Sunday, March 31, 2013

Non-Religious Lessons from a Week of Religious Observances

Today is Easter, which comes at the end of many Holy Week activities.  It's also been the week of Passover.  My thoughts have swirled with all the images of the religious observances this week, and I've thought of these non-religious lessons for all of us.

--We gave my nephew Easter stickers, which he loved and took great joy in sticking everywhere.  Each packet of stickers  only cost a few dollars, yet they brought more joy than an expensive present would have brought.

I should give him stickers more often.  They're easy enough to mail, after all.  And I should be on the lookout for ways to bring joy to others--and to myself.

What inexpensive joys can we add to our lives with more regularity?

--Passover reminds us that when deliverance comes, it may come quickly and we should be ready, with our sandals laced and our lunches ready.

What would you take with you if you had to leave quickly?  Do you know where your important documents are?  Do you have your writing projects in a portable format?  What are your most important pictures?  Where are they?

--Good Friday reminds us of all the ways we can betray the ones we love.  The Easter season tells us what to do when we have betrayed our loved ones:  apologize and try to love better. Peter's approach is much better than Judas Iscariot's, the suicide route.

--Maundy Thursday shows us how to build community:  share a meal together.  How can we do more of that?

--Easter Sunday, the empty tomb, the followers looking for the living amongst the dead.  Where are we doing the same things?  Which practices give health and wholeness to our lives?  What entombs us?

--These holidays point to the possibility of renewal.  We might think of our own lives--where would we like to see a resurrection?  Are there projects that we've left for dead that we should revisit?  Are there dreams that have been enslaved that we should set free?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Poem for the Passage between Good Friday and Easter

We are deep into the liturgical time period of Holy Triduum, or The Three Days, which begins with Maundy Thursday night services and lasts until Easter morning. Some churches will hold an Easter vigil for all of today and through the night. Some will do a shorter version. Some churches depart in silence on Good Friday night and return again on Easter (not counting the gatherings for rehearsals, decorating, cleaning, and food prep that may be happening today).

My church will not be holding an Easter vigil, and truth be told, I'm both glad and wistful. I'm feeling a bit weary, so I'm glad not to be reporting to church today. But I do feel like we're missing an opportunity.  I've never been part of a church that holds an Easter vigil, so the poem below is based on what I think could happen.

For those of you who want Bible readings for today, go here and scroll down. For those of you in the mood for a poem, here's one I wrote years ago. It appears for the first time here.


We thought we had you safely buried,
or at least confined to little cages
where we could consider you contained.

“God is dead,” Nietzche declared,
and we all nailed shut the coffin.

So now this Easter Eve,
we spend the night awakening to the sound of knocking.
Doorbells ring across the nocturnal
landscape, but no one stands
at the portal.

No one but a shivering mortal
with the sound of angels in her ears,
the urgings of mystics at her back.
She stretches out her hands to sunrise.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday Fragments

I am feeling fragmented today.  We start a new quarter at school on Monday; we have today off because it's Good Friday.  I've been coming home each day this week feeling really tired, and I'm not sure why.  So, let me collect some fragments here and see if I see a larger shape.

--If you were hoping for a more spiritual approach to Good Friday, see this post, which combines photos with brief meditation on a variety of approaches to Good Friday.

--Or maybe you'd enjoy this essay in The Washington Post by Michael Gerson.  It talks about the rise of people claiming to have no religion and what it might mean. He doesn't see catastrophe; in fact, he concludes this way:  "In religion, it is easy to measure what is dying; it is harder to locate the manger where something new is being born."

--Ah, that reference to Christmas.  I've had Christmas music in my head, which is strange for Holy Week.  Maybe it's because of our weather.

--We began this week with record breaking high temperatures on Palm Sunday, and then we descended into record breaking lows.  Very odd.

--I had thought I would wear all my winter clothes one last time this month, and that was true for my various tops, jackets, and sweaters.  But I've worn the same skirt, a straight black skirt made of stretchy, comfy velveteen for 3 days in a row.  I've assumed that I would be unlikely to see the same people each day, since we're between quarters, and anyway, I was wearing something completely different each day to go with the skirt.

--When I told my spouse, he said, "Well it is a good week to wear sackcloth."  Yes, black velvet sackcloth!

--Yesterday, I got home from work and was too tired to spend the time before Maundy Thursday service doing something productive, like reading or writing.  So I popped my copy of Godspell into the DVD player and was enchanted all over again.

--There's a scene filmed on the construction site that would become the World Trade Center.  Jesus lectures on loving our enemies on that twin tower site that would take on such a different symbolism later.

--Jonathan Padget wrote a great essay in 2006 for The Washington Post, where he revisits the movie and compares it to other movies that came out in :  "'Godspell' may be too dated, earnest, perky or cloying for some. It's worlds apart in tone from its theatrical and 1973 cinematic peer, 'Jesus Christ Superstar' -- Norman Jewison having opted to film Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera in the Israeli desert with tanks bearing down on Carl Anderson's Judas at one point. (Does this provide another pop cultural filter for viewing international events in 2006? Discuss.) And Jesus-as-Superman on the World Trade Center would soon be upstaged by another Superman, Christopher Reeve, oh-so-gracefully flying past the twin towers in 1978's 'Superman: The Movie'""

--Ah, the Jesus-soaked 70's!  Walter Kirn, in a 2004 "The Way We Live Now" essay in The New York Times, put it this way:  "I remember my own family's Great Awakening back in the Jesus-haunted 1970's, when President Carter was advertising his piety and 'Godspell' and 'Up With People' were packing concert halls."

--I told my spouse that when I'm old, with brains scrambled a bit, I'll probably remember my youth all wrong. I'll remember that time in my youth that I was in a Jesus commune and all the dancing that we did around New York City.

--Time to bring this writing to a close.  I have scones in the oven, since I'm home, and it's cool enough to bake.  I have a recipe for lemon scones that I'm tinkering with.  It feels both autumnal and like a chilly Spring morning, so I'm attempting a pumpkin scone with pecans ground into meal as a partial replacement for the flour.  Perhaps you'll see a recipe at some point!

--An in an hour, I must away to church--the second of many services as Holy Week comes crashing to a close.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Maundy Thursday, a Poet Considers Seminary (yes, again)

So, if you're a reader who grows weary of my pondering the future and contemplating new paths, you might want to skip this post.  Likewise, if you're the kind of reader who reads my blog posts with a spiritual theme and says, "Ugh"--of course, if you're that kind of reader, you probably moved on years ago.

On Tuesday morning, I woke up thinking about seminary again.  My earliest thoughts of the day told me to check out Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.  I dismissed those thoughts.  That seminary has never been on my radar screen, after all.

I have family connections to Southern (in Columbia, SC) and Trinity (in Ohio).  My mom had a great experience when she taught at Gettysburg for a semester back in 2005.  I feel intellectual connections to Yale and Emory (in Atlanta, GA); for a few years, the authors of the books of theology I loved the most came from those two institutions. But Pacific?  It's never crossed my mind.

But all morning on Tuesday, that name kept floating across my brain.  So, finally, Tuesday afternoon I went to the website.  The home page mentions that they're introducing the Flexible Life M.Div option:  the first year can be done online.

For years, I've thought about seminary programs and what they can learn from MFA low-residency programs.  What Pacific seems to be offering is not exactly like those programs, but there's a flexibility I haven't seen before in many other seminary programs.

