Thursday, January 31, 2013

Monastic Dreams, Manuscript Dreams, Music Inspirations

Today is the birthday of Thomas Merton.  How appropriate to think of him as I pack for my trip to Mepkin Abbey this week-end.  My spouse's stitches are out, and thus, he can drive, and thus he'll be OK alone, and so off I will go and leave him behind to hold down the homestead.

I usually go to Mepkin Abbey in the autumn, but this year, we had to postpone.  I'm looking forward to seeing the grounds and the chapel at a different season.  I'm looking forward to seeing my friends.  I'm looking forward to working on my memoir manuscript.

I have every blog post that I've written on the subject of work-life-spiritual balance collected in one document. I'm turning them into essays. I have a vision of a book that can be dipped in and out of (read an essay or two now, read again in a month, read the Christmas material when one is at the Christmas season). I have 350 pages. I will shape it into something marketable. I will begin this week-end.

Or I will sleep. I have felt so incredibly drained and exhausted this week. I've done more laundry in a week (since my spouse can't bend, twist or lift, I've banned him from laundry duty) than I usually do in a month. But this will pass, and I am so grateful that my spouse is having such a remarkably good recovery.
It's been a tough work week, which brings the issue of the future into full focus.  Tuesday we had a horrible meeting about 2014, when we consolidate into one building, and we lose half our classroom space, and the response is a shrug, and "You'll just have to make it work. We all have to sacrifice."

I'd love to have an escape plan in place, should I need it--or should I be ejected.  My dream is a memoir about work-life-spiritual balance that takes off and opens new doors. We shall see. 

But even if that doesn't happen, it's good to look at Merton's life and to realize that even a restricted life can lead to amazing creativity.  Merton had to get permission from the Abbott to work on his writing and to have it published.   He didn't have full freedom in his life. 

The truth:  most of us don't have full freedom, perhaps not even much freedom.  And yet, even with cloisters and restrictions, we can do our essential work.

Today is also the birthday of Alan Lomax, another life that reminds us that our offbeat passions can be exactly what the world needs.  Lomax travelled the country, recording all kinds of folk music.  He's the reason we know about Lead Belly and other incredible musicians from the first half of the 20th century.

Maybe we'd have known about Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, and Jelly Roll Morton had Lomax not come along, but Lomax was one of the driving forces to have the various kinds of folk music that he recorded recognized as legitimate.

Now it seems obvious, but as the Alan Lomax and his father travelled the country, they couldn't have known how essential their work would be.  Maybe they had glimmerings, but I suspect they were guided by enthusiasm, not certainty.

We, too, can follow our own stars and chart our own courses.  During meetings where I'm told that I have no choice, I remind myself that I have plenty of choices, choices that may be only glimmers and yearning and hopes now.

Long ago, at a different school, I wrote this poem to remind myself of that fact.  It was published The Julia Mango:

Adjunct Faculty

The Human Resources expert smirks as he explains,
“You don’t really have a choice.” As if I
am a captive brought to strange shores,
enslaved, slogging away my life
in this swamp of a school.

I may be paid the dole of a sweatshop slave,
but I am not without choices.
I can walk away, leave all this behind:
the surly students, the suspicious administration, the pittance
of a paycheck.

I am no indentured servant; I have made no
commitments. I know the language of this land.
I haven’t yet had my utopian daydreams beaten
out of me. My papers are in order, my wings
wait only for me to spread them.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Homesickness for All that's Left Behind and Recalibrating

My spouse is still recovering from surgery and still can't drive.  So last night, I drove him to his Chorale rehearsal over at the local community college.  It was like visiting haunts from my past.

I walked with him to the rehearsal room, which took me back to my undergraduate days hanging out in the music building.  I wish I could say that I was hanging out there because I have such musical skill, but that's not the case.  I was often keeping more musical friends company while they practiced.  And during my Sophomore year, I had a small office in the rehearsal rooms area.  I had a workstudy job doing clerical work for a performance series hosted by the college.  I remember working and hearing distant music.  Very comforting.

After his rehearsal started, I decided to walk to the library.  The map showed it as much closer than it was.  I stopped in the student services building and asked.  The woman said, "It's the only 4 story building on campus.  You can't miss it."

Off I went again, heading towards a distant 4 story structure.  It turned out to be a parking garage.  So, I walked some more and finally found it.

From darkened pathways, I watched classes getting started and felt a pang.  I love community colleges.  I taught in a variety of community colleges for many years, and I always loved the variety of missions that the community college fills.

Eventually I made my way back to the rehearsal room, where I sat and read while the Chorale rehearsed.  Again, a tug of memory.  My mom used to play the piano for a similar chorale at Northern Virginia Community College.  When I was in town to visit, I'd go with her to rehearsal.  I'd read and let the music swirl around me.

I felt strange homesickness for parts of my past that are likely gone forever.  They may show up in new incarnations (I'm thinking primarily about the teaching), but some days it still amazes me how much of my life is gone.

Don't worry, I'm not going to launch myself into a midlife crisis, at least not a traditional one where I buy an inappropriate car to drive to inappropriate sexual encounters.  No, nothing like that.

But it is time to do some thinking.  Am I on the best trajectory?  How do I need to recalibrate? 

In creative terms, I want to continue thinking about the projects that only I can write.  What was I put on earth to say?  What's the most important thing?  Who needs to hear it?  Why?

In my younger years, I used to think that if I didn't write it, someone else would beat me to it.  Now I'm fairly sure that whatever I don't write won't get written.

Oh sure, someone else might write something similar.  But they'll be fulfilling their mission, not mine.

It's important to remember how unique we are, each of us, in our own way.  What we don't say/write/create goes unsaid.  And what we have to say/write/create may be so important and essential to so many people.  It would be a shame to stay silent.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tuesday Tidbits

--Am I the only person who heard of the successful take-back of Timbuktu by the Mali and French armies and thought, I didn't realize that place still existed?  Perhaps the only educated person who would think such a thing.

--Robert Frost died 50 years ago today.  What would he make of today's poetry scene?  Like most of us, he'd probably be pleased with some of it and horrified at other aspects.

--I suspect that what horrified Robert Frost would not be what horrifies me.

--Of course, nothing really horrifies me about our current poetry scene.

--If you're contemplating an MFA in creative writing, you should read this post written by Leslie Pietrzyk, who teaches in both a traditional MFA program and a low-residency MFA program.

--When will seminaries adopt the low-residency model?

--The other night I had a dream, the kind of dream that if I believed that the universe speaks to us in the language of dreams, I'd know that I should go to seminary.

--I dreamed that I was looking for a bookstore, and I found it, and a woman handed me a book entitled Ordination.  For more on that dream and my rational brain's reaction to it, see this post.

--If I ever do go to seminary, I'll marvel at how long it took me to get the message.  Could God be more obvious?  Does God have to set my shrubbery ablaze to get my attention?

--Perhaps God speaks to us in books too.  This post talks about what I've been reading lately.  It includes this paragraph:  "I plan to spend the coming week-end rediscovering the works of Lauren Winner, Nora Gallagher, and my all-time favorite Kathleen Norris. I'm beginning serious work on crafting my own memoir, which will explore how a spiritual woman lives an integrated life staying true to her faith in a workplace that isn't always set up to support those ideals. I admire the work of these 3 women in so many ways. I plan to model my work on theirs, in that I want to write essays that can be read alone, or as a narrative in one gulp."

--Oh, how I long to be a Kathleen Norris for a next generation!  I think back to when I first read Norris' Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. I was so inspired, but dejected in a way. I thought, I'll never be able to do what she did. But blogging has helped immensely.

--I've gotten many a compliment as a writer, along with rejections, of course. But the one that means the most to me is the one where people say my work reminds them of Kathleen Norris.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Four Essential Questions

You may be one of those people who scoffs at technology.  Or perhaps you embrace every new gizmo that comes along.  You might be the type of person who has lots of accounts that need constant updating.  Or maybe you're the kind of person who will only agree to meet in person and won't even chat on the phone.

Regardless of your approach to technology, you'll likely find this interview with Seth Godin to be worth your while.

I tend to feel that way about every guest that Krista Tippett has on her On Being show, so I admit my bias.  But still, some are more fascinating than others, and Seth Godin has much to say that's important.

He's promoting a new book, The Icarus Deception.  This Godin quote will give you an idea of the book's thesis:  "So if you and I had been sitting around just after the Dark Ages and heard the story of Icarus — what we would have heard is this: that Daedalus said to his son two things — one, put these wings on but don't fly too close to the sun because it's too hot up there and the wax will melt. But more important, Son, do not fly too low, do not fly too close to the sea, because the mist and the water will weigh down the wings and you will surely perish. And for me the most important message that I've come to after thinking about this for so many years is, we are flying too low. We built this universe, this technology, these connections, this society, and all we can do with it is make junk. All we can do with it is put on stupid entertainments. I'm not buying it."

