Thursday, February 28, 2013

Scarcity Consciousness or a Universe of Abundance?

When I look back over this week-end, I'm amused at myself.  I was careful about when I watched Silkwood, because I didn't want to get too scared too close to bedtime.

What did I do instead?  I read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch--a book that terrifies me in many more ways than Silkwood.  In this book, Ehrenreich wants to do the same undercover reporting on the lives of middle class workers that she did in Nickel and Dimed.  So she creates a resume and waits to be scooped up into a middle class job that pays at least $50,000 a year and has full benefits.

She gets no calls, even with a manufactured resume.  She fills her time with resume coaches and networking groups and online searching.

What's even scarier:  she's doing this in 2003-2004 (the book was published in 2005), long before the economic implosions of 2008 onward.

So, for the first part of this week, I sank into that self-pitying, I-will-never-make-it-to-retirement, whiny state that I hate.  But last night, I went to an event that put me back into the cautious optimism which is my natural state.

If Barbara Ehrenreich was writing from a scarcity consciousness, Branard Carey operates from a place of abundance.  He's making a living from being an artist, and he had all kinds of ideas for the rest of us.

His presentation at first had more relevance for visual artists and some performance artists than for writers, at least at first glance.  But I found all kinds of inspiring nuggets.

Careful readers of this blog know that I do more than write, in terms of my creative activities.  In fact, yesterday, before I went to work and then to the evening presentation, my spouse and I did a mosaic project in our effort to avoid replacing a pedestal sink.   More on that later.  We've created fountains and worship spaces and photos and collages and paintings and all sorts of sculptures.  We both cook, and he gardens, and on and on I could go.

I've often wondered if we could take all these projects and create a variety of income streams.  Brainard Carey would say yes.

He began by asking why do we, as artists, check our success at certain levels?  He says the only thing holding us back is ourselves.  In other words, we've got a lot of self-defeating behaviors, and many of them are unconscious.  If we could control that behavior, all sorts of success would follow.

He talks about speaking in the language of financiers, which those of us who are poets might think has nothing to do with us.  But maybe it does.  He talked about artists who approached rich people not by asking for money, but by describing their project, saying "This is our dream," and then asking, "Have you ever thought of investing in a dream?"

He also talked about approaching gallery owners by going into a gallery as if one is going to buy a work and letting the owner talk about the work.  The way the gallery owner talks about that work is the way that the owner will talk about your work, should you choose to let that gallery represent you.

In many of our encounters with people who might want our work, he encouraged us to think in terms NOT of what those people can do for us, but what we can do for those people.  What needs do they have that our creative work could meet?

I thought about publishers and then my mind meandered to readers.  We live in a time-starved society.  Our readers will be spending hard-earned money and then spending time with our words.  What's the reward for them?

Over and over again, Brainard Carey reminded us of the value of asking for what we want and need.  If you want a show, ask for one.  If you need an audience with a mover in the industry, invite that person to coffee near where the person works or for 10 minutes in a cafe in the building.  He understands how we're afraid of rejection, which makes us afraid to ask, but he assures us that we will be astonished at often the answer will be yes.

And in a corollary command, he warns us about underselling ourselves, which artists tend to do.  He reminds us to ask for the moon.

If you live in Southeast Florida, you've still got one more chance to hear him:  he'll be speaking tonight at Girls' Club Gallery (117 NE 2nd Street in Ft. Lauderdale)at 7 p.m.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Gender Justice

Last night, I stayed up long past my usual bedtime to watch Makers:  Women Who Make America, which you can buy or view, episode by episode, here.

Even though I knew this history, I still stayed up to watch.  The show did not break new ground, but it struck me as a good history, particularly for people who don't know this history.  Unlike Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which has been getting a lot of media coverage as we've come to the 50th anniversary of its publication, the PBS show focused on women of all classes.  It did a good job of explaining why African-American women did not always feel welcome or committed, and it included the stories of lesbians, who also felt excluded.

The show was a good reminder for me of what ordinary people can do.  I'm always grateful for those reminders.

I hear people of a certain age complaining about today's youth and wondering why they don't go out and protest.  I would argue that today's youth have different tools, and they may not need to throw their bodies on the barricades.  We're still in the early days of social networking, which is already changing the landscape in ways we can scarcely comprehend. For that matter, in many ways we're still in the early days of the Internet, which also has transformed us and continues to do so.

The show pointed out that women had been trained to organize in other contexts (like the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against the war in Vietnam), and thus, they had the tools to organize for their own interests as they became radicalized.

I remember back in graduate school when we learned to work the mimeograph machine, one of the tools of social revolution of the 1960's and 70's.  Sure, we had copy machines; I'm not that old.   But grad students had to use the old technology because it was cheaper.  Maybe smartphones will be the mimeograph machine of this generation of students.

The show makes clear that we're still not where we want to be as women, and I already had this on the brain yesterday as I read a series of articles in The Washington PostThis article points out that one year after college graduation, female graduates are making roughly 15% less than their male counterparts, and here's why that fact is so significant:  "All the traditional reasons typically trotted out to interpret the pay gap — that women fall behind when they leave the workforce to raise kids, for example, or that they don’t seek as many management roles — failed to justify this one. These young women didn’t have kids yet. The study took account of the differences in their academic majors. And because they were just one year removed from their undergraduate degrees, few of these women yet had the chance to go after (much less decline) leadership roles."

Yes, we have work to do, even as we approach a time where we have more females graduating from college than males.   And that work is not just here, in our own country.

Last night's show ended by reminding us that third world women face even more brutal conditions than women in this country have faced in many generations, centuries even. But it's worth repeating the point that the show made again and again:  social change can come swiftly, after years of slogging for justice that seems like it will always be out of reach.  I have a vision of a world where women can move safely as they fulfill their full potential.  I've seen enormous changes throughout the last 47 years that I've been alive.  I hope to continue to see positive changes for women as I move through the next 47 years.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

No Future?

On the heels of watching Silkwood, and then reading about MOOCs and all the other ways my industry is being destroyed, I came across this blog post with its clip of The Sex Pistols singing "God Save the Queen."  A few hours earlier, my friend said, "I worry about what's ahead for the younger generation."

I said, "I worry about my generation."  But I really worry about us all.

I find old punk music to be oddly comforting.  We've thought we were doomed before--watch The Sex Pistols sing it:  "No future, no future, no future for you."  Reread Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way to remember just how bad the social conditions were that spawned the punk movement.

Maybe we'll get some vibrant music out of these hard times.  Maybe some unlikely heroes will emerge.

I've been immersed in the 80's, so it was strange to wake up this morning to hear that C. Everett Koop had died.

There are very few members of the Reagan administration whom I respected much, although time has softened my outlook.  I tend to believe that people are doing the best job that they can do, which doesn't stop them from being horribly uninformed or working under outdated paradigms or feeling the beginning effects of diseases which dull the judgment.

But I still find Koop's story inspiring.  I remember him as being the only Reagan administration official who would even talk about AIDS--and then he did it so openly and matter-of-factly that I thought we might survive the plague after all.

Now in an age when so many people view AIDS as a manageable disease, we forget how terrifying it was in its early days.  I'm convinced that it was a more virulent disease then--watch those documentaries that have footage from the early days of the disease and notice how quickly those AIDS victims were turned into walking corpses--and then dead corpses.

Could more people have been saved if we'd just been honest from the beginning and had a frank discussion about body fluids, clean needles, and condoms?  Maybe.  In the intervening years, I've been amazed at the poor decisions of all sorts that people make as they gamble that the ill effects won't catch up with them or that reality doesn't apply to them.

I remember cheering for Koop, who steadfastly acted like a scientist and the nation's doctor, not like a moralist.  He showed us all how to behave like grown ups.

Today I read this article in The Washington Post about Koop's life.  I knew about his accomplishments during my lifetime, but I didn't realize how much he had done in the field of pediatric medicine, particularly surgery.  Not only do we have a generation or two who came of age in the early days of AIDS alive because of Koop's actions, but countless babies too.

I love that Koop was 64 and retired when he was tapped to be surgeon general.  I'm collecting these stories of people who go on to accomplish important events when they're at midlife or beyond.  They make me feel hopeful.

Koop also had no training in public health--but look at what he was able to accomplish.  Yesterday I talked about Silkwood, and being amazed at the depiction of the constant smoking in that movie.  People smoked at work, in restaurants, everywhere--but we don't do that anymore, and Koop deserves a chunk of credit for changing our habits.  He was just as blunt about the effects of tobacco as he was about AIDS and unprotected sex.