The website says that the first year can be stretched out over several years, which would help me immensely.  I could keep working, while I have this job.  In my darker days, I think it's the last full-time job I'll ever have, and I should keep it as long as I have.  In my darker days, I think that I'll only have it for another few years, until my job can be automated or consolidated or outsourced or downsized.

But I digress.

The website mentions other new developments which make it easier for seminarians who have other responsibilities.  Traditionally, one would go to seminary for 2 years, leave for an internship year, and then return to seminary for the last year.  If one's candidacy committee and Synod allow it, Pacific will allow seminarians to do the internship year for the last year, to cut down on moving costs.  Hurrah!

Of course, I would like to be awarded life credit in lieu of the internship year.  I've been Church Council president and served on Council in other capacities too.  I've been a retreat coordinator at Lutheridge.  I've written for both The Lutheran and the Living Lutheran website.

I know how that sounds when sitting on the other side of the desk.  I've listened to many students explaining to me why they shouldn't have to take this class or that class.  I understand what the academic study will give them that their real life experience wouldn't.  Maybe the same is true of the internship year.

I was also excited by the modernized language options.  I will confess that the Greek required by most seminary programs has been daunting.  Sure, I'd love to learn Greek.  But is that really the best use of a seminarian's time?

Pacific offers a different option, one that has a two-pronged focus (I'll cut and paste from the website):

(1) Spanish for Worship

•PLTS will offer a full year of Spanish geared toward the practice of ministry, especially worship leadership.

•This course responds to the ELCA’s call for mission in the multilingual and multicultural context of the U.S.


Biblical Languages Tools

•Students who choose Spanish are required to take this course during January intersession of their first year.

•This course focuses on both Biblical Hebrew and Greek.

•Students are introduced to both traditional and electronic resources.

•The goal of this course is to encourage students to engage in a lifetime of biblical language study for preaching and teaching in the parish.


Back to me:  that approach to languages certainly seems more practical and useful.

Now, there are drawbacks to Pacific.  I could only put off the necessity of moving to the California coast for so long.  Eventually, I'd need to go west for on-ground classes.

If I had only myself to think about, that need to move west would not be a dealbreaker.  I'd love a new area to explore, and going to school is a great way to do it.

But I don't have just me to think about. 

Still, with the flexible first year option, I could begin.  If I discovered that seminary really wasn't what I wanted, I wouldn't have burned so many bridges to get there.

As I look at the application process, it may be too late for Fall 2013.  I need letters of recommendation.  I need a candidacy committee.

You're wondering why I don't just pick up the phone and find out some answers.  I tried.  No one was answering the phone.  One of my friends said, "Well, it is Holy Week."

Yes, yes it is.  Let me turn my attention to Holy Week.  First, there's the last day of work for this week to muddle through.  Instead of a Last Supper, our Library Committee will be having a First Lunch together.  I've taken a man who wants to hire Culinary students to our Career Services department.  I will continue to look for ways to fulfill the new maundatum (Latin for commandment that I can't resist using) that Maundy Thursday celebrates:  love each other.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Latin America: Explorations, Martyrdoms, and Good Books

On this day in 1513, Ponce de Leon got his first glimpse of Florida--or was it Great Abaco Island of the Bahamas chain?  My sources differ.

He set sail from Hispaniola, the island now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Julia Alvarez may be the U.S.-Dominican author most familiar to readers.  Her birthday is today.  What an interesting coincidence!  Alvarez is the woman who has done the most to help me discover the island of Hispaniola.

I first heard about Julia Alvarez at a conference on World Literature held at Appalachian State University in 1996. I was a last minute replacement on a panel presentation when the originally scheduled presenter had to undergo surgery. I went up with two other people from the community college where I was teaching in South Carolina--I still meet up with these two women periodically at Mepkin Abbey.

During that conference, we heard someone mention Julia Alvarez--it was the first time I'd heard her name. Of course, her first book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, had only been out for a few years. The presenter spoke about a more recently published book, In the Time of the Butterflies, but frankly, the other books sounded more interesting to me. The first Alvarez book I ever read was Yo!, but my friend read In the Time of the Butterflies, and she raved about it.

I loved Yo!, but then again, I've always loved books that had a writer/artist/creator as the protagonist. If my friend hadn't been so enthusiastic about In the Time of the Butterflies, I might have never read it. I worried about the fact that it was a historical novel about a time and a country that I wasn't sure I understood. But then we moved to South Florida, and I wasn't working as much, and I didn't have any friends outside of my spouse, and I had a library card, and we were trying to conserve our money. And so, I read it, and I, too, was blown away.

I've read it several times since, and it still moves me. I'm rather staggered to think about how long this book has been part of my life. It's been 15 years since that conference, but I still remember so many aspects of that week-end. I remember being surrounded by all sorts of people, and I'd study all of them, looking for clues about my future and how to live it. I had a teaching-intensive community college job, and I wasn't sure it was a good fit. But I didn't want a research university job that would require me to write a lot of literary criticism. I met some administrators, and their lives also didn't inspire me to aspire to those positions. I wish I could say that 15 years later I've figured all this out, but I haven't. In a skinny minute, I would move to Boone, NC, home of Appalachian State U. At the time we were there, it was very white--even the cleaning staff at the university conference center was white, which was so unusual that we remarked upon it as we drove away. I wonder if the town and university is still that non-diverse.

I'm also staggered by how long we've lived down here, since 1998. I've met a lot of Dominicans and Haitians since moving here, and before we moved here, I'd never met one. Granted, I've met them primarily in a student-teacher relationship, so it's different.

In this week where we commemorate the life and martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, I have repression and dictatorship on the brain and it's good to revisit In the Time of the Butterflies. If you went back in time and suggested that 4 sisters could bring down the entrenched Trujillo regime, people would scoff. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

We might say, “Yes, but we don’t want to have to sacrifice our lives.” I would point out that martyrdom is not the only route of resistance. There’s a long tradition of artists working for, and achieving, social change. Likewise mothers and workers and all sorts of others—choose your favorite oppressed group.

So, on this day where we could celebrate explorers and discoverers of all sorts, let us think about our own lives.  What adventures might beckon?  What new vistas wait for us to see them?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Art and Serendipity: The John Denver and Spin Class Edition

--For those of you who like stories about artists and serendipity and how works of art come into being almost accidentally, don't miss this story about "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

--The story tells about how John Denver, who was relatively unknown, met the songwriters and persuaded them to let him record the song.  They'd thought about trying to sell it to Johnny Cash, but they decided to go with John Denver.  The rest is history--the song was a smash hit.  The songwriters went on to write 12 more songs for John Denver.

--They also formed the Starland Vocal Band.  Those of us of a certain age probably were singing "Afternoon Delight," even though we didn't know what it was about.  I was in 5th grade.  Afternoon delight meant that Mom had gotten to a bakery during the day and bought us special cupcakes for an after-school treat.

--One of the songwriters sums it up this way:  "'Left to our own devices,' he said, 'Taffy and I may have never gotten that record cut. It wasn't a country record. We could've beat up Nashville and nobody would've recorded it. One thing I learned in this business is that things turn out other than you planned them to, no matter what it is. And you can't predict what's going to happen.'"

--I was talking to one of my spin instructors yesterday, who has been encouraging us to get certified to teach spin class.  She said, "You never know what kind of doors it might open up."

--Indeed.  I do worry that I'm not rugged enough to be a spin instructor.  Let me be more blunt:  I don't look the part.  I could still afford to lose 30 more pounds. 

--But I do have endurance and strength, which you might not know just looking at me and dismissing me because of my cellulite.  Maybe I shouldn't dismiss a possibility so quickly.