Krista Tippett mentioned the 4 questions that are worth asking about our work, and it holds true for our creative work too:  "Four questions worth answering. Who is your next customer? You mean that conceptually. Their outlook, hopes, dreams, needs and wants. What is the story he told about himself before he met you? How do you encounter him in a way that he trusts the story you want to tell him about what you have to offer? What changes are you trying to make in him, his life, his story? And then you wrote, start with this before you spend time on tactics, technology, scalability. I think that's really refreshing."

Refreshing indeed.  In a world that tells us we need ratings, we need people to spend gobs of money, we need a platform that people visit all the time, it's good to remember why we do this.

The lust for ratings and placing high on the charts is an industrialist mindset, Godin tells us.  And even if we have it, we may not be saved.  Look at all the TV shows that were once popular but are no longer with us.

Here's a better way of thinking about our work:  "Whereas, the other way to think about it is, how few people can I influence and still be able to do this tomorrow? Because if we can influence just enough people to keep getting the privilege to do it, then tomorrow there'll be even more people. Because we're doing something genuine that connects, as opposed to doing something fake that's entertainment."

Go here for a link to the transcript or to listen to the show.  Today I need to spend time deleting old e-mails; I may just listen to this interview as I do it!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hobo Poetry Project

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post that talked about neat poetry opportunities in Southeast Florida.  Yesterday, I went to the The Hobo Code Poetry and Art project.

We began by talking about the hobo in popular culture and the culture of the Great Depression which gave rise to the hobo culture.  We talked about the hobo code and the symbols that many of them used to let people know what to expect as they approached towns and houses; for examples of those signs, see this website.

Much of this news wasn't new to me; in fact, a few years ago, I wrote this post that talked about seeing the documentary Riding the Rails.  I did pick up one tidbit about Jack London, who was a hobo before he was a writer.  He credits his hobo experiences with teaching him how to tell a good story; when he was a hobo, it was his ability to tell a good story to the lady of the house which would determine whether he got food/shelter or not.

It was interesting to have this conversation about the hobo culture with my friend who is an immigrant from India beside me.  She said, "These men made a choice to live this way?"  And then she said, "This is a very first world choice, it seems to me."

The workshop leader gave us two pages of symbols, and we talked a bit about them.  And then, finally, the poetry writing part of the 2 hour workshop.  We were supposed to use the symbols and to write a poem.  The ways that we did this were up to us.  We had art supplies too. 

It was fun to see the ways we responded.  Some people incorporated the symbols in place of words in a poem.  Others had the symbol as background.

For example, I was pulled to the sign that had a cross that meant "Talk religion, get food."  And I was struck by the stories of Mulligan Stew; at the end of the day, hobos would gather at the hobo camp and contribute what they'd gotten (a potato here, a carrot there, a lump of lard--all into the pot!) into a communal stew.  I have had church stuff on the brain, as I've written a post about Saint Brigid, who also multiplied food, for the Living Lutheran site and I've been thinking about the food miracles of Jesus.  So I drew the cross and wrote parts of poems in each quadrant.

We can turn in our work later--March 1 is the deadline--and you don't have to have attended to the workshop to submit work.  I plan to play with photography:  I have a vision of a cross made with a carrot and a potato.

I loved the workshop, and I fell in love with the public library all over again.  There were groups working in study rooms, including a group of young teen girls working on some kind of dance routine.  There was a HUD workshop happening.  There was the poetry workshop.  There were several huge rooms full of computers for community use.  There was a woman handing out information about transportation upgrades planned for a central corridor.  All that on top of the regular resources of books, periodicals, and videos.

After that workshop, I went out with the friends who came to the workshop with me.  We went to a Vietnamese Pho restaurant that one friend wanted to try--what a treat!

I drove us all there.  One friend saw my memoir manuscript that I have in the car so that I'll remember to take it to Mepkin Abbey with me.  She asked if she could see it, and I said, "Sure."

She was so excited about the possibilities of this memoir.  She has said more than once that she sees me as the next Kathleen Norris--ah, from her lips to God's ears!  I'm happy to get this encouragement.

What I loved about this workshop is that it inspired me in all kinds of ways.  I could see adapting this assignment for classroom use or for a different kind of workshop.  I thought about all the other ways that signs and signifiers work in our culture.  I thought about National Poetry Month and possibilities there.

But most of all, I was happy to see so many different people at the workshop; one man even brought his two children in the hopes that they'd be inspired to love writing.  Hurrah!  And I was happy to see so many people at the library.  What a great resource--and how wonderful that people are using it.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Memoir Construction Milestone!

Today, Poetry Week continues.  My friends and I shall go to the library to see if we can participate in the Hobo Poetry Project--more on that tomorrow.

I didn't do much with poetry yesterday.  It was a day of meetings.  Some of them were enjoyable:  a meeting that was more lunch with work friends than meeting.  Some of them were not as nourishing.

In between, I got caught up on e-mails that needed to be sent, but avoided the looming task of sorting through old e-mails.  I evaluated a transcript here and there and awarded transfer credit.  And I sorted through my memoir manuscript.

It's looking like my spouse will be fairly self-sufficient by Feb. 1.  I had planned a retreat there long before I knew my spouse would have surgery; I've been prepared to cancel if I needed to, but it's looking like I won't need to do that.

Hurrah!  I'm hoping to make progress on my memoir.  And last night, I hit a milestone.  At least, I think it's a milestone.

When I started thinking about a memoir, a Kathleen Norris collection of essays, I went through my blogs to see how many posts might work.  I pasted them all into a huge document.  And I've spent the month of January combing through that document to see if my initial impressions held up.

I got rid of all the photos that I'd posted, and I got rid of all the posts that, on second look, didn't seem to fit.  Actually, I'm too superstitious to get rid of them.  I put them in a different document.

So, now I have a manuscript to consider at Mepkin Abbey.  I've got about a hundred pages of good essays that I need to fit into the seasonal organization.  I've got to consider whether the posts stand on their own or if they need revision--and if they need revision, how much?

I've kept the blog posts that I wrote when it looked like I might lose my job and the ones when I realized I would keep my job.  That could be quite the narrative hook at the beginning:  here's a job that doesn't always integrate nicely with the other elements of my life--but what happens when loss looms?  I thought an introduction like that might hook readers.

My spouse thought it might limit readership.  He thinks lots of people will be interested in a memoir that documents trying to live an integrated life as one works in a corporate setting.  He thinks fewer people will want to read about job loss. 

I think he's probably right, but I'll consider it all more fully at Mepkin.

So, more memoir writing than poetry yesterday, but important work nonetheless.

I did catch an amazing interview with Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as I caught up on episodes of the Diane Rehm show that I had missed.  You, too, can listen here.

Onward to my poetry Saturday!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Hollow--and not so hollow--Women

Poetry Week continued yesterday.  I met with a group of friends at work to read our poems that we wrote in response to T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (I originally wrote "The Waste Land"--now that would be ambitious!).

I am so impressed with us.  I admit my bias, but I am still impressed.  One friend closely followed the structure of Elliot's poem, down to the subject matter of each section and the line breaks and syllables.  Wow!  She had marvelous images of scarves and prayer beads/threads and the loneliness of modern life:  a cafe offers free wi-fi so that we know we are not abandoned.

Her poem led to an interesting discussion of voice, particularly our digital voices and our voices created by vocal chords.

My other friend created a life size cut out to go with her poem.  She collaged images on the cut-out and put them on both sides.  She's got a great idea for an installation art piece.  Wow.

And I wrote the longest poem I've ever written, "The Hollow Women."  In some ways, it, too, felt like collage:  3 poems put together (but composed to go together for this assignment) along with chunks of prose that I'm using in a short story that I'm writing. 

We had a brief digression where we talked about university libraries that we have known and loved.  My current version of an academic life disappoints me in several areas:  the lack of a really good library is one of them.  I'd love a bucolic campus, but that's nowhere to be found in South Florida--every school campus is depressingly ugly down here.  It's easier to live without that when it's nowhere to be found, but other aspects of South Florida life delight.

I try to stay focused on the good aspects of my academic life here.  I have friends who write poetry and fiction and who delight in gathering periodically to read it.  I work with a great group of colleagues who are capable and self-directed.  I'm given lots of flexibility with my schedule, and my creative pursuits are encouraged by my boss.  I don't have to use personal leave to do professional development.

Still, yesterday I was surprised by the bubble of longing that surged up when we talked about libraries.  How I miss good libraries!

One friend's poem quoted Beckett.  Mine paid homage to James Joyce's Ulysses with the last chunk of the poem, which I'll put here for your Friday pleasure:

I am not the Messiah, not the Messiah, not the Messiah.  I cannot save you.  The chosen one is coming, but I cannot lace his sandals.  I am not the Messiah, not the Messiah, not the Messiah.  I eat what you would never choose, locusts and wild honey and bean husks and loneliness.  I am not the Messiah, not the Messiah, not the Messiah.  Do not look to me.  I am not the star shining in the east.  I am not the Shadow.  But neither the Messiah, which I am not, I am not, I am not.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thursday Gratitudes: a Poetry Week Edition

--I got an unexpected fan letter of sorts.  I wrote a piece on ecumenism (simple definition:  different religions working together instead of at cross purposes) which appeared in the January 2013 edition of The Lutheran.  Today I got an e-mail that was sent to my church.  A Lutheran missionary in Hong Kong wrote to me!  Someone working in the front lines of ecumenism weighed in on my article.