I want to watch the movie How to Survive a Plague, and it's cheap enough and sounds inspiring enough that I'll probably buy a copy.  It's about those early days of the AIDS crisis, and how people came together to demand social justice.  It's good to remember what can be accomplished.

Koop's life reminds us how much one human life can make a difference too, and how we may not fully know what we'll be called upon to do.  In the days when it feels like I'm a victim of events I can't control (the economy, which still feels wretched to me, the changes coming to higher ed, the changes coming to my own school), it's good to remember that ordinary humans can live in the face of extraordinary changes and make the world better.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Full Body Burdens and the New Nuclear Age

Yesterday we watched Silkwood, which I hadn't seen again since I first saw it in the mid-80's.  I remember feeling scared by the scrubbings and the nuclear contamination which necessitated the scrubbings.  I didn't remember that the depiction of the main character, Karen Silkwood, was as complex as it seemed to me yesterday.

I remember seeing Karen Silkwood as a spunky, brave heroine, and I still sort of see her that way.  But I also see her as less brave, and more a woman who backs into her heroic acts or does them almost accidentally.

And let me be frank here, I also see her as somewhat irresponsible and careless.  She's the kind of worker that no management type would want to have.  She's sloppy, and she's presented early on as trying to get out of work, and she's a whiner.  She takes drugs at work, and it's been a long time since I've seen so many people smoking so much through the course of a day.  How life has changed in the past few decades!

I feel guilty for even thinking these things.  By the time I saw Silkwood in the mid-80's, the sanctification of Karen Silkwood was well underway.  She was seen as a hero of the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-corporation movement, such as it existed.

But as I watched the movie, I felt myself wondering if the corporate types really had her killed.  She took astonishing risks with her personal safety, and it's no wonder she got contaminated.  One of the first scenes in the movie shows her popping a gum bubble all over her face, and her co-worker, who's been handling plutonium, takes the gum off her face and puts his fingers in her mouth.

You may protest, well what about that accident?  She had an amazing amount of Quaaludes in her system.  Did she ingest them?  Based on her behavior in the film, it's likely that she did, not that a shadowy type poisoned her drink.  It's quite believable that she fell asleep at the wheel.

And the movie made me doubt that she really planned to get the documents that would make her a true whistleblower--it's an angle I didn't see when I first saw it.

I did a bit of Internet searching this morning, and I came across this fascinating article, for those of you who are interested in nuclear contamination of the human body.

I wanted to see this movie again since last summer, when I read Full Body Burden and Plume in the same week (see this post for more).  I'm surprised at how well the movie holds up, how timeless it seems.  It also seems like an important cautionary tale, in this current age of ours, when we see people thinking about nuclear power as a possibility again.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gender Trouble and Other Performance Art

In an interesting juxtaposition to yesterday's post, today is the birthday of Judith Butler.  I daresay most people have never heard of her, but her academic work paved the way for the expansive conversations about gender that we're having these days.

Well, some of us are having.  I realize that a lot of people are still deeply (desperately?) committed to the idea that all of life can be divided neatly into binary categories:  gay/straight, male/female, U.S. Citizen/other, creative/rational--on and on I could go.

Ugh.  I'm much more of a spectrum person, and the more I learn about life (and Physics!), the more I think the spectrum is wider and probably deeper than anything I can imagine.

Butler posited that we perform our gender.  Once I believed that passionately.  I came at the issue from a sociological background, and I would have sworn that it's our society that shapes us and teaches us how to perform our gender.

But then my sister gave birth to a son.  Early on, my little nephew was fascinated with big trucks, earthmoving equipment, emergency vehicles, trains, all sorts of vehicles that I once might have labeled "masculine."

I asked my sister how he had come to have these interests, and she insisted that it seemed intrinsic.  She's certainly not interested in those kind of vehicles, and my brother-in-law is a sailboat guy, not a dumptruck guy.  But strap my nephew into his carseat, and he'd be on the lookout for construction sites.

One of my Charleston friends once said that babies are born with their own personalities.  I didn't believe her, but then I started meeting babies, as my friends, and then my sister, had children.  Now, I have to agree.

Of course I still believe that our society shapes us in all sorts of ways, including the ways that we perform our gender, along with all the other aspects of our lives.  I feel lucky to be part of this century and this nation, where I have a lot more options than I would have had if I was a woman in the 1940's or if I lived in most developing nations today.

And readers of my blogs know that I'm always looking for ways to integrate all my selves, so that the performance art of my life is true and honest.

Am I integrated if I'm keeping 2 blogs?  I say that I am, although I will confess that I'm more compartmentalized than some might consider healthy.

I do feel that we're in an interesting time period, where it's easier in many circles to be out as a gender-bending queer than it is to be out as a practicing Christian of the non-conservative, non-Pentecostal variety.  I have known many colleagues who would be much more comfortable if I was a transgender person than they are when they find out that I go to church regularly.

You might say it's time to find new colleagues.  I have wondered if I'd feel differently in other workplaces.  But maybe I'd just have another set of issues:  accepted as a Christian, but out of place as a poet, perhaps or accepted as a Christian but having to educate people about transgender issues.

I think that in many ways it's a good witness to be where I am.  Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of those in-your-face Christians in the workplace.  I try never to be the one who brings up the religious angle first.  But I am there to be a reference, a provider of background, a resource, if needed.  I'm there to remind people that not all Christians are wackadoos.

And just as I will defend the humanity of the gender-bending queers, I will also insist on the humanity of the Christian.  It's a strangely transgressive place in which I find myself.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday Snippets in a Transgressive Shade

I will likely develop some of these snippets into fuller blog posts later.  But since I want to capture several snapshots, and since my Saturday is getting out ahead of me, let me write in snippet form today.

--Why is my Saturday getting out ahead of me?  I did some collaging this morning--fun!  I'm still using too much glue and still not good with seams and making the picture look like it's one whole thing.  But I love the collection of images.  I'll try to get some good photos today and post later.

--I've been sorting through books.  I'm amazed at how many books I bought because I'd read them in the library, liked them, and then found them on the remainder table.  It's time to have an honest assessment:  am I really going to read these books again?

When I see a horizon of reading time approaching, I don't go to my bookshelf.  I go to the library to get something new.  And thus, many of these remaindered books will go to the library.

--I'm amazed at my collection and the topics that once interested me, but no longer do.  For example, I remember wrestling with weight issues and body acceptance, but my issues with my body are no longer the ones of my youth.  For the most part, I'm not trying to transform into some ballerina body I will never attain.  Now I'm working hard to maintain my health, strength, and flexibility, as I try to get ready for older midlife and older age.

--I'm also amazed at the older vision of gender in those books from the 80's and early 90's, which even at the time I suspected wasn't as simple as we were taught.  Two genders?  And we're supposed to fit neatly?  Really?  How quaint.

--If you wonder what on earth I'm talking about, take a look at this interview with Megan Rohrer, the first transgendered Lutheran pastor.

--I had dinner with a writer friend last night.  She said she thought I had missed my calling when I didn't become a pastor, that I would have been the kind of cool pastor that would have attracted a Jewish girl like her to my church.  She said, "If you had been pastor, I'd have gone to your church every single day."

--I could still be that pastor.  In fact, I'd be more likely to be that kind of pastor now than I would have been straight out of graduate school, during my fiercely feminist, angry 20's.

--Later last night, I wrote this e-mail to her: 

"I'll likely continue to ponder some of the things you said tonight about the kind of pastor you said I would have been. I love that vision! I wonder if God is speaking through you . . .

God appears to some people in burning shrubbery, and to others in the voice of a friend. Or maybe the story of Moses was not originally as dramatic, and the burning bush got added later.

How would that read? Over sushi, Samuel, friend of Moses, said, "You know, I've been thinking, someone needs to go to the Pharaoh to free our people. Moses, I think it should be you. The Pharaoh will listen to you."

If I'm being too transgressive with holy texts, I trust you will forgive me :)"

--Likewise dear blog readers, if I'm being too transgressive for your tastes, I trust that you will forgive me.  If you were not in a mood to forgive me, I feel certain you'd have stopped reading long ago.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Transforming Neighborhoods into Artist Enclaves

On Wednesday night, after my trip to Girls' Club Gallery, my spouse and I were talking about the artists moving into that neighborhood in downtown Ft. Lauderdale, and we wondered how we could help our own neighborhood move towards becoming an artists' enclave.