--I want to be more open to doors that may be waiting to open.  More and more, I feel the nudge to explore seminary.  I want to stop dismissing that nudge.  I want to discover if there are resources I may not be considering.

--I feel like I used to be more brave.  Or maybe the stakes didn't feel as high.  I could make mistakes and still have time to recover.

--It's time to recover a bit of fierce fearlessness.  It's time to start thinking about what I want the next 30 years to look like:  in terms of jobs, in terms of my writing, in terms of other creativity, in terms of my spiritual life, in terms of investments (including this house, which is losing value even as we speak).

--I miss the days when I looked at a house as a place to get because I needed to have a place to live.  I didn't expect to make a lot of money on real estate.  I was happy if I could sell a property and walk away with money in my pocket.  I miss my pre-crash consciousness.

--Like I said, time to recover a bit of fearlessness.  Time to let myself consider the question:  What would I want if I could have anything?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Secular Lessons from Holy Week

This morning, I woke up thinking, I'll write what Palm Sunday has to teach writers and artists.  Then I thought, I think I've already done that.  Sure enough, I wrote that post last year.

It's a good reminder for me.  I spent much of yesterday afternoon feeling sad about past choices.  We made the mistake of looking up real estate trends for our house and our neighborhood.  From there, it's a short, steep, downward spiral to thinking about how much smarter we might have been to move some other neighborhood earlier, or some other geographic location.  And from there, I can launch into self-loathing about jobs I have taken or haven't taken, all the subjects I didn't major in . . . it's a vicious spiral.

My mother would remind me that with the benefit of hindsight, many choices would have been clearer and more logical.  My saner self would remind me that there's more to life than having worldly signs of success.

Here are words from last year:  "The Palm/Passion story reminds us that we're characters in a larger narrative (as does the Passover story, which people across the world will be hearing this week too, both in Jewish traditions and some Christian traditions). We will find ourselves in great danger if we start to believe it's all about us, personally. No, there are larger forces at work. To put it in poetry and Scouting terms: I'm put here to do my best writing, but also, to leave the poetry campsite better than I found it. How do I do that? I work to promote not only myself, but other worthy poets, I work to make sure that the next generations know about the rewards of poetry, I envision the kind of world we would have if poetry was valued, and I work/play to make that possible. I also work to have a balanced, integrated life: my work in poetry cannot be allowed to eclipse other important work: the social justice work, the care of my family and friends, my relationship with the Divine, the other creative work I do, the self-care that must be the foundation of it all."

And here are words from Henri J. M. Nouwen, who wrestled with similar issues that surrounded respect and what he should be doing with his life:  "When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to meausure our worth.  And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many gradegivers.  That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world.  Then we become what the world makes us.  We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade.  We are helpful because someone says thanks.  We are likable because someone likes us.  And we are important because someone considers us indispensable.  In short, we are worthwhile becaue we have successes" (Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Lent,  p. 52, originally in Compassion).

How I love Henri Nouwen, and in how many ways.  He's one of those loving Christians, the ones who could give us all a good name, if only more people knew about his theology.

I remember a Pentecost long ago, when my dad and I made a trek to see Henri Nouwen in D.C.  I was at a social justice rally that lasted all week-end, and when my dad found out that Henri Nouwen would be speaking, he came along.  Our politics weren't often similar in those undergraduate school days, but we could agree on the theology of Nouwen.

I should also turn to the lives of my parents for comfort when I find myself spiraling down.  My mom tells me that my dad turned down a promotion here and there because to take it would have meant that he'd be away from the family too much.  And they've managed to secure a decent retirement for themselves, despite years of less income than my dad could have earned had he taken those promotions and my mom could have earned had she not been primarily a mom for so many years.  They're comfortable in their golden years, even though they've had some blows from the real estate market.

Palm Sunday and the Holy Week that follows remind us that even if it looks like we've made all the right choices, even if the world loves us, we may find our lives turned upside down anyway.  We may find ourselves victims of forces--economic, political, historical--we barely understand.

And it's good to remind myself that even as I look at the real estate trends caused by one of the greatest housing collapses of modern times, we have managed to keep our house and meet our obligations.  Not everyone is that lucky.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Remembering Romero

On this day 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated as he celebrated Communion during Mass.  I've written about him numerous times, so I won't go into the history here.  If you want a post that compares the lives of Christ and Romero, head over to this piece on my theology blog. 

You may wonder why this event looms large in my brain, especially if you are younger.  The political situations in both Central America and South Africa formed the backdrop, and sometimes the forground, of my college years.  We talked about U.S. involvement and what our individual responses should be.  I met many Central American refugees.  I spent summers in the D.C. area, which had lots of refugees, and I went for week-end visits to Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian community birthed by the Koinonia group, which devoted itself to helping Central Americans get safely to Canada, where they could get asylum.

Now the event looms large for me not just because of how it's woven into my past.  As I get older, I'm haunted by the ways I'm not living up to my full potential, or the ways I feel like I'm not.  As I've discussed before, I don't focus on all the good things I do, but all the good things I haven't yet done.

I'm collecting stories of people who have done their world-altering work and/or achieved success in midlife or after midlife.  I hadn't considered the story of Romero from that angle until I watched the movie Romero yesterday.

The movie makes clear, as does the history, that Romero was chosen to be archbishop because he was the safe choice, the one that wouldn't make waves, the man who would be lost in a book not out transforming the church.  In the early part of the movie, he argues for the middle way of the church, by which he means the non-confrontational way.

Romero will not retain his detachment, as history crowds in on him.  Priests are killed, along with huge swaths of the population, and it becomes clear that being part of the church will protect no one.  Romero argues forcefully against the killings.  He becomes a human rights hero.  And he is killed.

I want to argue that in death he becomes more powerful than in life, but the slaughter in El Salvador continued for the decade after his death.  I do think that an archbishop being killed during mass makes a stronger headline than the mass slaughter of peasants and perhaps does more to change minds and foreign policy.

But there I go, being naive again, thinking that foreign policy follows the will of the people and looks out human rights of all.  After watching Romero, we watched Missing.  That movie makes it clear that foreign policy is not always looking out for human rights, not always protecting all or an U. S. citizens.  It's a devastating movie.

And here we are at Palm Sunday, a church festival which may seem to have nothing to do with recent political history.  But for some of us modern folks, especially those who have been shaped by Liberation Theology, we see the Christ story as inherently political.

Take the crucifixion, for example.  The Romans executed people in all sorts of ways; crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state.  I won't belabor the point here, since it's my creativity blog, not my theology blog.  But clearly, the Roman rulers felt so threatened by the message of Jesus that they crucified him.

Christ, Romero, and Missing:  all potent examples of what happens when one is on a collision course with the ruling powers of one's day.  When I hear Baby Boomers whine about how the younger generation doesn't get involved politically, I think of these cautionary tales. 

And when I think about how I'm not living in sync with my values, perhaps I should also think of the story of Archbishop Romero and what the ultimate cost could be.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spring Sadness, March Melancholy

My Spring sadness is really more like a tinge of melancholy, but that didn't have the same alliterative pleasure.  But March melancholy does.  And my March has been tinged by melancholy.

It's not serious of course.  It's the kind of melancholy where I should really take a minute to recognize the melodramatic urge that would even have me choose the word melancholy.

One of my colleagues had a pot of hydrangeas on her desk, and we talked about the beautiful hydrangeas we had known.  We won't know them here; they won't grow in our sandy soil, and I talked to a friend, and we both agreed that even keeping them blooming in pots is tough.  We don't know why.  We talked about how much we missed them.