--Here's the beginning of that e-mail:  "I hope this email reaches you. I want to thank you for the recent article in The Lutheran. It was very encouraging, especially coming almost immediately after the 'Shrinking Church' article."

--I worried a bit about that article, since I was commissioned to write it, instead of my usual process, which is I pitch an article, I get the OK, and I write what I had in mind.  This one was a different task, and I'm glad that at least one person (a missionary!) sees it as a success.

--Today I meet with 2 poets at work; we'll be showing each other our poems that we wrote after we read T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" together. Mine will include these lines:

We are the hollow women,
the ones of perilous
journeys; the dash through deserts
of all sorts, across turbulent seas,
always moving from south to north.

--My poem will be three separate poems, related by theme, woven together with prose chunks who will find a home in the short story I'm writing.

--As I watched Richard Blanco read at the Inauguration, I kept track of how many pages he read.  It was at least 3.  Perhaps this will be the year of longer poems for me:  a challenge!  I don't usually write much longer than a page.

--My parents called to talk about the Inauguration.  They expressed hope that some day I'll be the one up there reading a poem I've written and wondered why I wasn't chosen this year.  Let me stress that they did not do this in a nasty way.  It was truly a "Why that guy and not you, when your work is every bit as good as his."  I have a great family.

--One thing I took away from the Inaugural reading is that one day you can be working on your poems, working in obscurity, and the next, you're plucked to read a poem at a huge national event.  You just never know.  Blanco wasn't the Poet Laureate, he wasn't chosen because he's the best-selling poet or because he works at an important university.  I'm not sure why he was chosen, or why him and not countless others.  There are plenty of worthy people--it's an abundance of poetry riches in our age.

--I do believe that we must continue to do our work even though we have no idea how it will all turn out.  Some days I'm discouraged, don't get me wrong.  I wonder if I'll ever have a book with a spine, especially when my book-length manuscript is rejected yet again.  But at any moment, everything could change.  And my task is to be ready.

--At some point, I need to return to my book-length manuscript.  I first put it together 10 years ago, and I've done a few major revisions.  Now, again, I have newer poems which would fit.  Do I start a brand new manuscript?  Do I re-weave the old manuscript?

--Once, I had the answer.  I had in mind two or three book-length manuscripts.  But then the subject matter of poems began to migrate.  Now I have poems that would fit equally well in any of my book length collections.

--I'm sensing my answer.  It's time to re-weave.  I turn 48 this year.  I may only have 1 or two books with spines at this rate.

--But this week, I'm focusing on individual poems, both today and at an intriguing event on Saturday.  I'm thrilled to have such a jam-packed poetry week, and without travelling far from home!

--Non-writing gratitude:  my spouse is one week out from surgery, and he's pain free.  He still tires more easily than he once did, but his strength returns each day.  At this point, it seems the surgery has done what it was supposed to do with no complications.  Words cannot express how happy this makes me, how relieved.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Poetry Week Continues! The Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Yesterday, I headed up to Delray Beach for an afternoon at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.  I often like the craft lectures better than anything else, and so when I saw that Tracy K. Smith was paired with Tony Hoagland for yesterday afternoon's craft lecture, that seemed like a great deal.  Even better:  an interview with Billy Collins that happened right afterwards.  So, I bought tickets last week, and yesterday, I headed out.

Each event cost $15, but it was well worth it.  There's plenty of free parking at Delray Beach around Old School Square, so at least I wouldn't have to pay for parking.

Yesterday, I got there early, because I was afraid of running late; it only takes one wreck on the Interstate to destroy the best-made plans.  Happily, I had no problems.  The Crest Theatre is a lovely place, so I didn't mind having 20 extra minutes. 

I looked at the books, but decided to wait on buying them.  I looked in various rooms that were open:  parlours that functioned as art galleries or libraries.  I looked at one woman and thought, she looks like Tracy K. Smith.  I thought about saying something, but she was reading an iPad, and besides, what would I say?  "I love your work."  I'm sure she hears that a lot.  And what if it was someone else?

Later when Tracy K. Smith took the stage, I realized that the woman in the parlour was indeed Tracy K. Smith.  She gave a beautiful presentation where she talked about her own work and the work of Elizabeth Bishop.  She talked about using poems as a way to cross an uncrossable distance.

Then Tony Hoagland took the stage to talk about the use of imagination vs. the use of information.  He talked about "our American cottage industry:  poems of partially digested therapy."

Hoagland was quite funny in his examples of material from real life that he couldn't have made up in his imagination, like a sign in a forest that informed visitors that every tree in the forest had been cut down to make pilings for the Panama Canal.  He worries that poets, particularly American poets, live too much in their imaginations, that we've lost the sense of scale and proportion that tells us how much of ourselves to leave in--and to leave out.

Then we had a brief break, and Billy Collins took the stage to be interviewed by Ginger Murchison, editor of the Cortland Review.  She asked great questions, and he responded warmly and graciously.  He read several of his poems.

What I liked about each of the presentations is that I got to hear each poet read, but I also got to hear their thoughts on other subjects.  I found it much easier to stay alert and present with those formats than I often do during readings.

In the coming days, I will probably write a post or two to say more about what each poet said.  I wrote down too many treasures to keep them to myself.

It was interesting to return to the Festival; I've been there a few times, and I'm always struck by how many of the participants are either quite young (college or MFA students) or much, much older--the far side of midlife to quite elderly but still ambulatory.

Of course, it makes sense in a way.  Middle-aged folks like myself are usually working.  Would I come if I had to use vacation days to do so?  Probably not, since I wouldn't have many of them.  Would I come if I was balancing several jobs to keep my family together?  It wouldn't be possible.

This year, there seemed to be fewer students, but I could be wrong.  Or it could be the function of a Tuesday afternoon.

Each year, I wonder if I should commit to the Festival fully, sign up for the full 4 days of workshops and intense work with the visiting poets.  Each year, I'm deterred by the cost and the time and the driving.  But I'm always impressed by the poets who come, and I'm impressed by the events that I do attend.  For those of you looking for a great poetry experience, put the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which happens each January, on your radar screen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ready to Hope Audaciously Again

I hadn't planned to watch the Inaugural events yesterday.  I wasn't even sure I'd listen.  I'm tired.  I'm not as interested in politics as I was.  But the truth is closer to this statement:  I'm afraid to let myself hope anymore.

So, I was rearranging stuff in a closet, the closet that holds old backpacks that will likely never be used to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, but getting rid of them means finally admitting that I'm not that backpacker I once was.  The closet holds all sorts of exercise equipment and old games and cleaning stuff and fishing gear that's been used once.  I was trying to make room for an inversion rack that's clearly going to just be in the way no matter where it is.

I've spent the week-end rearranging furniture so that my spouse who is healing from back surgery can be more comfortable.  I've done a lot of laundry.  Yesterday was the day to cook for the week.

As I cut a roasted chicken, I listened to President Obama's speech.  What a masterful piece of rhetoric.  Here's my favorite part:

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth." 

I love the vision of a star guiding us.  I love the alliteration of Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.  I found myself feeling inspired.  And I let myself feel inspired.  So few politicians aspire to inspire these days.

I loved Richard Blanco's poem, which I fully expected (January has posted both the reading and the text of the poem here).  I loved the reference to his parents, who like most parents, worked hard so that their children could have better lives.  I loved the references to hands.  I loved the unity that the poem espouses.  Bravo.

As my husband has healed, I've found myself waiting to exhale.  He feels so good, and I want to believe that his year of excruciating pain is behind him.  I've been surprised by how many people have told me stories of surgeries gone wrong.  I'm trying not to listen.

I'm ready to feel optimistic again.  Last year sorely tried my sunny temperament, between work lay-offs and my spouse's pain.  But I'm ready to hope audaciously again.  I'm ready to dream bigger dreams.  I'm ready to emerge from my closet of broken, discarded plans.

I'm grateful to yesterday's events for reminding me of how far we've come, and in a very short time, when we look at the narrative arc of history.  We think that things will never change, and then, they do.  May they continue to change for the better!

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Poet/Administrator/Teacher Considers Inauguration Day

This morning I started thinking about Inauguration Day, and how much it offers us.  There's the patriotic aspect, of course:  one of the few days where we seem to be able to put our ideological differences aside and celebrate the outcome of the democratic process.  But there's so much more.  So, in no particular order, here are some things I've been thinking about this morning:

--So much has changed since 2009 when I watched the first Obama inauguration.  Some of it is good:  we've had 4 years of a mixed race president, and happily, it was fairly similar to 4 years of any other president.  No assassination attempts, none of the things my far-left liberal acquaintances fretted about 4 years ago.  Sure, there was nastiness, but much of it was easily dealt with.