On Thursday morning, I read this story in The Washington Post about Micah Greenberg, a man who has transformed his loft apartment in Washington D.C. into a veritable center for a variety of arts:

"According to Amy Saidman, artistic director of the storytelling group SpeakeasyDC, Greenberg has found a sweet spot between entertainment and socializing.

'The shows are a mix of taking what you love about going to a show and what you love about being at a party, and putting them together,' Saidman said."

Of course, Greenberg once had a 6 figure salary at NPR.  He left that job to devote himself to his art center of an apartment.

I wonder about the zoning and code enforcement folks.  Are they really OK with what he's doing?

I think about my own neighborhood, a working class kind of neighborhood, the kind that's been hard hit by the housing bubble.  But it's only a mile away from the Hollywood Arts Park and the trendy-ish downtown area.  Hollywood has more of an arts scene in some ways than downtown Ft. Lauderdale.

Could I buy foreclosed houses and rent them out to artists?  Could I thus surround myself with the kind of community I'd like to live in?

But do I really want to be the landlord to artists?

Maybe I wouldn't have to use my own money.  Could there be grants that would help me do what I want to do?  Or have those kind of grants dried up too?

Astute readers may ask, "Hey, don't you have an advanced degree in British literature?  Can't you see the creative groups that you've studied as cautionary tales?"

Why yes, you're right.  I've always wished for a Bloomsbury group to call my own.  I've always longed for a Lake District in my back yard.

And yes, I know how those groups ended.  Yet I like to think that somehow I could do it differently, that I could succeed where others have failed.

It might be easier to pull off if I had a huge plot of land that I could control.  Or would it be easier to pull off if I had less control, if somehow I attracted artsy folks to my neighborhood, but wasn't the landlord?

I've had an almost lifelong interest in intentional communities, in what makes them work and what destroys them.

I know that many communities have been destroyed by simple issues, like who will clean the toilets.  I look to monastic communities as examples of communities that have survived across centuries.  I know that it helps communities to survive if they have an overarching larger vision, whether that be one that's God-drenched or a vision of a new direction in poetry.

But what it means for our neighborhoods devastated by a housing bubble that's collapsed--that I do not yet know.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

More than the Sum of My E-Mails

Yesterday I had several moments whilst I was at work related duties that reminded me that I am more than the sum of my e-mails. 

In the afternoon, a young woman came to the office and said she was looking for me.  She said she was working on her portfolio, and she really wanted someone else to look it over.

At first I thought she was looking for a tutor, and I started to give her that information.  She said, "Actually, I wanted you."

She then went on to say that she was looking through all of her work when deciding what to include in her portfolio, and she'd come across the papers she'd written for my class.  She realized how constructive my comments were and how I'd helped her become a better writer, and thus, she was really interested in what I had to say about her portfolio.

Of course I said I would be honored to help. 

Later, I told my friend (who is also a work colleague) about the encounter.  She smiled and said, "You've been paid today."

Yes.  Thank you, universe.  I so rarely hear back about the long-term outcome of anything I do on the job that it's hard to know whether or not anything I do really matters. 

I realize that the larger existential question remains unanswered.  I imagine someone saying, "Sure, you helped one student improve, but in the long range, who cares?  The seas continue to rise, children continue to go to bed hungry, the world is a long way from your vision of what should be."

But yesterday, I could ignore that voice and focus on the single student, the Black History month event that we've managed to pull together, and the field trip to a local gallery.

A few days ago, I thought we couldn't pull together our Black History month lecture.  I thought we didn't have enough time.  But happily, our lecturer could do the event one week later, and so, on Tuesday, she'll offer a presentation on Faith Ringgold.  There's even a bit of money in the budget to offer coffee and cookies.

Then a week later, for Women's History Month, our colleague will offer her presentation on women in the arts.  We'll have sandwiches for that event.

The wondrous event-related development that happened yesterday is that our librarian put together a beautiful flier and poster for our Black History Month lecture.  My attempt looks so juvenile compared to hers.  I really need to learn how to work Photoshop.

After various consultations, I was off to a do a field trip observation at Girl's Club Gallery in Ft. Lauderdale.  I love this little gallery.  I love that students get a special presentation.  For many of them, it's the first time they've been in a gallery and the first time that some of them realize that private collectors still exist and are collecting work, right here in our midst.

And of course, I love seeing the art made by contemporary women (95% of the collection) and men.  I fell in love with the 3 pieces by Mel Kadel.  She did such interesting things on the back of pages taken from a book.  I have several hymn books that I swiped from the trash pile for art projects.  I like the pages' sort of translucent quality, but I have trouble getting the effect that I want.  Her work inspired me to try again.

I think I'll do some collaging this week-end.  But the show, which focuses on drawing, did make me want to pick up my sketchbook again.  Maybe I'll do that soon.

I watched the students wandering through the gallery and listened to their discoveries, some of which helped me see the art in different ways too.  For example, in one work by Jiae Hwang, I hadn't realized that the swirls of a girl's hair looked like planets and space ships until I heard a student point it out.  Wonderful!

The gallery notes can be found here.  My computer loads the PDF so that the text and images appear in a seafoam color.  Obviously, the works were not all seafoam colored.  But it gives you an idea--and if you're in the tri-county area, hopefully it will inspire you to pay a visit to the gallery.

I got home and wrote a gratitude haiku, so I'd be sure to remember the lessons of my work day:

I am so much more
than the sum of my e-mails
whole worlds hidden plain

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lessons about the Creative Life from Boot Camp Exercise Class

In yesterday morning's boot camp class, we went to the parking garage.  We did sprints across the deserted 7th floor, under the sky lightening with the first streaks of dawn.  We did exercises against the walls of the upper deck--and then, we sprinted some more.

A week ago, I was running up the stairs of the doctor's office building (our gym/wellness center is on the 8th floor of the building)--yes, I was running up the stairs.  Usually I would not use that verb when it comes to my progress up the stairs; I'd use words like "trudge," "slog," and "huff."  But last week, before I had a chance to tell myself that I couldn't do it, there I was, zipping up the stairs.

My Tuesday morning boot camp class is the toughest thing I do each week.  The instructor changes every 4 weeks, and the workout changes every week.    One week we're using weights, the next week we're using stretchy bands, and occasionally we use the counterweight of our own bodies.  Some weeks we do more aerobic workouts in a variety of ways:  stairs, running, dancing down deserted hallways.  Other weeks we focus more on weight workouts.  Often, we do a variety.  One instructor likes to have us punch, while another has us work with partners.  We never know what to expect.  We do know that it will be both grueling and fun.

I come back to this theme occasionally on this blog, and once again, I'm seeing connections between my work out life and other aspects of my life.  What can Tuesday morning boot camp class teach us about the creative life?

The main thing that leaps out at me is that there are many different routes towards the same goal.  In my boot camp class, we're all there for the same reason:  we want to maintain the fitness that we have and build on it.  Boot camp class shows us all the ways we could do that, with a variety of aerobic activity (stairs, dancing, obstacle courses, sprinting), strength training (abs, free weights, machines, bands), and some flexibility training.  In my creative life, too, there are many routes to the finished product.

Early on, I decided to do what I could each day.  I have a friend who says that she needs a long stretch of time--6-8 hours--to fully immerse herself in her writing.  But guess how often she has that kind of time?  Almost never.

She could retrain herself to work in smaller segments.  I know that she could, because I used to be that person who wouldn't start on a creative project if I had an appointment later in the day.  What if I really got going on something important and then had to quit?

Now I would say that it would be a nice problem to have.    Now I would make a note for where I was headed.  And guess what?  The next day would be that much easier.

We do better in most aspects of our life if we approach it as a daily practice.  Even though my Tuesday morning boot camp class is tough, it's not the only thing I do.  I exercise every day except for Sunday, and some times, I have 2 workouts a day.  But even on days when I don't do anything more rigorous than go for a leisurely walk, it's all adding up to a Kristin who is in better health than she would be if she did nothing.

Likewise, in my writing life, I do something to further my goal every day.  Even if I can't write something new, I can make notes about what I'll do when I have time to write.  I can send out some submissions.  Even if I'm not working at full steam, I'm making progress towards my goal.

In many ways, I think this diversity is good.  It keeps me from getting bored.  It gives me a variety of activities to do.

Likewise in boot camp class, we move quickly from activity to activity; most of our classes are set up to run on a circuit where we spend no more than 75 seconds at any given station.  Yesterday, we didn't spend the whole hour sprinting--we'd have all lost enthusiasm for that after about 3 minutes.  But we can do anything for 30 seconds to 3 minutes.