My friend laughed and said, "Here we have orchids that fall from the heavens and grow without effort, and we get sad over the fact that we can't have hydrangeas."

That seems an apt metaphor.  Still, I'm sad that I fell away from my poem-a-day practice.  I'm missing a variety of people.  A different friend had a dog who sickened suddenly this week and had to be euthanized.  I've been sick, which probably makes me more prone to melancholy.

Of course, the season of Lent is a good season in which to feel melancholy.  It's good to feel under the weather and to remember that we are dust.  It's good to remember that we won't be on this planet for very long and to be spurred to use that time wisely.

With the election of the Argentinian pope and the anniversary tomorrow of the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador, I have repressive governments on the brain.  That, too, leads to my sadness.

Even events which make me feel happy also feel tinged with melancholy.  I went to Portfolio Review this past week.  How wonderful to remember that students leave my Composition classrooms and go on to be amazing in their Program areas.  How sad to see them go after such a short time at our school. 

The seasons are shifting, and I feel the slight sense of dread that comes with hurricane season.  That, too, sinks my mood.

I've got some downtime this week-end, so hopefully, I can perk back up.  I'm mostly done with my severe cold.  I've written a poem about hydrangeas and orchids and mangoes and apples.  I've been getting back to my memoir project.  Soon the tourists will be gone, and the traffic won't be so bad.  I feel myself slowly starting to get back on track.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Insights from a Billy Collins Interview to Celebrate his Birthday

Today is the birthday of Billy Collins, one of the most popular poets in America, who often reads to standing-room only crowds.  I've witnessed poets who seethe and go into melt-down mode over his popularity.  Why?

I understand that his kind of poetry isn't for everyone.  But why rage over the fact that a significant chunk of the population likes it?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me also confess that I, too, like his work.  I don't find his poetry simplistic, although I don't have to struggle to understand what he means.  I don't have to do extensive research or rely on footnotes, like I do with say, T. S. Eliot.  That's fine with me.  I don't agree with Toni Morrison, who once told an interviewer that she thought that reading literature should be hard work that we shouldn't shirk from.

Go back and read the poems of Billy Collins--see if you aren't surprised over the connections that he makes.  I usually read a Billy Collins poem and come away seeing the world in a different way.  That's the best quality in a poem for me.  That's why I like him.

And my dad likes him, and it's fun to have a poet in common.

I saw Billy Collins give an interview at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in January.  He was warm and witty.  I took page after page of notes.  In honor of his birthday, let me record some of them here.

He says he writes with a pencil or a pen:  "I get to see the mess I make--I see all the decisions."

"A poet needs an attitude of never quite gotten used to being alive."  Why?  So that we'll have gratitude and we'll have the gift of seeing the world in new ways.

The interviewer quotes Stephen Dunn:  "You always know where you are in a Billy Collins poem, but you never know where you'll end up."

Collins says that as poets, we should welcome distractions as a side road, an escape hatch that takes us from Point A to Point B.  He hopes point B is a place that readers have never been before, a poem that starts in Kansas and ends in Oz.  He's seen too many poems begin in Oz without taking us there.

He talked about putting book length collections together.  He says he never has an over-arching theme, beyond his own brain's explorations.  He encourages us not to worry too much about organization.  He says we should put all our aces up front, in the first pages of the book, because editors are looking for reasons to stop reading, and you want your strongest stuff in the beginning.  And save a few for the end.  He reminds us that no readers will ever read your collection of poems from beginning to end.

For inspiration (if he hasn't written in awhile), he says he goes to an art museum or he looks through one volume of an encyclopedia.

Let me take a side trip here to wonder if anyone still has volumes of encyclopedias.  I remember when I got my first set of encyclopedias on a CD, the wonder of all that knowledge in one light-weight place.  I do remember that joy of opening up an encyclopedia volume and discovering what was there.  I did the same thing with dictionaries.  It's no wonder that I majored in English and stayed in school through a Ph.D. program.

My friend has gotten rid of his encyclopedias, but he can't bring himself to get rid of the yearbooks that he collected year after year.  He goes into rapturous wonder over the amount of information included about a single year.  He can't imagine another delivery system that would bring him the same kind of joy.

Back to Billy Collins:

He made up a word while he was talking:  incredimentia.  It's the inability to realize how freaking old you've gotten.  He said he's promoting the idea that one's 70's are the last decade of middle age.

The best comment he's ever gotten:  when he was Poet Laureate, after a reading, a young boy came up and asked, "How many people would have to die before you became President?"

A poet as president--that will be a fun contemplation today!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Creative Work and the Time Left

My quilter friend recently sorted through her fabric stash.  She asked me if I wanted to take her fabric rejects with me to the upcoming Create in Me creativity retreat that I go to every year.  I said sure.   I expected a box of fabric that I'd pass on to the woman who has the lap quilting ministry in her church.

Instead my quilter friend gave me 7 garbage bags full of cloth. I sorted through it, just to be sure that there wasn’t anything that I wanted before I sent it on. And I felt full of sadness. I was with her when she bought a lot of this cloth. I remember the various discussions and dreams we’ve had when it comes to fabric arts and quilting.

It felt like a kind of death.

I asked her about her decision to get rid of the fabric. She said, “I’m just not going to have time to make the crazy quilts I thought I’d make. So why hang on to all these scraps?”

On the one hand, I admire her willingness to shuck old projects and move on. On the other, I think of my grandmother, who lived much longer than she expected to live; I think of the length of her days and how she needed these kind of projects.

I miss the days of my early 30’s, when I felt anxious about what I hadn’t accomplished, but I could remind myself that I had plenty of time. Now, I am keenly aware of the possibility that I may only have enough time for a few big projects.

I’m not as sad about all the quilts I may never make. I’ve made some big quilts, and I’ve made countless baby quilts, and it’s all been enough.

I miss the fabric art that I used to do, the collages of fabric scraps, yarns, various textured things, beads—all sandwiched between larger layers of clothand quilted into one piece.

I think about the writing projects that I want to complete—and not just complete, but get out into the world. I used to assume that I’d have 10-15 full-length books of poetry. Now I’m wondering which poems I’d put in a manuscript if I thought it would be the only full-length book I’d ever put out into the world.

I’m working on my memoir project, which during the past 2 weeks of travel and sickness has felt a bit bogged down. I’ve got ideas for other non-fiction projects, but nothing else feels as important.

And where does the blogging fit in?

I remember when I first started writing essays, about 8 years before I started blogging, when I was exploring the world of creative non-fiction. My goal was to write one essay a week. Now I write that much once a day—often double that much, 2 essays, one for this blog and one for my theology blog.

Blogging has led to fulfilling that goal. But has it impeded other goals?

I’m not sending out as many submissions as I once did. It’s been a decade since I wrote a novel. I used to write a novel a year, although they all remain unpublished. I have periodically written short stories at the pace of 1 a week.

What’s changed? I’m working a full-time job that takes more time than teaching used to take. I’ve got other projects. I’m blogging.

What if blogging is the work, though? What if my blog is what I’ll be remembered for?

I have this idea on the brain, after reading this post by Beth, and this response post by Lorianne, who talks about Thoreau and his writing projects: “Did Thoreau know when he started his journal that it would eventually fill some seven thousand pages and be published as a work in its own right? Or did Thoreau keep a journal simply because keeping a journal felt right as he was doing it?”