--Of course, some of the changes have been less good.  Four years ago, I felt such a sense of optimism and hope.  Now, I don't as much.  I look around my workplace, and I barely recognize the place:  so many colleagues gone or demoted to adjunct status.  How much of that has anything to do with who is in charge as president of the U.S.?  Perhaps not much.  But I've seen the steady erosion of the middle class during the last 4 years, and I've come to believe that the field of higher education will not be taking me to retirement, at least, not without some supplement.

--The poet in me loves the symbolism drenching the event, from the Bibles used for swearing in, to the music chosen, the poet who will read, the preachers who will preside over parts.  I could even make a case for the symbolism of the clothes.

--The teacher in me latched onto this fact:  on this morning's NPR Morning Edition, presidential historian Michael Beschloss noted that this is likely to be Obama's last big audience.  From here on out, fewer people will be paying attention to what he has to say.  So, if I was creating a teaching assignment, I'd have students write what they'd want to say if they only had one shot to speak to their fellow citizens.

--I tend not to watch these events, although I watched 4 years ago.  It was too historic to miss.  Of course, I usually have to be at work.  But today, I have MLK Day off, so perhaps I'll tune in.  But I'm more likely to be doing laundry and cooking.  I'll probably have the radio on, and NPR will keep me updated.  I'm less interested in the visual and more in what I hear.

--I'm most interested in poet Richard Blanco.  And again, the poetry teacher in me wants a copy of his poem to go with my copy of Elizabeth Alexander's poem.  It leads naturally to a writing assignment of having students write their own poem that commemorates a huge event.

--And the theologian in me will be interested in how the preachers approach this assignment.  How to be inclusive?  For more on theological ideas on this day, see this post on my theology blog.

--So, I don't feel the soaring optimism and hope that I felt 4 years ago.  But I still feel the quiet pull of optimism and hope.  It's my natural temperament, so perhaps it's not strange.  I love the idea of a chance to start over, a chance to accomplish what was left undone over the last 4 years.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What to Read in the Maw of the Hospital-Industrial Complex

My spouse had what his neurosurgeon calls "routine microsurgery" on Wednesday.  The surgery was scheduled to take an hour and a half.  I expected to spend much of the day waiting, which happened.  I expected my spouse to be more drugged and thus sleepy with the painkillers, which did not happen.

Still, there was a fair amount of waiting, and so I took 2 books.  I knew that I didn't want to take anything that required a lot of attention.  I didn't want a book that would teach me anything.  I wanted it to be light, but not so light that I would be bored or easily distracted.

I've had the latest Laura Lippman book on my shelf for a long time, so I decided that it was the perfect book for the hospital--and I was right.  I read it in the family waiting room, a room full of people who talked on cell phones, a room with 2 televisions tuned to different channels and full volume.  Happily, I was able to sink into And When She Was Good.

I've only read a few of Lippman's books, and I had the same reaction each time:  great plot, good character development, great scenes, and great descriptions.  What makes her books seem light, while others are literary?  I'm not sure.

Is it because Lippman got her start writing detective novels and crime procedurals?  Maybe.  The non-detective books still have that thumping plot development that keeps me turning the pages; as readers, we don't linger anywhere very long in this novel.  The characters in Lippman's later books are more deeply drawn than some of the genre books I've read, but these books are still not explorations of character.

There are great, almost poetic, moments in the book, where Lippman so perfectly describes an emotion or an encounter.  The main character in And When She Was Good has an encounter in a grocery store, where a handsome man tries to ask her out on a date.  She believes that her life choices means that she can never have this kind of experience, and she feels a bit of melancholy later in the evening as she reflects:  "It's like receiving a postcard from a land where she will never travel.  A nice man in an oxford-cloth shirt might as well be the Taj Mahal.  Or one of the wonders of the world that no longer exists.  She can't get there, and even if she could, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon aren't there waiting for her" (p. 122).

Lippman's book was just what I needed in the hospital:  a book I wanted to return to, but a book that I could put down when necessary.  I knew where the book was going, and that was O.K.  I liked the main character, and even though I was fairly sure where the book was headed, I still wanted to know how it all turned out--and there were still surprises along the way.

Is hospital reading the same as airport reading?  Perhaps.  In both settings, I do better if I have a book that can take my mind away from all the indignities that are going on to me and around me.  Happily, there are plenty of books that fit that bill.

It's MLK week-end, and perhaps I should look for heavier reading for the remainder of the week-end.  Or maybe I'll continue my escapist reading:  a villa in a wine-drenched setting.  Maybe with some poetry in between for good measure.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Maw of the Hospital-Industrial Complex

People who know me well may or may not know that I have a phobia of hospitals.  My mother-in-law's experience in 2005 solidified my phobias into knowledge.  She fell, broke her hip, and everything that could go wrong did go wrong, including staph infections, nursing staffs who couldn't communicate with us or with each other, doctors arguing over best treatment, a lengthy time to wait for a Hospice recommendation.  It was brutal.

Happily, my husband's experience this week was almost completely opposite of his mother's.  He's been experiencing varying degrees of pain for all of 2012 and 2013, and he underwent microsurgery on his spine.  The surgeon said that the herniation was very large--and now it's gone.

Yesterday was my spouse's first relatively pain-free day in 13 months--he was feeling so good that he didn't even request pain meds.

Here are some reflections from our journey into the maw of the hospital-industrial complex:

--As we left for the hospital on Wed. morning, I felt a strange calm--and a strange sense of optimism.  I wondered if what I felt was similar to what a couple going to the hospital to have a baby feels.

--I expected to feel freaked out or grossed out or any number of negative emotions.  For the most part, I was bored.

--I was bored because we spent a lot of time waiting. In part, it's because my spouse seemed to recover from it all very quickly. In part, it's a different world. As one person said, "You're on hospital time now."

--All of the TV shows that I've watched that are set in hospitals have a much faster pace than real life.  People race here and there and patients collapse or spew fluids or erupt in verbal theatrics.  We didn't see any of that.

--We had good customer service the whole way through.  Everyone we encountered was warm and kind and welcoming. I asked one nurse if they have to do customer service training periodically, and she said, "No. Most of us are just into giving our best in that area.  It's who we are."

--It made me think of my own workplace.  I, too, try to be customer service oriented in everything that I do, and to see everyone as my customer:  students, faculty, staff.  It's partly a spiritual thing with me.  I want to be light in a dark world.  Some days I'm better at that than others.

--My spouse has a quirky sense of humor.  It's not always effective in a hospital setting.

--My spouse said that trying to sleep inside of a recovery room is like trying to sleep inside a video game.  Lots of beeps and whistles and electronic sounds.

--In the recovery room, we were surrounded by patients in much worse shape.  I don't know how people who work in hospital settings cope with the knowledge of the many ways our flesh will fail us.

--I was also struck by how many of the staff aspired to work in a different part of the hospital.  The nurse in the recovery room hoped to move to the Trauma Center.  One of the nurses who came to the room to draw blood or take blood pressure had aspirations to the OR.

--I thought about all the ways we think of rescue:  superheroes who take on the forces of evil or fairy tales where the maiden is saved from a dark spell.  I think of all the ways we think we may have to rescue our loved ones and how often that scenario isn't the one we end up facing.

--I'm amazed by all the technology and all the people that a hospital hires.  No wonder health care costs us all so much.  I know that some of it is necessary for some people.  But I suspect there are lots of ways one could cut costs.  Happily, that's a subject for someone with different expertise than I have.

--Last night, I felt exhausted in much the same way that I often felt exhausted during my mother-in-law's much more gruesome experience.  Why does being in a hospital, even when there's no drama, exhaust me so much?

--And now, on with the healing.  Hurrah for healing!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Praise of Friendships Fast and True

Today is the birthday of Anne Bronte, the least well-known of the writing Bronte sisters (there were 2 sisters who didn't write). She wrote  Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Throughout their lives, the Bronte sisters supported each other in their creative writing.  Today's post on The Writer's Almanac reminds us of their early project, before they went on to write novels:  "The three sisters hatched a plan to publish a book of poetry under three male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell."  Though the book didn't sell well, it engendered much speculation about who the authors could be.

Could they be--gasp!--women??!!

I say this mockingly, but it's all too easy to forget how difficult a path women writers faced in the early part of the nineteenth century.  Most galling would be the attitudes towards women in general, and women who dared to be creative in particular.  Many nineteenth century people were quite convinced that women couldn't write, literally, that they were physically incapable.  As women began to show that they could, the attack on the content of the work came hard and consistently.

Anne Bronte said this about the matter:  "I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."

Frankly, we still see some of these arguments today.  I grow weary of them, but I also know that it's a luxury that I can declare myself weary and carry on.

I started grad school in 1987, and the canon we studied in most classes was still mostly male, mostly dead, and mostly white.  I remember earlier versions of the Norton anthologies that included only 1 or 2 women writers.

I will always be grateful to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who helped expand the canon with The Madwoman in the Attic and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.  I've already written several posts which mention the importance of Gilber and Gubar to my life as a writer and a scholar; the most extensive post is here.

And now, they will be honored with the National Book Critics Lifetime Achievement Award.  Hurrah!