If we look at most people with successful creative lives, we find that most people have learned to work with the time they have.  No time to paint and clean up?  They sketch.  No time for a 5 course meal?  They make a comprehensive casserole.  No time to write for 6 hours a day?  They write for as much time as they can steal from other activities.

And along the way, they've built in mechanisms to keep from getting bored.  I wouldn't want to write nothing but poetry.  My forays into fiction delight me in different ways.

And boot camp class reminds us of another essential thing:  if we find something distasteful, it's easier to face if we break it down into smaller chunks.  Maybe we'll want to keep going for a whole hour of ab work.  Or maybe 5 minutes is enough.

Maybe we can't send out 20 packets of poetry in an afternoon, the way we once did.  But a packet or two in a week, week after week, will likely be enough.

In exercise, as with every other aspect of my life, I wish I had more time to devote to it.  I wish I had 2 or 3 selves, one of whom would exercise, one of whom would work on creative projects, and one we'd send to work at the job which pays in dollars and benefits.

Alas, in exercise, as in every other aspect, I don't have that kind of time.  But boot camp class shows that I can accomplish a lot in just 45-60 minutes.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Birthdays of Carson McCullers, Amy Tan, and Other Tuesday Tidbits

If you are hoping for a single essay that supports a thesis of importance, I won't be writing that kind of blog post today.  I feel the scatteredness of my brain.  Too much to do this morning to be meditative:  boot camp exercise class, dentist, a bit of grocery shopping.  But I have some time off at the end of this week, and I'm looking forward to it.

--Today is the birthday of Carson McCullers.  How I loved her in high school.  Some days I feel I will never outgrow my inner Frankieness:  that feeling of being apart from all the others, that longing to be part of a larger unit, that dissatisfaction with the relationships that I have, that wanting something more.

--For a more cohesive essay on Carson McCullers, see this blog post that I wrote in 2010.  How time zooms along.  I assumed that I wrote that essay last year; I remember it so clearly.  But it's been 3 years.  My.

--It's also Amy Tan's birthday.  I read her in grad school for a class on family issues in novels written by 20th century American women.  We read The Joy Luck Club, which fit well with the theme.  What tortured mother-daughter relations.  I wanted to like that book, but I did not.

--Could I not relate to that book because I'm not an immigrant, not the daughter of an immigrant?  Perhaps.  Is it because I'm western, and thus not used to the round-about ways that the Chinese mothers in the book communicated?  Probably.  I just hated all the characters in a variety of ways, and that made the reading tough.

--My poem a day Lenten discipline continues going well.  Today I think I will write a list poem:  things you find in a parking garage.  One of the items:  Richard III!  Or should I say the bones of a dead monarch?  Or the bones of a monarch dead for many centuries?

--My early morning boot camp class will probably go to the top of the parking garage today.  The morning boot camp class has revolving instructors, and we're back to the instructor who likes to take us outside.

--I'm always the one who says, "Look at that sunrise!"  or "Look at that sunset!"  Last night's sunset was gorgeous, the sun a huge, orange egg yolk sinking west--but only for a minute, and then it was gone.

--I wish I didn't have to go to the dentist.  The dentist is my least favorite kind of body upkeep.

--At least I have dental insurance.

--Time to think about going out into the cold:  off to the gym!

--It's been cold enough to have a fire in the fireplace.  What a treat, and one we don't get very often.  For the past few days I've been taking delight in seeing people in their winter clothes.  We don't get to wear our sweaters and boots too often.  Some days, of course, my office is chilly enough that I wish I had worn my winter clothes, but I can't count on that, and besides, I'd still have to go outside at some point.

--Speaking of going outside . . .  off I go.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Dominion of Toni Morrison

Today is the birthday of Toni Morrison, the first African-American to win the Nobel prize.  I consumed her books when I was in college and grad school..  Now I approach them more cautiously.

There's lyrical language that I love. I know that not everyone shares my preference. I knew my participation in a writer's group was doomed once, when the dominant member was reading The Bluest Eye, back when Oprah picked it, and couldn't understand all that "crap" that doesn't really advance the narrative. I quietly said, "That's the artistry in the book."

Her books make me once again appreciate being born female in a later time. It also makes me feel fretful, because I know so many females don't share my luck, even though it's the 21st century.  And her books make me relieved I've made it to adulthood, because she shows how terribly vulnerable children are. 

I haven't read her latest book, Home, but I did read A Mercy a few years ago. I cannot recommend her book enough. I love that it's relatively short. I love that it shows me a view of colonial life (about 1690) that is fresh to me; we often forget how disorganized our American colonies really were, and this book sheds light on that fact.

The new world in the book is shown as full of opportunities, but there's a dark edge to her depiction. These female characters are perched on a precarious brink, and it doesn't take much to make them tumble.

As with all her books, Morrison gives us ethics lessons throughout. In many ways, the last sentences of the ending chapter sum it all up nicely: ". . . to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing" (167). That sentence also sums up all of Morrison's work thus far. 

I plan to read Home eventually.  It, too, is short which means I can get to it sooner rather than later.

Of course, just because her work is short doesn't mean it will be an easy, zippy read.  I remember seeing an interviewer with her, when the book before A Mercy came out, and she admitted to intentionally having made it difficult. The interviewer asked her why she had done that--wasn't she afraid of losing readers?  She said that good literature should take work.  You can read for pleasure, but if the work doesn't require some effort from the reader, it's not really art, is it?

I'll be the first to admit that sometimes, her books just require too much from me.  But then there are other books that engage me, and when that happens, her work is like no other.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Love, Dark Matter, and Other Sunday Similarities

It's a few days after Valentine's Day, and yet, I still can't stop thinking about love.  Here are some snippets from my Sunday morning.

--It's chilly down here, which has become a very rare thing.  I couldn't resist doing some baking:  a cinnamon coffee cake.  Memories suffused the whole experience.  My mother used to make this coffee cake, and perhaps she still does.  It was one of the recipes I copied out as I prepared to leave home.  I've made it often through the years; it's one of my husband's favorites.  And I used my grandmother's mixing bowls, which made me think of her too.  I felt a strange mix of love and yearning for people and times that are no longer here.  But I also felt bolstered by the knowledge of love that stretches across time and the universe.

--Maybe I had the universe on the brain because of this episode of NPR's On Being show, where Krista Tippett interviews Natalie Batahla, an astronomer who studies exoplanets. She has amazing insights.

She compares love to dark energy: "This has been the surprise to me actually that my perspective on love has been so informed by science, but it has. It's been fundamentally shifted, you know. And then I read other scientists who've had the same perspective and it all kind of makes sense. I mean, Carl Sagan's quote, you know: 'For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.' This love, this idea, is this moving force. I mean, it just permeates our history, our culture. I've equated it to, you know, this analogy of dark matter. Ninety-five percent of the mass of the universe being something we can't even see, and yet it moves us. It draws us. It creates galaxies. We're like moving on a current of this gravitational field created by mostly stuff that we can't see. And the analogy with love just struck me, you know, that it's like this thing that we can't see, that we don't understand yet. It's everywhere and it moves us. And science has given me that perspective, but also in very logistical, tangible, practical ways, you know. I mean, when you study science, you step out of planet Earth. You look back down at this blue sphere and you see a world with no borders."

--She reminds us that we're decomposing stars, but she takes that idea further:  "You know, we are stardust and here I am, this bag of stardust, and it took how many billions of years for the atoms that make up my body to come together and make this being that's able to take a conscious look at the universe. I mean, I am the universe and I'm taking a look at myself through these senses that I have and that is an amazing thing."

--If you want a different perspective on the announcement that the Pope will step down, read this essay by E. J. Dionne, where he recommends that a nun should be the next Pope.  Sure, it seems improbable, but I've seen many things happen that were once deemed impossible--the fall of the Soviet Union without a nuclear war, the reunification of Germany, Nelson Mandela walking out of prison.  Once we've dreamed it, we're a good chunk of the way towards it.

--Dionne's essay also reminds us of how much good in the world has been done by Christians in general, Catholics in particular, and especially nuns.  It's a good counterpoint to all the hateful things said in the wake of the Pope's announcement.

--I am still writing a poem a day.  I know, I know, it's still early in Lent.  But I'm really enjoying this feeling of being successful.