Maybe our blogs will be seen by future generations as the important work, the creative expressions that help people know what it was like to live and create in our time.  Maybe it is our blogs, more than our poems, our fiction, our journalism, that will shed light on what it meant to be human in the 21st century.

Maybe blogging will come to be seen as an art form in its own right. Beth’s post eloquently explores the aesthetics of blogging and the way that the blog form does what it does in a way that no other creative form can do.

What’s important is to keep doing the creative work, in whatever form we want to follow. For those of us who need a pep talk, Jeannine has written a wonderful post about what we can learn about the writing life from The Hunger Games: “In The Hunger Games, Katniss wasn't the strongest, the smartest, or the best fighter. She won the game by being likable enough, by being strong enough, by being persistent and wily enough, by being a genuine friend to some of the people in the game...and some luck as well. The same is true in poetry. You do not have to be the best. Most people in the "game" of poetry - including the thousands of MFA students paying thousands of dollars to study it - will stop writing within five years. That is the reality. If you keep writing, and you keep reading, and you keep getting better and sending your poems out and your book out, and you are a good friend to people, and you have enough resources to keep yourself going long enough, you will probably make it to 'real poet' status (whatever that means.)”

Jeannine encourages us to wear the flaming dress:  "Be so good at what you do they can't ignore you. Write the most excellent poems, reviews, fiction that you possibly can. Get your name out there when you get the chance. Don't shrink from the limelight. Wear the flaming dress."

Lorianne remembers an encounter with a fellow blogger: “Seon Joon asked me, point blank, whether I was working on a book, remembering (I’m sure) that I’d mentioned one, vaguely, the last time we’d talked. My response to her was yes, I’m working on a book…but no, I don’t know whether that work is leading somewhere, or whether the product of that work will ever be finished, much less published. But in the meantime, I know I’m enjoying the process of working on a book, keeping a blog, and basically being creative in one way or another every single day.”

And Beth sums up nicely the shift that so many of us have noticed: “For as much as I sometimes have wished to be otherwise, I am not first and foremost a novelist or a painter, a writer of non-fiction books or a photographer or printmaker. I'm a reader, and observer, and an integrator, whose chosen form is the informal essay, illustrated with my own photographs or artwork, and whose perfect medium of expression is the blog. Being a blogger became an intrinsic part of my identity: like someone who works in watercolors or oils, I see the world and my daily life through an intimacy with this medium. It used to feel a bit weird, like constant translating; now it's so normal I don't even think about it, even though I've become a lot more choosy about what to base my posts upon. The change from pure writing to a greater focus on art has simply mirrored what's going on in my own life, too.”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Modern Wolves, Modern Poets

For those of you who love fairy tales, don't miss this episode of On Being.  The broadcast has a great section on the way that modern television shows are using fairy tales, as well as great conversation about the lasting appeal of fairy tales, and the way they are re-imagined at different points in history.  There's also some valuable discussion about the violence in fairy tales and the violence in other kinds of work for children, like The Hunger Games.

I've often found that when I'm feeling like I have nothing more to write about, that I'll never write a poem again, returning to fairy tales helps.  I love looking at a fairy tale through the eyes of a different character.  How does Cinderella's prince feel?  What does happily ever after mean for him.

I love thinking about what happens years later, after the apparent end of the fairy tale.  How do Hansel and Gretel relate to each other as adults?  That mermaid who turns into a human who turns into sea foam--does the sea foam have a story?

But my favorite way of using fairy tales is to see the modern corollary.  Here's one of my favorites in that vein, written years ago as the housing market was melting down.  It appears in my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Big Bad Wolves

In the end, modern
life surprises the wolf.

Clever schools have banned
wolves with a past
from getting a job near children.
But the modern wolf knows what to do.
This wolf takes a job as a party d.j.,
that wolf works at Starbucks,
while other wolves find themselves still welcome
in places where modern life has robbed
institutions of people with spare
time to volunteer.

Long ago, Peter's wolf found trouble
because he was hungry
and took risks.
Today's wolves find themselves packing
on pounds because food is abundant
and cheap.

Today's wolf finds that people happily
sign papers for a loan
of more money than they can hope
to repay. They agree
to pay higher interest rates and submit
to future rate adjustments.
The wolf files
the paperwork. No huffing
or puffing needed.

The Internet provides a much more believable
costume than granny clothes.
The wolf invents a whole new identity.
On the Internet, no one can see
the lascivious leer, the drool
dripping from fangs.

Occasionally, the wolf misses
the thrill of the hunt. He hears
his ancestors sneering at his life
of modern comfort.
The wolf finds himself a bit bored
with some existential unease.
He turns to nineteenth-century novels,
those big baggy monsters,
and once again, attempts
to read Bleak House.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Small Actions Can Change Trajectories Too

This morning is one of those mornings where I'm fighting despair about all I have not done.  I have yet to publish a book with a spine; I can't even comfort myself by telling myself that the poetry manuscript is making the rounds, because it is not.  It was held by a press for a long time, which gave me hope--then it was rejected.  I'm thinking I should rework it completely, but I feel a bit overwhelmed.  And in the meantime, there are other projects.

I feel this way about much of life.  For example, my spouse and I are thinking of selling our house and moving to a house in a better neighborhood.  Instead of breaking down this project into manageable tasks, I'm swamped by the hugeness of the whole project.

It's important to remind myself that big changes in trajectory often happen in ways too small to notice at the time.  It's important to remind myself that even small changes can be important.  Let me count some ways:

--My blog piece is up at the Living Lutheran site.  I took the piece that I wrote about colcannon as metaphor for the creative life and considered the spiritual metaphor too.

Let me take a minute to remember that even though I don't have a poetry book with a spine, I do have other fabulous publishing opportunities, the kind that other writers wish they had.  These blog posts probably reach more readers than a poetry book with a spine would do.

And in the meantime, there is other work too . . .

--Last night, we went to a high school in inner-city Ft. Lauderdale.  We joined roughly 1500 other church people for our annual Nehemiah action.  For the past 6 years, we've identified areas of justice that are lacking in our communities and then we work on changing them.  We've helped secure more low-income housing, more access to dental care, streamlined processes to get unemployment benefits, more police presence in high crime areas (my neighborhood was one of those areas--gulp!).

We've been working on 3rd grade literacy rates.  In South Florida, our children's reading abilities at all levels are shockingly low.  We've identified 3rd grade as an essential time for intervention.  We identified a better reading instructional approach, and we've asked the School Board to adopt it.

The School Board hasn't, but 2 individual elementary schools have, and they report improvement.  So, it's not every 3rd grader improving, but at least 2 schools have increased the chances of those children.  Hopefully more will follow.

Last night we also pushed for legislation to designate more tax dollars given to local businesses be given to local workers by making sure that the businesses that get the money actually employ our residents.  Many "local" businesses aren't, and they ship workers in from elsewhere.  We want our tax dollars to help our residents.  I'm oversimplifying, but you get the idea.  Last night, I had the sense that we got commitments from commissioners.

--Sure, you could point out all the areas of injustice that still exist.  I feel that despair too.  But it is so important not to let the despair about the work to be done keep us from trying to get any work done at all (a good metaphor for much of life).

--Maybe some of my despair comes from cleaning out my work e-mails.  I am not the kind of person who immediately decides what to do with each piece of e-mail. Consequently, once every few weeks, I have to do that work all at once, since my e-mail system threatens to crash. I am amazed at how many e-mails I send and receive in any given day. And yes, much of it is not that important.