The Washington Post has this great story, for those who have missed this chapter of feminist histor--or for those who want to be inspired.  I love this narrative of female support and friendship.  I love that they continued to do important work and to support each other, even when they moved away from each other.  The Post article concludes this way:  "Both Gilbert and Gubar hope to attend the NBCC awards ceremony in late February, though Gilbert will be in Italy and Gubar is being treated for cancer. They haven’t worked together for several years, but Gubar says, 'We’ve remained fast and true friends.'”

Fast and true friends, indeed.  And from that friendship, the world has changed.  Now, for the most part, at least one Bronte sister is in the canon; we can argue about whether or not that should be the case.  We can argue about which sister it should be or what makes them worthy or not.  But they are not dismissed simply because of their gender, the way they often were before the work of Gilbert and Gubar.

The Bronte sisters were fast and true friends.  And from that friendship, too, the world changed.

Today is a great day to think about our fast and true friends.  Today is a great day to strengthen our resolve to keep our friendships fast and true, to support each other when the world may not, to hope that we change the world for the better for the generations who will follow us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Neat Opportunities in Southeast Florida

If you're a creative type in the Southeast Florida region, I've come across some neat opportunities that may interest you and lead to some interesting possibilities.

The Hobo Code Poetry and Art Project

Broward County Poet-in-Residence Anastasia Clark creates really intriguing art projects each year.  This year she takes inspiration from railroads and hobos:

"During the late 1800s/ early 1900s, the rails were teeming with hobos and others looking for adventure. As hobos traveled back and forth, the Hobo Code evolved as an informal way for them to communicate with each other. The symbols were usually written in chalk or coal on fences or trees and alerted others to information such as directions, a place to eat, a place to camp, medical help or perhaps a warning that the law was nearby. The symbols were simple and limited, but represent a fascinating part of folklore.

Using the various symbols as a launch pad, the goal of this project is to inspire new poetry and new artwork. Workshops will feature writing tips, background information, visual aids and discussions to encourage a wide variety of poetry inspired by The Hobo Code.

Participants will also be asked to create artistic versions of the various symbols."   The work created becomes part of a traveling art show--cool!  There are two workshops left if you want to participate, on Jan. 26 at the South Regional Library and on Feb. 5 at the Main Library.  Go here for more information.   CSA Program   "Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy seasonal food directly from nearby farms. With the same buy-local spirit in mind, Community Supported Art is a similar endeavor to support local art and artists, and to help sustain a healthy arts ecology in Miami. Cannonball is currently accepting applications from Miami-based artists who are interested in participating in the 2013 edition."   Applications are due Jan. 23, so there's not much time.  Go here for more details--or simply to be inspired by a cool idea:   "Selected artists each create 50 “shares” for the program. A typical share consists of a work of art/object of artistic production—multiples are encouraged, however creative ideas that translate your practice into this format or connect to themes like sustainability, farm, or food are also welcome. Some examples are: a limited-edition 7” vinyl record; a run of screen-prints; a series of small tea cups; a limited-edition photograph; VIP tickets to an upcoming performance or event; letterpress editions of a poem or short story; or even 50 small original paintings."   I wonder how much a share costs.  Maybe it's time for me to support the arts from a different angle.  Wow, that would make me feel like a real grown up.

Palm Beach Poetry Festival

This year's Festival runs from Jan. 21-26.  This year's poets:  B.H. Fairchild, Terrance Hayes, Jane Hirshfield, Tony Hoagland, Laura Kasischke, Thomas Lux, Tracy K. Smith, Lisa Russ Spaar, along with special guest Billy Collins.

It's probably too late to be a full participant, but there are still plenty of other events.  Most events have a small charge.  I've always found the craft lectures to be well worth the minimal ticket price ($10-$15).  Go here for more details.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What Roots Us

I sit here typing with very dirty nails.  I spent the week-end returning to gardening projects, and as a result, I'm feeling somewhat more rooted than I have been.

A few months ago, my spouse spent a week planting many things in pots and containers of all types.  We've tried the old-fashioned gardening where we put seedlings directly in the ground, but we haven't had much luck with vegetables.  We've got very sandy soil and a variety of pests.  Container gardening works better.

So far, we've had great luck with lettuce, so we've been having more salad.  We don't have lots of lettuce, so we've been experimenting with composed salads, with a bit of greens, some herbs, and additions from elsewhere:  hardboiled eggs, grated cheese, sauteed onions, pickles, olives, marinated beans,  other veggies like tomatoes and carrots, those kinds of things.

This week-end needed to be the week-end that we transplanted the tomato seedlings.  We had one huge pot with at least 30 seedlings--they needed more room.  And so, we spent the week-end providing that.

On Saturday we went to the Home Depot to get more dirt.  I often think of my grandmother's rich dirt.  Before she had to move, she lived in her house for over 40 years, and she dug her kitchen scraps into a plot of land by the huge shed in the back yard--old-fashioned composting.  As a result, she had amazing dirt.  How I miss that dirt.  She would shake her head in astonishment that anyone has to resort to going someplace to buy dirt--dirt, of all things! 

We've been composting too, ever since we bought the place in 1998, and we have nothing that resembles that dirt.  Sigh.

While we were at the Home Depot, we bought some mint plants.  They cost just under $4 a plant, which would also make my grandmother shake her head.  She's from a time and place where you planted a tiny sprig of mint, and it took over your yard overnight.  She'd be shocked that I'd pay for mint.

I've been looking for seeds, but I've had no luck in finding chocolate mint seeds.  So, when I saw healthy chocolate mint plants, I bought two.  The peppermint plant was an impulse buy.

Yes, some women buy designer shoes or handbags on impulse, but I buy mint plants unplanned.  That fact tells you much that you need to know about me.

That fact, and the fact that I'm going to work with very dirty nails.  I'll work the dirt out as the day goes on, but I like the reminder that I'm rooted.  Even before I plunged my hands into dirt yesterday, I had dirty nails.  Our creative worship service yesterday had an arts project with colored modeling clay which stained my nails and fingers; for more on the fun project, see this post.

Yesterday afternoon was perfect for transplanting:  warm, but in a temperate way, not a muggy/hot way, and overcast.  We gathered every pot we have and figured out where to put all the seedlings.  We're aware that some of them will not survive.  If they all do, we'll need more pots--what a wonderful problem to have.  We've got the new mint plants in pots too, and I'll be happy if they take over.

I don't have time to do the kind of gardening that my spouse does, but I'm happy to be part of the process here and there, and I know he likes the company.  And we both love the idea of being a bit more self-sufficient by growing our own food.

Don't get me wrong--it's not cost effective to grow our own vegetables.  I know that factory farming saves a family a significant amount of money, at least now, while it's still subsidized in so many ways.  But it's good to plunge our hands into soil, to remind ourselves of what roots us.  I love salads that contain food grown just outside the door.

But more than that, I love that I remember my grandparents when I help with the gardening.  I remember my grandmother, who did her version of composting, even when she no longer had a garden.  I remember my grandfather who spent time in the garden each morning to monitor the health of the plants and to do a bit of harvesting.  I remember the gnarled fingers of okra, the corn with its silky hair, the ribbons of beans.  I remember snapping those beans with my female relatives on the porch.

My spouse has similar memories, and it's good to share them as we plant.  It's good to dig our hands in the dirt and remember the generations before our grandparents, generations that also grew gardens.  It's good to get dirt under our nails as we dream about the future.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Recommendations for the Day of the Golden Globes

Will you be watching the Golden Globes get awarded or not awarded tonight?  I will not be--I'm rarely an awards show kind of person:  too many commercials, too many similar speeches, too much pop culture that only marginally interest me.

I predict that Argo will win big--but that's mainly because I've seen so few of last year's movies.  Argo is a delight in so many ways and so well-done.  It manages to be a nail-biter, even when we know the ending.

I thought of the movie again when I read this story in The Washington Post.  By now, we know that Tony Mendez, the main character in Argo, was a spy.  But how many of us know that he was also a painter?

I love the story because it reminds me of how many people have a day job to go along with their creative work--and the story stresses that the two can feed each other.  It doesn't have to be a zero sum game:  "Art was often Mendez’s cover story, and in the annals of quirky covers, his was novel in that it was both a deception and a reality. He set up a studio wherever he traveled, painting when he had time, often capturing scenes he saw on his missions."

The piece also talks about Mendez's wife and son, who are also artists who share work space and gallery space.  How neat to read about families that get along and seem to really like each other.

But maybe you need something lighter to watch today.  Yesterday, in preparation for my spouse's Wednesday surgery, we went to the library to load up on DVDs.  One of the benefits that comes from not making it to movie theatres very often is that there's almost always something we want to see which we can check out for free from the library:  10 DVDs per card that we can keep for a week.

Last night we watched Baby Mama.  I'm not sure why I was resistant to watching it when it first came out in 2008.  But in the intervening years, I've really come to appreciate the work of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; Parks and Rec is one of my absolute favorite shows, and I've loved 30 Rock in similar ways.