--I'm also enjoying working on my memoir.  It, too, is a good reminder of how much good I can do in a week, even if it's one of those weeks where I feel like my main function is to read and send e-mails that aren't important even as I'm writing, reading, and responding.

--Last week, we bought an African Violet to support a justice ministry in our church.  It's still alive.  It makes me happy.  My spouse and I both had African Violets as children, and I remember my grandmother kept them on the radio cabinet.

--Most people will have tomorrow off, but we do not.  Our classes meet once a week, and having 2 Monday holidays in one term is just too much.  However, my school has Friday off.  I'm already looking forward to the writing I hope to do. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fiction Departures

Yesterday, I met my friend for our Friday fiction meet-up.  I had been working on a story that was a very different approach for me, and frankly, I wasn't sure it really worked.

I was trained in the traditional ways of fiction:  rising action, climax, a bit of denouement.  I was told that you can have no story without some sort of conflict.  When writing a story, my standard approach is to zero in on one protagonist and to put some obstacles in the path of the protagonist.  Make the stakes high!

For yesterday's story, I had no traditional narrative arc.  I had three characters, but in some ways, the desert setting was the main character.  I had poetic interludes where the landscape spoke in first person.  In the last interlude the speaker changes from the desert to the city.

As I was writing, I needed to save the document, so I titled it "Desert or Apocalypse Story."  I tried to make the apocalyptic elements subtle:  is it the end of the world or just hard times come around again?  I like to think the story can be read either way.

I put three characters between the poetic interludes and showed a day in a harsh landscape.  Is there a narrative arc?  Not in a traditional way.  Do these characters change?  Is that important?

My friend finished reading the story and told me I'd made a great leap in my storytelling/fiction making skills.  I'd been thinking I had a failed experiment on my hands, and my friend told me that my story will make me a million dollars.

From her lips to God's ears!

She told me, "You can never go back."  She meant I could never go back to my old ways of writing a story.  But I remain unsure.

I do have an idea for our next fiction meet-up.  I'll take one of my poems, "Life in the Holocene Extinction," and I'll make it into a similar story.  The poetic interludes will be lists of species gone extinct in the Holocene extinction that is going on right now.  That poem takes my breath away, although I've been sending it out and getting rejections, so my response is not universal.  Let me see how it works as a fiction piece.

I've still got some time before the close of submissions to the Glimmer Train new writers contest.  Maybe I'll revise this story and send it in.  I tend to write a piece for our fiction meet-ups and never get back to revising.  Maybe I should trust the reaction of my friend.

I looked up the guidelines:  "Open only to writers whose fiction has not appeared, nor is scheduled to appear, in any print publication with a circulation over 5,000."  I pulled up my CV.  I've had 3 short stories published, each in an academic journal, each of which I'm fairly sure had a low circulation.

What a delight to have a variety of writing projects tugging at me:  my memoir, my next short story, revising this short story.

And what a delight to have a good friend who continues to meet me regularly for fiction workshops.  As our time came to an end because I had to go to a meeting, I said, "I often make pros and cons lists, reasons to stay and reasons to go.  And you, and these meetings, are high on the list of reasons to stay."

I never would have written this story (or it would have been a long time) if I hadn't had this deadline.  I would have decided this experiment was a failure without the response of my friend.  I am rich in friends, and I have a wealth of ideas, and I'm feeling gratitude this morning.

Friday, February 15, 2013

My poems in "The Best of Clapboard House"

This year marks the first time, to my knowledge, that my work has appeared in a "best of" issue.  I always thought that online journals might have more staying power than print journals, but that hasn't been the case.  So I find myself still happy to see my words the old fashioned way, on paper.

Three of my poems were published in The Best of Clapboard House.  Two of them have already appeared on this blog:  "Progress" can be found here and "Middle Passage of Marriage" can be found here.  I really liked the way that Clapboard House presented my poem online, with a picture of a statue that pays tribute to Confederate women.  Unfortunately, that page has disappeared from the online journal.

The third poem that appears in The Best of Clapboard House has never appeared on these blog pages.  Ill be honest; I don't like it as much as I like the others.  But here it is--you be the judge.  I don't usually do much with rhyme schemes.  I like the challenge, but I rarely like the poems that result.  This one is different.

I wrote it after reading Jane Hirshfield's "The Button."  It thinks back to what the button was (a tusk) before it was a button.  I felt my brain expand after reading that poem.  I started looking at all my surroundings, thinking about them from that angle.  And thus, my rocking chair, which was once a mighty pine.  And that mention of replacement parts?  My very old rocking chair has a back that's not original to the chair, and you can see where part of the rocker has been replaced--aspects which makes it lose value as an antique.  But I love it anyway.

I've taken my students through a similar writing exercise, with some very good poems as a result. 

But back to the poem. Here it is:

Lesson of the Rocking Chair

Don't always rush forward.
Don't turn your face to the past.
Rock on your heels as you consider your options.
You can't even think for moving so fast.

Let the ones you love hold you.
Enjoy the sheen of well-loved skin.
Remember the thrill of rocking a baby.
Keep connections to your kith and kin.

Recollect your roots; the women who endured.
Celebrate your wood; I was made of pine,
a tree that some dismiss as trash.
But look around:  the countryside is mine.

I'm a collection of replacement parts.
Likewise, let go of what needs to leave.
Embrace the new, make yourself whole.
Sometimes the kindest cut is the cleave.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love Notes on Valentine's Day

Time to wash the ashes off our foreheads and move into the solemnity of Lent.  Or are you celebrating Valentine's Day?  Some love notes:

--I love the idea of the art discussed in this article in The Washington Post.  The artist creates lifesize figures of cardboard, paints them, and puts them in provocative places, like a gardener outside of George Clooney's house or a fruit picker outside of the Capitol building in D.C.  He's making a point about immigration and who does the work that supports our comfortable lives, but he's doing it in a more subtle way than most protest art.  And it's cheap.  He created one of his pieces from cardboard he scavenged at Costco.  Bravo!

--My Lenten discipline is going well.  Poem #2 written this morning.  As anyone who has participated in a poem-a-day project knows that the early days are often the easiest.  That thrill, that adrenaline that says, "I could keep doing this even after my poem-a-day project ends!"  Life has yet to intervene.

--Last night, our pastor preached his Ash Wednesday service that focused on the deprivations that most people undertake during Lent, which is fine, but our pastor suggested we should focus on remembering God's love for us and setting it loose into the world.  As he was wrapping up, he said, "So, if you must, flush your chocolate down the toilet--" when he was interrupted by a child who wailed, "No!"

--I still like this photo essay that I posted last year.  I also love this photo essay, which takes a theological approach.

--And while I'm directing you to other places, let me recommend this blog post by Rachel Barenblat, which talks about treating your body as an object of your love, whether you're smearing  lotion on your hands or taking care of your medical conditions. And this blog post by Kelli Russell Agodon reminded me of a variety of ways that we can practice optimism.

--My spouse and I have been doing a lot of sorting.  Our church is having a rummage sale, and I'm happy to get rid of our junk for this good cause. 

--Sure, I could have a yard sale and make some money for myself.  But that would be a LOT more work, both the prep work of putting prices on everything and the sacrifice of a Saturday to have the yard sale.  No, let others do the work and pocket the proceeds for their good cause.

--One of my favorite paid writing projects is writing prayers for the devotional book, Bread for the Day.  I've written about this project from several angles, most notably in this blog post where I talk about how my poetry writing has been good practice for writing prayers.  I'm thrilled to be asked to participate again and even better news:  we get a bit more pay this year!

--This week, I've also gotten an offer to write curriculum for pay. I said yes.

--I've been thinking about the time that we had to have syllabi on file for every departmental course in the catalogue.  We didn't have much in our files, so I created syllabi from a course description:  course objectives, assignments, grade determinations, topical outlines, weekly and term assignments.  Not for the first time did I think about my liberal arts background and how it had prepared me for all sorts of projects my undergraduate self never would have anticipated.  I thoroughly enjoyed the project and only wished that I could teach some of the cool courses I created.

--When I think back on my education, I'm happy that I have no regrets about the education that I got, aside from the regret of wishing I had studied an even wider variety of subjects.

--Most of all, on this Valentine's Day, I feel fortunate to feel so rich in love of all sorts.  Every day is Valentine's Day, when you've got an abundance of love.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Living Clumps of Carbon Which Will Return to Ash

 Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

You say you're unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday? Are you one of the bajillion people who celebrated Mardi Gras yesterday or maybe you went further and had yourself a season of Carnivale? You have participated in the liturgical year without perhaps even realizing it. Those holidays arose as a response to the liturgical season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. In much earlier church times, Lent was a time of discipline, of giving up, of penitence. Many Christians, if they were wealthy enough to afford the items in the first place, gave up sugar and meat and fat and alcohol. So, as the season of Lent approached, they had to get all those items out of the house--thus, a festive party opportunity!