But sometimes, the work I do as an administrator is important.  It may not feel as important as the work I did as a teacher.  We could argue about the middle levels of management, which is necessary, which is not.  But by doing a lot of that behind-the-scenes work, I free up the teachers to do the important work.  Imagine if my whole department had to interrupt their teaching to take the several days that it takes to create the class schedule for the upcoming terms, to coordinate with other departments who also use our rooms, to do those tasks.  No teaching would get done during that week or two that it would take to get the schedule done.

--Today is the feast day of St. Joseph, the guy we usually think of only around Christmas time.  Yes, that Joseph, husband of Mary, father of Jesus.  I wrote a piece on my theology blog about him, in praise of people like Joseph who work behind the scenes.

--Yes there are all sorts of ways that small actions can change trajectories.  We see it in the story of Joseph, who did not reject Mary, and thus was there to help save Jesus from Herod by fleeing to Egypt.  We see it in all sorts of families.  We see it in various social justice groups of all sorts.  We see it in quiet workplaces across the nation.

--Today, on the feast day of St. Joseph, let us consider our current trajectories and tweak where needed.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Of Gratitude, "Footloose," and Drunken Brownies

My spouse has been transferring some of our videos to DVD, which means we watch the resulting DVD to see if it worked.  Yesterday, we watched Footloose.  It's a movie that holds up well (and no, I haven't seen the remake).

Interesting to watch that movie and then to see promos for Kevin Bacon's TV show.  How young everyone looks in that movie--because they were young.  Imagine that, 17 and 18 year olds who play 17 and 18 year olds.  Lately, it seems that much older actors are playing much younger people.

I've written before about watching movies of my youth.  This post primarily talks about Pump Up the Volume and all the technology that no longer exists, and this post talks about watching movies like Fame and Footloose and indentifying more with the adults than the teens.

Yesterday as we watched Footloose, I was struck by the behavior of the female lead, Ariel. When I was young, I was sympathetic.  Who couldn't relate to wanting to get out of a small town?  She seemed admirably sure of herself:  able to dance, able to attract all the boys, able to speak her mind, not scared to fight.

Now, as an older woman I see her as, well, a girl in desperate need of an intervention by trained mental health professionals.  All those death defying stunts which seemed so daring when I was young?  Standing on the tracks when a train is coming, standing with each leg in different cars while each car is driving down a country road while an 18 wheeler approaches?  That girl is clearly off balance, perhaps in a serious way.

I thought of these characters who would be old enough today to have children themselves, if they were real people.  In fact, they'd be headed to the other end of midlife; if they didn't already have children, they wouldn't be having them.

What kind of Facebook posts would they be making?

I want to believe that Ariel would get to a big city, where she would flourish--but I also know that lots of small-town kids get to big cities and find them overwhelming.  I want to believe that she'll grow out of her teenage rebellion.  But I see her as the type of mother who tries to woo away her children's boyfriends and girlfriends, the kind of adult with all the wrong boundaries.  I have a vision of her preacher father and patient mother having to raise the grandchildren.

I imagine that most of those characters would grow into solid, middle-class lives.  One of them would run the diner in town.  One of them would get incredibly rich from genetically modified crops.  Some of them would be cops and some would be teachers and one person would be the fire chief.  Some of them would have manageable drinking problems.  One would have to go to a clinic every so often.

Most of them would have kids and would hope for better lives for their kids, who might have slightly better college educations, but would likely face the same kind of futures:  solid, middle class, with some struggles and lots of gratifying moments, if they can remember to feel grateful.

After we watched the movie, I made a cake out of Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen cookbook.  It sounded like Red Velvet Cake, but for grown ups--with red wine giving the color, not several bottles of food color.  I had this vision of my spouse waking up from his nap and thinking about how wondrous life was, to awaken to his favorite cake, but a grown up version.

I'd have done better if I hadn't been expecting Red Velvet Cake, but a red wine-chocolate cake.  I ended up with something that tasted like drunken brownies, not a Red Velvet Cake.  Drunken brownies might have been fine, had I not had my mouth set for Red Velvet Cake.

I tried to remember the lessons of Footloose:  sometimes a dance in a decorated mill is close to as good as the Senior Prom that would be held in the high school gym.  Sometimes it's better, if you just accept it on its own terms.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Our Creative Lives as Colcannon

Two years ago, I wrote the following essay, which has become one of my favorite responses to St. Patrick's Day.  For a more spiritual/historical approach to this day, go to this piece at my theology blog.

Thinking about St. Patrick's Day often takes me back to my early days as a budding vegetarian back in high school. I got one of those vegetarian magazines and decided to fix my family a special St. Patrick's Day meal. I would make Colcannon. Yes, Colcannon! It would be spectacular! They would never forget how fabulous it tasted!

I've now been cooking long enough that I would have skipped right over that recipe, a dish made primarily of mashed potatoes and cabbage. Blhhhhhh.

But no, I made Irish soda bread and Colcannon and served the family dinner with a flourish. Oh, my poor, long-suffering, generous family. What meals they endured as I experimented with vegetarian cooking. Looking back, I realize I was lucky to have such a family, who didn't complain too much about my cooking. My working mom was grateful to have anyone else cook, and she'd buy the ingredients. My dad, a long-distance runner both then and now, was interested in health. My sister, left to her own devices, would have had tacos every night.

We ate all the Irish soda bread that night, and each one of us finished our portion of Colcannon. It wasn't that bad--it just didn't taste like what I was expecting.

I see that experience as a metaphor for so much of life. Let's think about Colcannon as a metaphor for the creative life, which might be an important exercise in these days when so many contest and grant results are being announced, which means many of us are wrestling with disappointment when we're not chosen.

Many of us navigated towards a creative life with certain expectations. We would write that great novel which would be turned into a film which would mean we could leave our crappy jobs. We would write a beautiful collection of poems which would be win a prestigious prize which would net us a glorious teaching job where we taught one section a semester to adoring poet-students and had time to linger in the library and use the pool and eat our lunches in the faculty dining room. I could continue to spin fantasies, but you have the idea.

In the meantime, we've had to learn to live with what we actually have on our plates for dinner. Maybe we have a teaching job where we teach not poetry, but Composition. Maybe we don't have a Lake District circle of friends, but only one or two people who write. Maybe we have some kind of office job that consists primarily of sending, reading, responding to, and deleting e-mails, and we thought we were going to be doing important work. Maybe we've found ourselves marooned in a city or town that isn't as glamorous as we had planned.

And yet, our current Colcannon lives are perfectly satisfying, perfectly nourishing, if we could only bring ourselves to feel happy about them. The boring office job at least does not leave us too exhausted to write. The teaching job, while having its own difficulties (all that grading!), at least is work that will always be there--yesterday, as I drove to work, I heard an NPR story on the long-term unemployed, people who can't find ANY job that will bring in cash. I felt anxious, but immediately calmed down when I reminded myself that I can always find as much adjunct work as I can stand, if something should happen to my full-time job. We may have a smaller publication than we'd hoped for, but those publications are beautiful too, and they may open doors to larger publications and/or other opportunities.

In fact, I've talked to people who have achieved their goals, only to find that it wasn't as satisfying as they'd hoped. The book is published during the same week that something catastrophic happens in the world, so there's not much attention to it. The dream teaching job is in a department that is torn apart by strife. The glamorous city has a downside: crime or bad weather or high cost of living or homesickness for the place left behind.