Baby Mama had lots of laugh out loud moments for me, which I find rare in movie comedies.  In fact, most movie comedies (as opposed to say, TV comedies) bore me.  I worried that the Amy Poehler character might be tough to take, but that was not the case.  As long as I didn't expect the movie to be a realistic analysis of work and class and the lives of women, it was great.  And I suspec that if I trained my feminist scholarly skills on the movie, I could argue that it deftly skewers sexist assumptions. 

But not this morning.  This morning, I'm just going to enjoy the laughs the movie brought me.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Far Side of Midlife Potential

I've been catching up on blog reading, and I came across this post of Historiann's, which talked about the death of Gerda Lerner and the importance of her life.  Lerner was among the first historians to look at history through a feminist lens.  Lerner was instrumental in making women's history a respectable focus for historians.

What interests me even more, however, is that she didn't even begin her graduate work until she was in her 40's.  That means that her important work as a historian came when she was on the far side of midlife.

I've decided to note these stories as I find them.  Several months ago, I wrote this post about Phyllis Tickle, who did several important things after age 45.  Like many women, she spent her earlier years raising a family, and then she turned to other fulfillments.

Lerner spent her earlier years working in Hollywood, writing scripts and working on movies.  She was also active in many social justice movements.  And then she went to school and then she wrote her most important work, work that looked at women's lives on plantations in the U.S. South before the Civil War and work that looked at patriarchal society through ever larger subject areas.

Why do I treasure these stories of women who did their most important work at the far side of midlife and beyond?  Well, on some level, it's obvious.  I'm 47, and I need to believe that I'm not a washed-up husk of my former self.  I look back and say, "I had potential once."  I still have potential.

We live in a society that beams images of youthful achievement, and it's tough to stop paying attention.  It's tough not to feel that if one hasn't achieved major accomplishments by age 22, one is finished and done.

I sometimes look at all the things I thought I would do by now and feel despair.  Of course, if I had a list of what I thought I would accomplish, a list created by my 18 year old self, it wouldn't include some things I've done:  my Ph.D., my chapbooks of poems, my presence as a blogger at multiple places (some of which pay!).

When reading Phyllis Tickle's book, Prayer is a Place, which is an autobiography of sorts, I'm struck by the directions she went that she would never have dreamed of when she was young.  I don't want to be constrained by 18 year old Kristin. 

It also makes me wonder what 68 year old Kristin will think when she looks back on these blog posts.  I've been in the beginning stages of a time of discernment.  It seems improbable that the field of higher education can support me to retirement.  That leads to the question, "What next?"

Right now, I feel both hope and despair.  On my despairing days, I can't remember any other aspirations I ever had.  On my hopeful days, it's hard to choose the next path.

It's good to remember that we don't always have to be the super-active agents of change in our lives.  Sometimes, all we have to do is to remain open to possibilities as we see what comes our way.  There are some changes that we can't have prepared for; we're just the right people at the right time, the ones who say yes to intriguing directions.

Lerner shows us that we can follow our interests, and the world will follow, even when it doesn't seem an obvious outcome.  If we went back to 1960 and talked about the importance of women's history, people would look at us blankly or scoff.  Yet that's where Lerner led us.

For those of us at midlife now, I wonder where our lives will lead.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday Joys

--Yesterday, I wrote a poem that I wasn't expecting to write when the week started.  On Wed. night, Kathleen Kirk wrote this Facebook post:  "Cleaning my office. Have just labeled a box, 'The past is a bucket of ashes.'"  I thought that would make a great line in a poem.

--But on Thursday morning, I woke up with these lines in my head:

     She thinks the past is a box of ashes,
     safe in the back of the basement
     where no one need be bothered again.

--The ashes reconstruct themselves into skeletons with new flesh that dance with her children.  I am so pleased with this metaphor, which I'd have never created without that Facebook prompt.

--Later Kathleen wrote, "Carl Sandburg said it. And my dad. All of the time."

--There are many reasons to dislike Facebook, but I've found many reasons to like it and to continue to check in.  I like knowing what people are doing, in the minutiae, as well as the big stuff, of their lives.  Most of us are too busy to write long e-mails and letters.  But many people can find time for a quick sentence on Facebook.  Hurrah for that.

--And some times, I get a poetry prompt.

--It's been a week of getting my eating and exercise back on track.  That feels good.  I've spent the last 6 weeks eating like a woman who will be executed in the morning.  That too feels good at first, but then a certain greasiness sets in.

--My friend and I made an amazing barley salad out of the simplest ingredients:  barley, celery, fresh dill, pomegranate seeds, olive oil, vinegar, and fresh parsley.  So fresh and clean tasting.  Delicious.

--What a treat to cook with friends, to feed ourselves, to be nourished on multiple levels.

--It has been a typical first week of the quarter at school, full of technology failures and people reporting to the wrong rooms and misunderstandings and endless e-mails.  Yesterday, we found out that the CARS (the computer system that we use to build classes and student records and all sorts of important stuff) was self-generating e-mails to random students here and there telling them that their classes had been changed and they needed to see their advisor to get a new class.  But their schedules hadn't been changed.

--I'm lucky that I can write this kind of e-mail, and my boss and colleagues will smile:

"When I write my memoir, I’m calling it Ghost in the Machine. But maybe I shouldn’t, since that title was already used by the Police for my favorite record album of theirs. Theatre of the Absurd Machines, perhaps will be the title.

OK, back to regular life . . . once I come up with a good name for the mandolin punk band I plan to form when CARS goes truly wonky and won’t let us do our jobs at all.

I’m just kidding, of course. I already have a page full of good names for various punk bands I might form."

--At home, we've been lighting candles all week. I love Christmas lights, both the ones on trees and the ones outside, and they're one of the things that I miss the most in the post Christmas season. It's still a dark season, even though we get a minute or two more of daylight each day.

--I especially love our Swedish glass candle holders in the shape of a cube that my spouse puts on the window sill--all sorts of lovely reflections in the dark glass.

--We continue to light our candles against the darkness in so many ways, but the ways that our creative efforts light the world bring me the most joy.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Work of Immigrants: Richard Blanco and the Rest of Us

Yesterday, I heard that Richard Blanco had been selected to be the poet for Obama's inauguration.  I thought, that name is familiar.  I knew our paths had crossed somewhere down here in South Florida but where?

In the fall of 2007 (or was it 2008?), Florida International University offered a workshop with Blanco that was open to the community if we paid $50; I assume that MFA students could attend for free.  Back in those days, my school had money for professional development, and so, my poet friend and I went to the north campus of FIU, where the creative writing program is housed.

This morning, I looked through some folders, but I have nothing left from that workshop, even though I remember that Blanco gave us handouts.  My memory, which may be faulty, is that the workshop was to be about how to put together a book-length manuscript.  I remember Blanco talking about poetry presses that publish books, about contests, but I don't remember concrete advice.

I vaguely remember that we were supposed to bring our own poems.  Did we do any workshopping of poems?  Workshopping of poems would not have been as interesting to me as getting insight about book-length collections.  I remember a fierce conversation about the use of fairy tales in poetry--was it in response to my friend's Sleeping Beauty poem?  I'm fairly sure that we each brought a poem.  I don't remember the poem that I brought, and I don't remember anyone's responses.

I remember my friend and I leaving the workshop and driving north; I remember us being a bit shaken by the assertions by a young, female graduate student who was very derisive and dismissive of the use of fairy tales and feminist themes.

I remember that the workshop attendees were an even mix of grad students and those of us teaching college classes in community colleges and for-profit schools (my friend and me and maybe one other person).  I remember being impressed by the optimism of the grad students who assumed that the world would notice every poem that they wrote.

Richard Blanco was a graduate of the MFA program at FIU, and it was not lost on me that his work life at the time came about because of his engineering degree.  I think it may have been lost on the graduate students, although I suspect they've learned that life lesson by now.  Poetry is wonderful, but it rarely feeds the bulldog.

I remember being impressed with Blanco's ability to speak to all of us in the audience.  Some people competed for his attention, but he was good at making sure that everyone had a chance to participate.

My overall impression was of kindness and encouragement from Blanco and from most of the workshop participants.  I remember being impressed with Blanco's work.

But most of all, I remember feeling a sense of wonder that I had come to be at that place, in that time, surrounded by so much diversity.  In some ways, I remember that late afternoon workshop as a tale of multiple immigrants.  There was my friend who immigrated from India and her poems that are so deeply entwined with both western and eastern mythology and fairy tales.  And then there was Richard Blanco and his biography that is so much an archetypal story of the Cuban diaspora.  There were the grad students, immigrants of a different sort, who would soon be leaving on new immigrations of their own.

And then there was me, also an immigrant of yet a different sort, a monolingual woman who left the U.S. South behind to come to a part of the country that is so much a part of a different South, whose work has been informed so richly by all of those juxtapositions.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Tribute to a Feminist Foremother Who Was Born Today

Today is the birthday of Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote the masterpiece The Second Sex.  In many ways, no other feminist writer has influenced me as deeply, since she paved the way for the feminist writers who would come after her.

Today is also the birthday of Richard Nixon, an unlikely feminist hero.  Still, he shepherded important legislation, most famously Title IX, that would change the world for so many of us.  But that's a topic for a different post.  Or maybe not.