Yesterday, at the gym of all places, I spoke to a friend about our changing attitudes towards Ash Wednesday, a high holy day which we both hated when we were children. Now, we see how relevant it is. I mentioned the Hindu priest, who smeared ashes on his head every morning to remind himself of his mortality, and she said that she thought daily application of ash was a bit extreme. I thought that having this kind of reminder more than just once a year could be a good thing.

I say that we were at the gym, and you may have pictured a place of beautiful bodies. But our gym is part of a hospital where the bulk of the work that they do is cardiac rehab. We work out and are surrounded by examples of all the ways our flesh can fail us. All the ways our flesh will fail us.

We are ash, after all, and to ash we will return.

In his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says, "But death is the central truth of our existence--the sadness at our core. Everything we love will vanish. We can't hold on to anything. It is this tragedy that accounts as well for the beauty and nobility of our lives because in the face of this knowledge, we go right on loving, trying to hold on to what we cherish, defying death with hubris and with faith" (page 61).

Many creativity theorists would tell us that the knowledge of our impending losses is what drives us to our desks, our easels, our gardens, our clay.  Perhaps it's the knowledge of the losses we've already suffered that drives us to create, whether to preserve our memories or to create something happier.

Speaking of creating, I've decided to ramp up my creativity for Lent.  I will write a poem a day, and if a full-blown poem can't happen on a day, I'll write a gratitude haiku.  I'll work on my memoir 3-4 days a week while continuing to blog.  And I'll submit something each week for this site, which focuses on a different phrase from the cross each week and asks for art in response to that phrase.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras Mishmash

Today is the day before Ash Wednesday, a day alternately known as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnivale.

If you're looking for a history of this day, with its theological links, see this post.  What I'm writing today on this creativity blog will be a collection of Mardi Gras inspired thoughts.

--How interesting for the pope to announce his impending resignation on the day before Mardi Gras.  Will he listen to the news reports that I'm hearing?  I'm listening to person after person saying how much they liked John Paul II and how distant they feel from the current pope.  I'm having moments when I feel sad for the current pope.

--The pope's announcement led to a spirited discussion of how we could use this plot twist to write some sort of thriller, a la Dan Brown.  We talked about the secret documents that the pope might have found in his files.  Let's see, Dan Brown already milked the Jesus/Mary Magdalene connections.  What if the pope found out that Jesus had had a tender relationship with a man?  This led to a discussion of sexuality in Greco-Roman times and how a homosexual relationship in the way we use that term now would have been foreign to that culture--so Christ having an egalitarian homosexual relationship would have been radical in all sorts of ways.

--Of course, writing and publishing such a book would make the writer a target of all sorts of people.  No thanks.

--President Obama is giving the State of the Union speech on Mardi Gras???  Who made that decision?  He's going to compete with all the drinking and merrymaking?

--I know, I know, it's probably on this day because the Constitution mandates that it be so.

--If you want some festivity that doesn't involve drinking (because like me, you've got to go to work tomorrow morning), this post gives you a great bread recipe, along with photographs.

--Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins Lent.  Will you have a Lenten discipline?

--My Lenten discipline will be to work on my memoir 3-4 days a week.  I thought about pledging every day, but my travel schedule between now and Easter will defeat a daily discipline.  But 3-4 times a week is both a challenge and accessible.

--When I first thought of it, I thought, that can't be my Lenten discipline.  I'm enjoying it too much.  I think of a Lenten discipline as something grim like giving up a pleasure.  But many of us are good at self-denial.  What if we gave ourselves permission to add a pleasure to our lives?

--For more thoughts on Lenten disciplines, see this post on my theology blog.

--I'm feeling a desire to do something creative for Mardi Gras, but unlike last year, not baking.  I want to do some mask making.  I want to do some collaging.  I wish I had the day off.  But it's early in the year of Paid Time Off, so I don't want to take the time off, in case I should need it later.

--I could write a poem about our Mardi Gras masks, the ways we have to compose our faces while at work.  Hmmm.

--I have so many poems percolating.  Perhaps my Lenten discipline should be a return to a goal of 1 poem a week.  I wonder what would happen if I wrote a poem a day, the first writing that I did each morning.  How much writing can I cram into one day?  I want to work on my memoir and write more poems and continue blogging.

--Maybe instead of looking for an accessible goal, I should push myself.  I shall use this Mardi Gras to will myself to do more than I think I can do.  I will fortify myself by taking some time to envision what this success would look like.

--Ash Wednesday to Easter:  a poem a day, 3-4 days of memoir work a week, along with near-daily blogging.  That would be a Lenten discipline!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sunday Sorting: The File Cabinet of Doom

I want to believe that everyone has a filing cabinet like the one we began cleaning out last night: the filing cabinet that's the repository of all paper that may or may not be important some day.  We're not very good at going through and deciding that the paperwork will never be important and thus can be recycled.  Only when we need more room for new paperwork do we tackle the old paperwork.

Last night we sorted.  Out with the instruction manuals for tools we no longer use!  Gone are the old receipts that are so faded we can't tell what we bought.  I even found an old grade book from 1989.  I think I kept it because it was the first time I taught at a community college; I think I saw it as a historic document.  Last night, I tossed it--but not before I separated the names from the grades and shredded the names.  I've been well trained in student privacy laws.

As a side note, I looked at the types of assignments for which I recorded grades:  daily writings, essays, revisions, and a final paper.  It seemed like a solid approach then and now.  What's changed is the nature of the way we write and the way we record grades.  When I started teaching Composition classes, we'd have never dreamed of teaching in a computer lab.  Computer labs were for people who would learn to program the machines.  Computers weren't yet cheap enough to put them in every class room.

We kept the files of records of destruction from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma.  What a tough year 2005 was--we have the catalogue of damage to prove it, along with the check stubs from our insurance company.  I kept the file that shows that we've paid off our undergraduate student loans.  Sure, we finished undergraduate school in the late 1980's, and thus will likely never need that paperwork for those loans which are very tiny in comparison to later loans we've taken on--but the file made me grin.  Back into the file cabinet it went.

Next up will be the tougher files to sort, the writing and school files.  I have every graduate paper I ever wrote, and I'll probably keep them, even though I'm not going to turn them into academic essays for journal publication.  I also have photocopies of articles that helped me write those papers.  I'll probably recycle those.  I've kept them because even now, because I remember how frustrating it was to make those copies at the creaking machine in the library--and how many nickels it took to make a copy of an article.

I've also got files of assignments I've used through the years of teaching that I've done--out they will go.

But tougher to call:  I have copies of every draft of every piece of writing I've ever done.  Keep or toss?  As a graduate student, I was trained in the importance of those drafts.  As a creative writer, I see the final draft as the important one, inasmuch as any draft is really final.

There's a reason why I don't sort through this paperwork often.  It consumes a lot of time and energy.  It also launches me on an existential introspection.  What will become of all this paper eventually?  Does a human life condense down to this?  Am I the sum of the old drafts, the faded receipts, and the instruction manuals for machines that would break long before the manual decomposed?

And the most important question:  why couldn't a poet have written more lyrical wedding vows?  My spouse, the Philosophy major, wrote more moving vows than I did.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Saturday Celebrations of Two Types

Last night, we went to a Mardi Gras festival at our local Arts Park.  We went with friends, their child, friends of friends, and the two girls of one of the friends.  We loaded up the wagon and decided that it wasn't going to rain and off we went. 

As we settled our blankets, I looked up and saw the constellation Orion.  I thought about a week ago, when I looked up into the South Carolina sky and saw a much more vivid version of Orion.  I had that moment of surreal feeling thinking about how much ground I'd covered (both literally and figuratively) in a week.

It was chilly last week at the monastery, but not as bad as it could have been:  no snow, no sleet, no scraping the windows of the car.  Still, I wore 3-4 layers, plus a coat when I went outside.  Last night was temperate, until later in the evening when the breeze picked up.  Still, we could sprawl on the ground and listen to music--many people love this time of year best in South Florida, when we can walk from the house to the car without sweating through our clothes.