Along with my quest to live a life that's in balance, a life that's in sync with my values, I'm also working hard to master being happy with what I have. I love that Zen saying, which I'm probably paraphrasing badly here: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." In other words, even if we get the dream publication, the dream job, the dream city, the dream partner, we will not be excused from the basic demands of life: the daily upkeep (body, housing, clothes, cooking), the bills, the relationship building and repairing.

I've often longed to live someplace else or to have a different job or to be at a different place in life, and then, when I'm there (the someplace else, the different job, the different life era), I look back longingly at previous times/places/jobs--all of which I didn't even like at the time.

Now I am trying to learn to shelter in place (yes, I know that we usually use that term in disaster preparedness, but it fits here too). I tell myself that I should enjoy this phase because I'll miss it later.

So, wherever you are, enjoy the Colcannon that's on your plate, even if you wish you had shepherd's pie or lamb chops. Some day, you'll likely have the lamb chops that you see others enjoying--but for now, treasure the taste of cabbage and potatoes. The lamb chops will taste that much better later for having had to wait.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What To Watch When a Pope is Elected

Last week, I wrote this post about what movie to watch when a dictator dies. This week, with papal elections in Rome, my friend had thoughts about the best movies for such a week.

She suggested classics like The Da Vinci Code or The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Name of the Rose.

Clearly, she has more of a tolerance for scary movies than I do--although I haven't watched some of these movies in many years. Would I still find The Exorcist so scary? The music is still creepy and terrifying, to be sure.

She said she was open for suggestions--who can resist? So, even though I'm not Catholic and hardly a movie expert, I chimed in.

Even before we knew we would have a Latin American pope, I suggested the movie Salvador. I said, "I'll put in a bid for Salvador, which has a significant subplot that revolves around Archbishop Romero, whom the Pope assigned to that country because he needed an obedient Archbishop, but the plight of the poor radicalized Romero, which set all sorts of events into motion. Lots of great Catholics in that movie, living out their faith in vivid ways."

I tried to think of other movies with popes, but could only think of monks--not exactly popes, but certainly dedicated to the faith in intense ways. I said, "I'd also put in a bid for Of Gods and Men about Algerian monks who find their lives in increasing danger, and they must determine what God is calling them to do--again, a depiction of believers living out their faith in vivid ways--a good counterpoint to the Prada shoes and the other details which look like consumer excess to this Lutheran observer."

My friend had been commenting on the various riches on display during the coverage of the papal decisions.  My inner 19 year old understands:  you could feed plenty of poor people with all the riches contained within the Vatican.

Now we have our Pope--will Pope Francis wear Prada shoes?  Will he still take the bus?

I will not be watching any of these movies this week-end.  I went to the school library and checked out some treats, among them The Book of Eli.

Sure, I've seen it before.  But it bears rewatching.  And it might be appropriate for these days after a papal election.  It's got a strong religious theme, which I won't say too much about, in case you haven't seen it.  It asks the question:  How much work are words worth?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Writing Prayers, Year 3

Two years ago, I returned home from AWP to find an invitation in my e-mail box.  Would I be willing to be part of a devotional book writing project?  If so, I'd get a month's worth of readings, and I'd write a prayer for each day, minus Sundays and feast days.  I'd get $50 and 5 copies of the book.

I'd been at numerous AWP workshops that wrestled with the question of pay.  I knew that many of the AWP session leaders would have scoffed at the offer.  They'd have said things like, "If they're getting money, you should get money."  They'd have said that $50 was too little.

But I'm a poet, and the idea of real cash for my words was thrilling.  I'm a theologian, of the non-professional kind, so the thought of being included in a book by a theological press thrilled me even more.  I said yes.

I had a bit of fear, since I've never written more than one prayer at a time.  But I thought it would be a good experience.  I could stretch myself.

I needn't have worried.  My experience as a poet came in handy.

My theology writing experience is that of expansion; I write essays on Gospel lessons.  I write about worship experiences and experiments.  I write about a variety of spiritual disciplines.  I write about the lives of saints.  For the most part, I can use as many words as I want.

For the prayers, I could use 35-40 words per prayer.  Easy-peasy, I thought.

Some of them were that easy.  I looked at the Bible reading, and the prayer just flowed from me.  Sometimes it flowed too fully, and I had to prune words.  Sometimes, I got about 15 words, and I had to write more.

Through my years of poetry writing, I've experimented with both expansion and compression.  I've had the experience of counting and weighing every word.  Writing prayers was no different.

The first year, I wrote the prayers for August.  For the past two years, I've written December prayers.

This year, I found it a bit jarring to write prayers for Advent as we moved through the season of Lent.  But as an administrator, I'm often dwelling in multiple seasons:  I create the schedule for an academic term that's six months away.  I plan events far off in the future.  I guide faculty through documenting a past year's worth of faculty development while also planning for the coming year.  I do the same thing for assessment activities.

This year, I worked on the prayers in a moving car with the music of a past century playing on the stereo.  Will careful readers catch the reference to Johnny Cash?  If so, it will be a surprise to me, since I didn't consciously put any Cash references into the prayers.  I did use the term "pastures of plenty," which I think comes from Woody Guthrie, the spirit who influenced much of the folk music we enjoyed on our car trip last Sunday.

My experience putting books of poems together also comes into play.  I can see themes in the readings, and as I write prayers, I try to do some echoing:  one prayer uses a phrase from an earlier prayer.  I try to keep it in balance, so it's an echo and not an annoying repetition.

I'm glad I said yes to this opportunity years ago.  It's been rewarding.  And each year, the entire print run of books sells out.  This may be the only writing of mine that sells out.

You might say, "See!  You should demand more money."  But it doesn't feel like that kind of operation.  I don't feel like the writerly equivalent of a sweat shop worker.  I know that many presses are barely hanging on, especially presses that publish religious material.

Let's be blunt:  I'm not writing for the money.  Oh, sure, I dream of a best seller.  But I know that most of my writing projects aren't likely to be best sellers--although I'm willing to be happily surprised.

I think that it's worth doing some writing projects just for the joy of it.  I love writing these prayers.  I wish I had more of these kind of opportunities.

I also think that we can't always know which doors will open other doors.  Why not say yes, particularly to a project that won't consume you? 

I like the idea of this writing as a kind of ministry.  I like the idea that come December, people will be praying the prayers that I wrote.  We could have a conversation about whether or not they're my words or words inspired by God or words given to me by a greater power--but that's probably a conversation for my theology blog.

But the short answer:  I feel like they're my words, although I do pray before I do my writing of the prayers, so I do hope that God plays a part.  As I write, I try to make the prayers global and universal.  I want to believe that they'll appeal to everyone--even people who aren't Christians, although I doubt that many non-Christians will find their way to the book.  I'm not writing prayers of proselytizing, don't get me wrong.  But I am writing prayers that ask for God's protection and guidance, prayers that yearn for peace, prayers that ask for God's presence as we come to our full potential.

In many ways, I'm praying multiple times.  I pray before I write the prayers, I pray as I compose them, I pray them again when the books arrive, and then, as the time arrives on the actual calendar, I pray them again in real time, the way they were intended.

This work has enriched me in so many ways that aren't monetary.  I'm like anyone else; I'm always thinking in terms of income streams and what I'll do if my full-time job vanishes and how many income streams I would need.  This prayer book income stream would not suffice by itself. 

Luckily, there are other income streams, so that I do the projects that don't pay as handsomely, the projects that pay in so many other ways.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Can the Pope Who Rides the Bus Be Good for Artists?

I've been watching the events in Rome this week, as well as observing how others have been making their observations.  I haven't seen as much of the disrespect as I might have expected.  Of course, I work in a strange place that is a combination of higher education and corporation--why would I have expected that anyone would be paying any attention at all?