I've read The Second Sex only once, back in 1985, when I was just about to turn 20.  I knew it would be the kind of book I'd read only once, so I underlined carefully and took notes.  It's intriguing to go back and read it now; in many ways, I meet my younger self on the pages.  It's clear I was worried about marriage and motherhood and career.  As I look at the book again, those passages still feel relevant, even though I'm not sorting out as many of those issues these days.  I've put some quotes at the end of this post; see if you agree.

I was always impressed with the way that de Beauvoir and her lover, John-Paul Sartre, set up their lives.  They lived apart, but saw each other daily.  They supported each other as writers and philosophers.  I suspect that they'd have written less important work if they hadn't had each other, although of course, I cannot prove that.

Simone de Beauvoir matters in so many ways, but her idea that we're formed more by our culture than by our biology seems her essential contribution to me.  We can continue to argue that point, but The Second Sex makes so clear that culture forms us in so many ways, many of which we don't even perceive.  It's a brilliant work.

I wish I could say that culture has changed and that her book seems dated as it discusses the western culture of the mid-20th-century, but I can't.  We're still sorting out these issues, if we're lucky enough to live in an industrialized nation.  We may have a few more options when it comes to career and/or childcare, but many of us don't--or the new options that we have are no more appealing than the options de Beauvoir had.  As always, class trumps race and gender when we look at these issues.  If I'm a woman with money, I have all sorts of options that women with much less money don't have.

And of course, women who live in non-industrialized nations face even grimmer choices.  I cannot get the case of the young Indian woman who was murdered by gang rape out of my head.  Her fate shows that the world will not always take kindly to women taking hold of more choices.  But we must persevere.

The world is different now, to be sure.  It's not as different as I would like it to be--but there is worldwide outrage over a young woman murdered brutally by gang rapists.  The sorrow and outrage and demand for change in response to a brutal hate crime--that response will hearten me, even as I feel profound sorrow over the fact that we're still having to do this education, that we still have to make clear that it's not a rapeable offense to be a woman out and about after dark.  Being born a woman is not a rapeable offense--a fight we're still fighting in so much of the world.

So today, as we enjoy aspect of our lives that de Beauvoir would never have imagined possible, let us say a thank you to our feminist foremother.  Let us resolve that we will not rest until all women enjoy a plethora of choices, and that they're safe to make those choices.

Some quotes from The Second Sex, to give you a flavor of de Beauvoir's writing:

On love:  "Genuine love ought to be founded on the mutual recognition of two liberties; the lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other:  neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated; together they would manifest values and aims in the world.  For the one and the other, love would be revelation of self by the gift of self and enrichment of the world" (p. 741).

On work:  "It is through gainful employment that woman has traversed most of the distance that separated her from the male; and nothing else can guarantee her liberty in practice.  Once she ceases to be a parasite, the system based on her dependence crumbles; between her and the universe there is not longer any need for a masculine mediator" (p. 755).

On embryos and children:  "It must be pointed out that our society, so concerned to defend the rights of the embryo, shows no interest in children once they are born; . . .  society closes its eyes to the frightful tyranny of brutes in children's asylums and private foster homes" (p. 542).

On religion:  "In modern civilization, which--even for woman--has a share in promoting freedom, religion seems much less an instrument of constraint than an instrument of deception" (p. 691).

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Life Lessons: The Lego Edition

I've been thinking about Legos, both as an industry and as a toy.  Longtime readers of my blog might say, "Of course.  You always think of Legos when you've been spending time with your nephew."

That is true.  He loves Legos, and we often spend time building things with them.  And I certainly never would have made the trip to Legoland, if he hadn't been part of my life.

While we were at Legoland, my brother-in-law and I had an interesting conversation.  He mentioned that the patent on Legos had expired roughly 40 years ago.  But the company has created interesting approaches to marketing and packaging.  Now, in addition to a big bucket of Legos, you can buy all sorts of kits that come with directions which allow the purchaser to create very complex objects.

I thought about this, as I watched my nephew decide what kit to buy at Legoland.  He and his father decided that they shouldn't buy something at Legoland that they could get outside the park at a discount store like Target (ah, the joys of teaching budgeting to an elementary school child).  They bought a kit that would allow them to make both a helicopter and a vehicle--and then my nephew, my brother-in-law, and my spouse spent hours constructing the helicopter.

Luckily, the kit came with very good instructions.  Watching them follow the directions with no problems--none!--at all put me in mind of a project that I used to do in my writing classes, which has also put me in mind of how much life has changed since the last time I did this project.

I divided the students into small groups, although I was always conflicted about this, since I hated working in small groups in school.  At first I had to do it; I could only afford so many Legos, even though I used cheaper imitations.  Later, as I had more Legos, I gave students the option of working alone.

I gave each group a bag of Legos.  They had to create an object, take photos, and write instructions so that a different group could take the bag of Legos and following the directions only (no pictures consulted until the end) make the object. 

Why didn't I let them consult the picture?  I was teaching writing classes, so I thought the focus should be on the written words.  Now, I might have a different approach.

This project works well in Composition classes; it's a process essay.  I adapted it from a friend's project that she did when she taught Technical Writing.  I've even done it in Business Writing classes, because some of business writing involves giving directions.

I thought about this project as I watched the construction of the helicopter.  Each step had not only written words, but a drawing of the step.  I'm guessing that neither one would work as well by itself.  If I did this project again, I might encourage the use of more visuals.

Of course, we could do that these days.  Back when I was first doing this project, students had to bring a camera from home to take the pictures, and then they had to get the film developed.  Now most people have a camera with their phones or some other kind of cheap, digital camera.

I don't remember any Lego kits when I first started doing this project in the mid-90's, but they may have been there.  It would be interesting to study the directions from today's Lego kits as a piece of writing itself.  I'd use the basic question that I always use when I hand out a piece of writing:  what makes this piece of writing work?  How can we do similar things in our own writing?

I think of other pieces of process writing that we encounter often in modern life, like the modular furniture that needs assembly or recipes.  I've been exploring the Smitten Kitchen site and pondering buying the book.  I know one of the reasons that Deb Perelman, the author of each, has been so successful is that she writes directions which are clear and easy to follow and leave us with food that we're expecting.  I hate those cookbooks where the food will only look the way that it looks in the book if we have a team of people who do all the arranging and photographing.

As people who teach writing, I've often thought that we should spend more time focusing on process writing.  But maybe I think that because I'm surrounded by so many people who can't give simple directions.

As a human being, I've often wished that people had more practice communicating in clear, precise ways, the way that we must when we're doing when we write a set of instructions.  Can writing the process essay help us get in touch with our true emotions?  Perhaps I really want us to have more psychological training, not just training in the writing and giving of instructions.

Or maybe I just wish that I had more time to play with Legos in any given day.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Apocalyptic Christmas Reading

For long-time readers of this blog, you will not be surprised to find that my Christmas reading was apocalyptic in tone--and yet, the books were oddly hopeful.

Even the nonfiction book that I read, David Browne's Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970, had a somewhat apocalyptic tone.  I enjoyed revisiting the music discussed, and I'm intrigued by the practice of taking a single year and seeing what it shows us.  But it was rather sad to read about these great musical talents having such problems getting along.  However, the last chapter of the book did remind us of how many of those talents have continued to produce great work, even if they never did completely reconcile with former partners.

I read The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, which has a fairly standard premise:  there's been a terrible disease and much of humanity has died.  How do the survivors carry on, once the need for food and shelter have been met?  How to find meaning in such a world?  And how to deal with memories of what's been lost.  In those lyrical ruminations, I found myself thinking of lessons I could learn from the narrator's experiences. 

The narrator lies in a hammock, which makes him think of a fish in a net: 

"That is what we are, what we do:  nose a net, push push, a net that never exists.  The knots in the mesh as strong as our own believing.  Our own fears.

Ha.  Admit it:  you don't have the slightest idea what you are doing, you never ever did.  With all the nets in the world, real or unreal.  You swam around in a flashing confused school following the tail of the fish in front.  Pretty much.  Nibbling at whatever passed, in whatever current you swam into" (The Dog Stars, page 218).

I also read Justin Cronin's The Twelve, a follow-up to The Passage, a book I enjoyed immensely.  I also enjoyed The Twelve, and it does work as a stand-alone book.  I remember very little about The Passage, yet I had no trouble diving into The Twelve.  It's the kind of book that wakes you up in the morning because you want to find out what happens next.

But the book that has quietly gotten under my skin is Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, a novel about Dellarobia, a woman who had such intellectual potential before she got pregnant and married her high school boyfriend.

But it's about so much more than that:  climate change, habitat loss, clash of values.  Kingsolver does a great job of depicting those who are too poor even to shop at Wal-Mart, showing the desperation of their lives without sentimentalizing them or showing contempt.  In one scene, Dellarobia tries to explain why people of her community, and the country beyond who are like her community, have such trouble rallying around climate change issues:  "Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deer and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don't know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants. Students e-mailing to tell you they deserve their A's." (Page 321).

