of Florida, very few neighborhoods are immune from pops, bangs, and other loud noises.

We grow used to our surroundings, so I fell asleep easily, undistracted by random noises or the possibility of future storms.

And while I like getting away during my Paid Time Off days, I found yesterday very nourishing too.   It was great to get chores done, great to have time to focus on writing tasks, great to have time to read--without having to drive or deal with the airport.  And there's the happiness of a week-end still to enjoy!