I thought about the silence of the monastery, such a difference from the amplified festivity of last night.  At one point last night, I thought, I have never been in one place that has so many toddlers in my life.  I loved watching the young kids running and tumbling and meeting each other.  The adults all seemed in a pleasant mood too, which doesn't always happen when so many children and their parents gather.  No one was screaming, no one grabbed their child with too much harshness.  It was wonderful.

The lines for the food vendors were very long, so two members of our group went over to the grocery store and returned with a wonderful picnic.  I don't always like fried chicken:  it resembles the original animal too much for me (bones, the layers of muscle, tendons, yikes!).  But last night, the chicken had just been pulled out of the fryer, and it was fabulous.

We ate our chicken, potato salad, and cole slaw, and we washed it down with beer and red wine that we'd brought with us.  What a treat!  Even the red wine spills didn't drain our good spirits.

As we walked home to the friend's house where we'd all met, one friend said, "Any night that leaves you covered with chicken grease and red wine stains is a good night."

This morning, I thought about the monks who end each day sprinkled with holy water at the end of Compline service (my favorite service of the day, if I'm honest).  I thought about the children last night, who at some point, collapsed into sleep surrounded by adults who kept watch--not so different from the deep sleep I experience after Compline.  Some day, I'm likely to write a poem that juxtaposes the idea of holy water and chicken grease and red wine and the deep slumber that comes after great satisfaction.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Poem about Hurricanes on the Day after the Great Blizzard

This week, I got my contributor copy of Paper Nautilus.  It's a lovely little journal, and for those of us who write both fiction and poetry, I was surprised by how many short stories a journal of 136 pages could include.  The limit is 6500 words for fiction; I need to look through my files.  I've been thinking it's time to start sending my short stories out into the world again.

The thing I found most curious about the journal is the lack of a table of contents.  I must confess to looking through the journal more than I might have if I could have answered some of my questions by a simple consultation of the table of contents.  I had to look through the journal to find my poem and to discover who else had been published with me.  I had to dig into the journal to discover the proportion of poetry to fiction.

The journal published my poem "What They Don't Tell You About Hurricanes," which is kind of strange to read now, as much of the northeast is buried by a monster blizzard.  But hurricane season will be back soon enough.

I'm fairly sure that this title is not my original creation.  I'm almost sure there's an essay with the same title in the wonderful book Writing Creative Nonfiction.  The essay stays with me even now, the writer who bought his dream boat, only to see it destroyed by Hurricane Fran.  I'd look it up, except that I don't own it.

So, here's the poem, all of it true, except for the reference to an industrial wasteland.  I wouldn't have written it at all, except for the strange incident of weeping in the parking garage some 4 or 5 years after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.  The industrial wasteland is actually a water treatment plant, but I changed it for some dramatic impact.

 What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes

You expected the ache in your lazy
muscles, as you hauled debris
to the curb, day after day.

You expected your insurance
agent to treat
you like a lover spurned.

You expected to curse
your bad luck,
but then feel grateful
when you met someone suffering
an even more devastating loss.

You did not expect
that months, even years afterwards,
you would find yourself inexplicably
weeping in your car, parked
in a garage that overlooks
an industrial wasteland.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Sunday Walk to the African American Cemetery

On Sunday morning, my friend invited me to walk with her to the African American cemetery that's on the grounds of Mepkin Abbey.  We had plenty of time before the Eucharist service, so I said yes.  In all my years of coming to Mepkin, I've never walked to the cemetery.  One year, I started out, but seeing this duck blind early on the hike made me change my mind:

It's much more rickety than it once was--hard to imagine anyone sitting up there and shooting animals.  Plus, we heard less distant shooting during our February trip than we do in November.

We walked through full cotton fields.

At one point, my friend twirled around and said, "I have never been in the middle of a cotton field!"

I have vague memories of taking a field trip during my elementary school years in Montgomery, Alabama.  We were encouraged to pick a cotton ball and to see how difficult it is to separate the seeds from the cotton, which once made the cotton industry prohibitively expensive, when the separation had to be done by hand--slave's hands.

Enter Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.  As my friend put it:  "One man's wealth is another's misery."

If I put this scene in a work of fiction, it would strain your credulity.  My friend is African American; she grew up in Atlantic City, NJ, but her family had migrated there from the South.  I'm a white woman who spent all of my middle class childhood in various Southern states in the post-Civil-Rights era. 
Finally, we got to the cemetery.

We had thought it was a slave cemetery, but the dates didn't match slave years.  My friend, who has a Ph.D. in American Studies, pointed out that slaves were buried in unmarked graves.  For the most part, slave owners would not have spent money on headstones.  And of course, slave families had no money of their own.

Several of the gravestones had things draped over them:  beads, a string of shells, a crucifix on a ribbon.  We wondered if the monks did that.  My friend assumes that the surrounding African-American community takes on this responsibility.  She speculated that there's some African or Gullah custom represented with this kind of offering.

The cemetery was smaller than I expected.  We didn't wander very deep into it--maybe there were more graves back further. 

I thought about the cash crops that kept slavery going:  cotton, sugar, rum.  I thought about our modern cash crops, which are similar, and the modern forms of slavery that they support.  I thought about the hunger in the first world for cheap goods that keeps so many people working in factories in less developed cultures.

I thought of all the ways we are implicit in all the world's brokenness.  And then I went to the Eucharist service to be reminded of all the ways that God breaks into our brokenness.  I prayed for redemption of all sorts.  And I said a prayer of thanks for my own good forutne to be born into the circumstances that kept me safe from unsavory practices--and for the poem ideas swirling in my head.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Clinging to Light

Those of you who go away, for retreats, for conferences, for vacations, know that it can be tough to come back.  On Tuesday, most people commented that I looked rested and refreshed.  Despite my 10 hour drive on Monday, I did feel rested and refreshed.  I had a plan for my memoir.  I had poems.  I knew just what I had to do.

Yesterday, I struggled to hang onto that purpose.  We got some projects done around the house.  I started to feel tired by early afternoon.  Then I went to work.

Some days at work are just fine.  Other days are full of negative energy.

Yesterday was one of those kind of days where I recoiled from the tone of many of the e-mails that came zinging across the network:  such barking demands, such defensiveness, such belligerence, such anger.  I wanted to hide under my desk.

Still, I had parts of the day that brought me joy.  I was able to help some students who had questions about why credits weren't transferred in.  I got the transcripts of other students evaluated.  I tried to be a helpful presence.

I tried to remember the Candlemas lesson:  we carry the light of Christ within us, the way that Simeon held the light of the world in the form of a tiny baby in his arms.  We are to be light, not darkness.

I've done a lot of thinking about the lessons I've learned from my February time at Mepkin.  I wrote about Candlemas here and about my need to be patient and to move on monastery time here.  I love the way that the simple music of the monastery has gotten into my head, that I wake with the hymns of praise echoing in my memory.

When we first arrived at the monastery, we learned that Saturday Eucharist would be held in the solarium of the senior wing.  My first reaction was panic, as I didn't really know where the senior wing is.  What if I wandered into the wrong part of the monastery?

But I knew that I'd be fine, that a friendly monk would help me find my way.  And in the end, I needn't have worried.  I just followed everyone to the solarium, which was visible from the sidewalks, although I didn't know it.

I try to hang onto that knowledge as I travel into secular life:  everything will be fine, and I'll find my way, and there will be guides, and the universe smiles on me.  I try to let go of my anxiety and my drift towards scarcity consciousness. 

On Tuesday as I drove home after spin class, I realized that I could still see a bit of sunset staining the western horizon.  The light returns to us, minute by minute each day.  Last night, I noticed that my neighbor left the Christmas lights twinkling on the mango tree, and my mood lifted, despite the day of withering e-mails.

I will continue to look for light, to be light.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Monastery/Writing Week-end: Quick Impressions

Ah, how my morning has already gotten away from me--what a contrast to my time at the monastery.  Why is it so much easier to work on big projects there?  Well, for one thing, I don't have to schedule time around my paid work.  And there aren't the other distractions of spouse, exercise class, Internet attractions, chores, television, all the things which pull my attention away.

I had plans not only to blog but to get some memoir revision done today.  I think that won't be happening, at least not this morning.

Still, let me record some fast Mepkin Abbey memories--I'll do some longer posts later.

While I was at the monastery, I reread Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk.  Much of that book revolves around her time at a monastery.  It was REALLY neat to read the book while I was participating in some of the same activities.  Why haven't I done that before?

Even though the book is almost 20 years old, it still feels fresh and interesting.  My prayer:  let me be that kind of writer!