Kingsolver also does a great job of showing that habitat loss will affect us all.  I found the scene where Dellarobia and her friend shop in a thrift store to be the most powerful in the book.  Kingsolver devotes many pages to this scene, but it's worth it.
"Dellarobia felt bleary again, looking at this unused luggage:  the golden anniversary cruise that  detoured into the ICU, the honeymoon called off for financial reasons.  Every object in this place gave off the howl of someone's canceled hopes" (page 305)
On seeing exercise equipment:  "This place was a museum of people's second thoughts" (page 295)

But other scenes stay with me too, especially the ones where the newscaster appears.  And I've found myself thinking about the ending, which fits so perfectly, many times in the week since I finished it.

I must be honest, as I was reading it, I thought, this will never be my favorite Kingsolver book.  It's not the kind of book that wakes me up in the middle of the night and demands that I return to it.  But it's the most important work of the ones that I read over Christmas.

It's the kind of work that makes me think of my own writing.  What's important?  What's lasting?  If I could only write one more thing before I died, what would demand my attention?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Feast Day of the Epiphany for Writers and Other Artists

Today is the Feast Day of the Epiphany.  For a more spiritually focused essay, with photos, see this post on my theology blog.  But here, I'd like to think about what this Feast Day has to say to writers and other artists.

First, a bit of background:  the Feast Day of the Epiphany celebrates the ways in which the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus is revealed early in the Christ story.  More specifically, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men from the East to see and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.  Often, the Epiphany season also includes the baptism of Jesus, which in some Gospels, can include a descending dove and God telling us that Jesus is God's son, with whom God is well pleased.

Note that God is well pleased even before Jesus has done a thing.  For those of us who suffer self-loathing because we feel we're not doing enough and we're not living up to our full potential, perhaps we could take this lesson and back off a little.

Or maybe we want to take a completely different approach.  Perhaps on this Feast Day of the Epiphany, we could move towards having an epiphany of our own about our work.

The word epiphany in literary circles has come to mean a sudden insight (that's the most simplistic definition).  Here's the epiphany I'm hoping for today/this year:  what am I put on this earth to do?  What creative work is most important?  If I didn't have all the time in the world--and we don't--what would I focus upon?

We hear a lot of talk in the world about writer's block, but that is not the reality for the creative folks I know.  Most folks I know have far too many interests to be blocked.  For most people I know, the difficulty comes with having too little time and floundering in terms of not being able to decide what work is most important.  Let this be the year that we determine early what our essential work is, and let this be the year that we commit to that work and bring it to fullness.

But maybe you'd like a more light-hearted approach to the Feast Day of the Epiphany.  The Christmas to Epiphany season is a festival of light.  How can we get more light into our lives?

If you're a scented candle person, Yankee Candle is having a great sale right now, and it's not just their Christmas scents (at least not on their website).  There are candles that are half price and 75% off.  And if your order is under $100, shipping is only $5, which seems like a great deal to me, because those candles are heavy.

Or maybe you need a better desk lamp or better reading light.

Or maybe you need metaphorical light.  What books have brought you joy and inspiration?  Resolve to read them more often, even daily or weekly.  Invite more light of every kind into your life!  Watch your favorite movies.  Seek out the T.V. shows that make you glad to be alive--and avoid the ones that make you anxious (like the local news, for example) or unworthy.

The Feast Day of the Epiphany can also be about gifts, and if you have any extra money, now can be a great time to buy yourself a gift when much of it is on sale.  Buy yourself some new undergarments!  That sweater you've had your eye on is likely on sale, and many of us still have a few months of cooler weather left.  Buy a calendar that makes you happy--it's probably on sale right now.  Stock up on your favorite, seasonal coffees and teas.

We rarely get this feast day on a week-end day, so that fact opens up possibilities.  Why not bake some 3 Kings Bread?  Last year, I wrote a blog post that gives the recipe along with photos.  And for those of you who say "Bread?  I can't possibly bake bread!", I say, "Yes, you can."  This recipe is for a yeasted bread, but it requires no kneading.  And while you could include candied fruit, you don't have to.  For those of you still adhering to your New Year's resolutions to eat better, this recipe can work for you too:  it's somewhat sweet, but also fairly healthy.

For those of us who still have yet to put away our Christmas decorations, today should probably be the day.  Many of us have been on vacation, and tomorrow many of us return to work for the first time.  Today, on the Feast Day of the Epiphany, many of us will need to put our lives back into a certain order to get ready for tomorrow.

But before we let go of Christmas entirely, let's take a bit more time to savor the season.  Have one last cookie or cup of Christmas tea.  Think about how you will continue to infuse sweetness into your post-holiday life.  Think about the twinkly lights and the star that is so central to the Christian Christmas story.  How can you get more light into your life?  What star waits for you to notice and to follow its guidance?  What gifts do you need?  What gifts does the world need from you?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Eliot Inspirations on the Eve of Epiphany

I wrote 3 poems this morning--3!!  Of course, I haven't written much during the month of December:  one that I wrote when I needed it for the academic essay I was writing and one set of haiku for a poetry meeting that I blogged about in this post.

In that post, I also talked about our poetry assignment for our next poetry meeting:  to write something in response to T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men."  I had ideas for my poem, "The Hollow Women."  And now I have 3 poems!  Will I keep them as individual poems or will I weave them together?  I'll likely do both.

I wrote about the women who work in offices and the women who work in the houses of the women who work in offices.  I had also been reading Jan Richardson's post about the wise men and Epiphany and what if women came too?  She also includes in that post a link to a free download of her Retreat for Women's Christmas, which includes poems and artwork and blessings and writing/thinking prompts--a great resource if you're in the mood for a contemplative treat with a nonobnoxious spiritual theme.

For weeks now (decades really), I've been thinking about the great mass migrations we've seen, people moving from the south to the north in search of better lives.  Something triggered the English major part of my brain, and I thought, didn't T.S. Eliot write a poem about the wise men?

Indeed he did write "Journey of the Magi."  Ah, the joys of the Internet!  I pulled up that poem, and I wrote my 3rd poem, about undocumented immigrants making their way through the desert.

I don't think I've ever referenced T.S. Eliot as much in just one day.  I recognize the importance of Eliot, being the good English major with a Ph.D. that I am, but he's never been one of my touchstone poets.  But I've been having fun with him this morning.

And I'm not done yet!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Friday Delights

Yesterday was full of delightful moments, even though the work day was long:

--I had coffee with a friend and reconnected after the holidays.

--The meeting with my department went well.  We even had lunch, which our school has not always been able to afford.  It would have been great to have taken the faculty to a fancy restaurant, but given the stresses of the past few years, I was profoundly grateful for lovely trays of sandwiches, perfect fruits, and delectable veggies, all delivered on time by a colleague in a different department.  So much could have gone wrong during that meeting and lunch, but nothing did.

--After the meeting, I hung out with my friend who meets with me periodically to exchange short stories.  She told me again how much she likes my work, how happy my work is.  I said, "It's a good thing I never went into an M.F.A. program--they'd have seen my work as light and fluffy."

--I challenged her to write a story with a happy ending, maybe a marriage.  She looked aghast.  She challenged me to write a story in which the narrator realizes she's dead.

--As I spun my way through spin class, I thought about the possibilities. 

And this morning, I started composing!  Will one of the characters be telling the story from the dead?  Or am I simply writing an apocalyptic story like the ones I read over Christmas break?  I'm not sure yet. 

My plan is for the narrative to be broken up with chunks of text like the one below, with which I am well pleased:

I am the pianos abandoned in the early miles of the Oregon Trail, and later, the finer furniture, and later still, all the possessions of any weight at all.  I am the bones of a hungry people moving north, desperate for water, finding only stone.

But it occurs to me that perhaps those chunks are poems that have wandered into my short story.  Or maybe they'll appear in both.  Hmmm.

It makes me happy that I spent some time on fiction this morning, even though I'm not sure where the story is going or how it will fit into my longer manuscript of linked short stories.

What else is making me happy today?  My essay on getting more rest and rejuvenation is up at Her Circle.  Go here to read it.

I'm also happy that my poem "Conserving the Scraps" has just been published in the latest edition of New Plains Review.  What a lovely journal.  If you haven't discovered it yet, you should.

Here's the poem, for your Friday reading pleasure:

Conserving the Scraps

The homeless woman sits in the library
and reads about the art of quilts.
Surrounded by all her worldly possessions, three
grocery bags full, she discovers the history
of this odd art, born
out of desperation
and poverty: the lack of basic supplies, the need
to conserve every scrap.

The homeless woman thinks of her own clothes, patched
so many times that she can’t remember
the original contours of the cloth.
She fingers her garbage bags,
the modern feedsack with multiple uses,
many a rainy night made bearable
by their plastic presence.

The homeless woman reads
the tales of modern quilters and their quest
for quality fabrics.
Unlike them, she appreciates
the durability of polyester, a rugged fabric
well suited for life on the streets.

Later, the homeless woman settles
her garbage bags around her in the shadows
and waits for scurrying sleep to come.
She thinks of cheerful quilt tops,
the differences in batting,
and wishes for warmth to call her own.