I'm struck by all the other activities, non-monk, non-religious activities that are taking place in any given week-end.  The grounds are beautiful, even in the dead of winter (not that South Carolina winters are dead in the same way that upstate New York winters are).  There's always lots of people walking, and lots of people doing photo shoots of all kinds.

I even saw a woman in a wedding dress.  They took shots at various places.  I guess the big oaks with the Spanish moss make a good back drop.  I kept seeing that white dress and the mud and the pavement and wondering what they were thinking.  Would they clean the dress before the wedding?

One year I was there and there was some huge bike ride going on--cyclists stopped at the Abbey to have a bathroom break and to get water and a snack.  The monks weren't part of that, except for having bathrooms open at the gift shop.  Still, I wondered what the cyclists made of it all.  Or if they even understood where they were, at a place that's much more than a fueling stop.

Many of the riders commented over the sign that pointed towards the African American cemetery.  I finally walked to it this trip, but more on that later.

I also wondered about young men who decide to commit to cloistered life.  How do their parents feel?  It's not like in the past, where cloistered people will never see their parents, but those visits will certainly be more restricted.

Maybe parents feel relief that their child has a purpose, maybe relief at the idea that the child's needs will be taken care of.

Maybe there's sorrow over the lack of grandchildren--but maybe today's modern parents aren't counting on that anyway.

I still have the liturgy of the monastery running through my head.  Last night I had lots of strange dreams, and I'd wake up with the Compline chant in my head:  "Lord, watch us while we are awake.  Protect us while we are asleep."

Maybe I'll try to hang onto those words in wakefulness too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Notes from the Road

On Friday, I woke up early and was on the road by 3:20 a.m.  Seven hundred miles away, monks were getting ready for their vigil, and I was headed to them.  I had the car packed with books and my document of blog postings that I plan to transform into a memoir manuscript.  I brewed coffee, filled the thermoses, grabbed the PBJs, and off I went.

I'll say more about the monastery time later, but for now, let me record some things I noticed on the road, both during Friday's trip and Monday's trip back.

--It's wonderful to be on the road when there are few others out and about.  I don't experience that often down here in congested South Florida.

--As I began my journey, I listened to a variety of radio stations--how wonderful to have a time of so few commercials.

--I thought of writing an essay with this title:  "Everything I need to know I learned from rock and roll lyrics."  In the wee, small hours of the morning, I heard lots of music from my adolescence:  "One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact" (Rush), "You've gotta cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice" (U2), and "Fat bottomed girls you make the rockin' world go round" (Queen).

--On Friday, gas prices rose as I travelled north, until I got deep into Georgia.  That's strange:  usually South Florida has the most expensive gas.

--I travelled north on the feast day of St. Brigid, and I did a lot of thinking about her.  I got a whisper that I'll turn into a poem:  "You've heard about the baskets of butter multiplied, but you don't know about the times I wondered how to make the butter stretch to last a hungry month."

--The report of the death of regional accents has been greatly exaggerated.

--Before travelling on to the monastery, I met my friends (fellow writers and retreatents) at a restaurant in Monck's Corner.  We ate a Thanksgiving meal out of season:  turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, and collards.  YUM.

--I always feel bad about friends whom I don't have time to see, but this trip was very quick.  I miss my leisurely trips where I had time to see all my South Carolina friends and my grandmother.

--It was chilly/cold, but I could see Spring getting ready to burst forth:  red buds and glimmers of greens in the trees.  A sturdy jonquil here and there.

--Leaving early yesterday morning, before sunrise, I heard an owl hooting.  It was both otherworldly and wonderfully familiar.

--Yesterday's trip started deep in the country of South Carolina.  The monastery is on grounds that was once a plantation.  I thought about runaway slaves and the courage it would take to make a break for freedom through the impenetrable countryside and the dark landscapes.

--I kept hearing news reports about the identification of the skeleton found buried under a car park in England.  It really is Richard III.  Somehow, this thrilled my English major soul. 

--It occurs to me that I have never heard the word "Plantagenet" pronounced by a person with a British accent.  Perhaps I've never heard it spoken out loud at all.  Ah, how the house of Tudor obliterated so many things!

--As I travelled back home, I had so many good ideas about how to structure my manuscript, how to revise some of those blog postings into essays.  At one point, I thought about pulling off the road and writing it all down.  Instead, I just repeated the ideas to myself. 

--Long car trips have that effect on me:  ideas bubble up.  Yesterday I was getting so many ideas!  What a treat.  I'm still getting ideas for short stories for my linked collection.  I even got an idea for a presentation at a creativity conference, about using arts activities as part of religious services.

--Now the work/joy begins:  the revising and the writing and the revising some more.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sprouting Seeds as We Shift to Spring

Today is Candlemas, where Christians celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and pagans long ago celebrated the goddess Brigid, and some Wiccans today will be celebrating at Imbolc, or a variation of any number of pagan holidays. It's also Groundhog's Day. It's one of those times when we can almost perceive the shifting of the seasons. It's not spring yet, but it will be soon.

A year ago, I wrote this post, which has this reference and wonderful quote from Christine Valters Paintner: "She reminds us that this time of year, with St. Brigid's Day and Candlemas, celebrates the light shining in the darkness, the seeds already germinating in the ground. She encourages us to go inward to see what's sprouting inside ourselves: 'Candlemas and Imbolc are traditionally a time to look forward. What does the new life stirring in your own world sound like? Can you hear it deep within you? How can you nurture this seedling in the fertile dark earth of your soul in the coming days?'"

My post of a year ago went on to consider my work at my job, which some days consists of reading many e-mails most of which are trivial, and my social justice work of feeding the homeless.

This year, I'm at Mepkin Abbey where I'm working on my memoir and thinking about restructuring a poetry manuscript. I'm reading spiritual works of all sorts and going on walks through wintry landscapes that are shifting to spring.

I'm ready for new seeds to sprout.  A year ago, I wasn't aware I would be working on a memoir, and now I'm hoping that I can create something that opens all sorts of doors:  retreat leader, spiritual director, workshop leader, speaker at conferences, visiting writer.

I also understand that new seeds might be sprouting that I can't even anticipate right now.  I'm open to those seeds as well.

What seeds are stirring in the deep, dark earth of your soul?

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Feast Day of Saint Brigid for Writers and Other Creative Types

Today is the feast day of Saint Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland.  She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism, and the other pagan religions of Ireland.  She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.

If you're interested in learning more about her, see this blog post that I wrote for the Living Lutheran site.  You may be saying, "But why are you mentioning her on this blog site that focuses on creativity?"

Along with being a spiritual leader, Brigid was also a creative type.  She's famous for founding a school of art that focused on metal working and illumination.  The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices.  Unfortunately, it's been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.

What shall we do to celebrate her day?  Here are some suggestions:

--We could create our own book of illuminations.  Maybe this should be the year that we keep an illuminated journal.  What would happen if we sketched more?  What would happen if we collected images along with words?

--Even people who don't have drawing skills could do this project.  Take a photo every day and see what opens up in your heart.  Before you throw magazines away, clip images that speak to you.  Once you have a collection, spread them out to see if they speak to you in a different way.

--How could we celebrate Brigid's interest in metal working?  I'm certainly not going to take up welding.  But jewelry making?  Perhaps.  Maybe it's time to look at the earrings I no longer wear, the necklaces that don't delight me.  Could I make a new piece of jewelry?  Or could I make some other kind of artistic creation?

--Brigid's miracles reveal a sense of abundance:  lakes full of milk, baskets of butter, water turned into milk or beer.  Thinking of butter makes me think of bread.  Why not bake some bread today and slather it with butter?  If you think you don't have time for a yeasted bread, why not an Irish soda bread?

--Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen has an intriguing recipe in this post:  soda bread that can be made in a scone shape (or in a skillet, if you don't have time for scones).  And, in the spirit of Saint Brigid, it's best to consume all of the bread on the day that you make it.  Abundance!  Tomorrow, you could make more.

--Even if you don't bake, you could go buy a good bread and slather it with butter.

--Brigid is associated with fire.  Let's build a fire and think about the flames as they dance.  How can we be this kind of light to others?

--Or, thinking about fire in a different way, a metalworking way, what purifying flames do we need to invite into our lives?  What habits do we need to throw into the flames so that we are no longer held back by them?

--I return again and again to the abundance associated with Brigid.  How can we invite abundance into our lives?  How can we recognize it and celebrate it?