It's an interesting question:  why should we care about the election of a Pope, if we're not Catholic?  Or, to be even blunter, why should atheists and agnostics care?  I've written this blog post at my theology blog that explores why Christians who aren't Catholic might care.  E. J. Dionne has written an eloquent essay in The Washington Post.

But back to my question:  why should the rest of us care?  Here are some of my thoughts.

Like it or not, the Pope is a world leader.  That leadership can be the reclusive kind or it can be the kind of leadership that calls the world to be a better version of itself.  I could make a case that Pope John Paul II was a powerful voice that led the world away from Communism.

There will always be social justice issues that go ignored, and that saddens me.  But I also understand that the Pope is just one human.  The needs are gaping, the work is vast.  My harsher friends will point out that the Pope has a whole army of resources that the rest of us can't muster.  I would point out how often those sources do go to the causes of social justice.  Imagine how much darker the world would be without those efforts.

For those of us who are intellectuals and academics, we often find much to challenge our brains coming out of papal offices.  I remember various letters and papers published in the 1980's, my undergraduate and grad school years, works that both challenged and supported my views of various social issues.  Cardinal Bernadin's work on the consistent ethic of life has become more important to me in my later years, as I've watched my sister's pregnancy and my mother-in-law's end of life in the same time period.  When I was 18, it was easy to be a know-it-all about end of life issues and abortion issues.  Now, I'm a bit more shaken.  It's been good to have some of that theology to turn to as I've rethought the things I would have sworn to be true.

And for us creative types?  What does the selection of a Pope have to do with us? 

I was talking to a friend and colleague the other day about what the Holy Spirit may be unleashing in the world.  She believes that we're on the cusp of a new Jesus movement, and that this one will involve the arts.  What a powerful thing that could be.

I'd argue that the last Reformation, the one which Martin Luther helped lead way back in 1517, was not rooted in the arts.  It was rooted in rational thought, at least rational for its time, and often suspicious of the arts.  It was a reaction to what had come before, but in the rejection of the arts that so many strains of the Reformation adopted, much has been lost.

I know, you may be saying that you're not Catholic, you're not religious, you're not even spiritual--so why would an arts-based Reformation have anything to do with you?

Imagine what might happen if one of the largest religious institutions, the Catholic church, fully embraced the arts--what kind of ripple effects might that have?

You might want to bring me back to earth and remind me that we haven't seen that this Pope is particularly arts-focused.  He's the pope who rides the bus, not the pope who paints large murals.  This blog post is already getting long, so I'll save my happiness at this pope's view of social justice and his defense of the poor and dispossessed for another day.

I would leave you with this thought:  a social justice outlook can mesh nicely with support for the arts.  Imagine how artistic visions might be used to call forth a more just world.  Wouldn't that be a wondrous thing?

You might scoff and say it could never happen.  I might argue that the most successful social justice movements have a strong artistic component.  Think about how the social justice movements of the 60's and 70's were made stronger because of the music, for example.

And when you get a social justice movement that's grounded in a spiritual discipline and has a strong artistic component?  The world will never be the same!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Observations from the Road: The Georgia Edition

I spent much of the last week in a car, as we made our way to my spouse's Board meeting at Lutheranch, in Tallapoosa, Georgia; along the way, we picked up a college friend and his wife, so that they could visit the friend's brother, who just happens to live in Tallapoosa--what are the odds of that?!! 

Yesterday's post was inspired by the cold that travelled with me (my body as stagecoach!  clearly I'm not done with these metaphors).  Today I want to record some other observations so that they don't become lost as I zoom on towards the future:

--If you ever wanted a lot of land, much of southern Georgia seems to be for sale.  As we traveled north on Interstate 75, I was struck by how many signs offered acres of land for sale.  Affordable?  I have no idea.

--I always forget how beautiful western Georgia is until we're there:  rolling hills, lakes, and a vastness that I don't sense in South Florida.  All this nature, and just an hour away from downtown Atlanta.  But you wouldn't know it when you're standing on the ranch land that is western Georgia.

--This year the land was still waiting to burst into bloom.  Last year, the year without a winter, we saw more foliage:  dogwoods, specifically.  I miss dogwoods.

--I must remember that if we moved, I'd miss the foliage of Southern Florida:  bougainvillea and hibiscus and the other tropical beauty.

--We listened to old country music, and I'm struck, as always, by how relevant it still seems.  Listen to the "King of the Road," a song that's strangely joyful about being "a man of means, by no means."

--If I'm ever cut loose from employment, I'd love to ramble across the country when I had time for all the side trips that tempt me, but would take so much time.

--For instance, I'd love to go to the Andersonville site, home of one of the most brutal Civil War POW camps which has now been turned into a meditation on POW sites in general.  My college friend would like to take a pilgrimage to Plains, Georgia.  But these sites are not along the way--it's a 4 hour detour, at the least, which turns into a trip in and of itself, and not just a stopping point.

--I met a man who said his great grandfather came back from Appomattox and started a grist mill, and his family's been there ever since.  It's a different Southern history from the history that surrounds me in South Florida. 

--It's the history that surrounded me from childhood through my early adult years.  At points, I found it so oppressive that I dreamed of places like South Florida, a land of immigrants who weren't bound by their past.

--Foolish youth!  Our past--personal and collective--binds us in so many ways!  Exile, immigrant, refugee, rooted--we're all shaped in ways we can barely fathom.

--Sometimes I'm happy when I return to South Florida, but yesterday I was jangled.  The traffic seemed heavier than normal, the weather oppressively hot and humid.

--My spouse also noted that everyone seemed snarling and ready to shoot each other.  I said it was as if we're waiting for a thunderstorm.  He said he had noted behavior at the gas station around the corner from our house that he usually only observes as a hurricane approaches.

--So, as other poets and writers made their way to and from Boston, I made a different journey.  I'm glad I wasn't trying to navigate AWP with my humdinger of a cold. 

--For the past several years, I've thought about a panel presentation that I'd like to put together for AWP, women poets talking about the ways they use fairy tales in their work, actual working poets talking about the creative process, as opposed to scholars talking about them.  Every year thus far, I've missed the deadline.  Do I want to go for Seattle?  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sequestered from the Colony of Good Health

This week I am tired in a different way than I was tired last week.  Over the week-end, we took one of our great driving tours of the southeast.

By great, I mean long.

My spouse is on the Board of Trustees for a group of Lutheran church camps.  This past week-end, we went to Lutheranch, in western Georgia, for a Board meeting.

I knew I was fighting off a cold, but on Thursday, somewhere between my house and Jacksonville, Florida, the cold began to win.

I have spent the last 5.5 days coughing.  I am sore.  I am aware of my body's system of muscles and ligaments in a way that only comes after days of straining into and out of spasms of coughing.  I am aware of my body's cavities in ways that are only possible as my body fights off a cold and develops unusual tidal pools in the crustaceous bed of my skull.

I can't decide whether or not to write a poem about these feelings or about the different ways we've been using the word "sequestration":  choosing a pope, slashing the Federal budget.  I am trying to sequester myself away from healthy people so that they don't get my cold.

Yes, I have been taking over the counter meds.  They are moderately effective.  I don't usually get the kind of cold that has me by the throat this time.  Usually, cold meds wipe out whatever is afflicting me.  Not this time, although they bring a bit of relief.

If I have to suffer a cold, it was better to have one this past week-end than it would have been the week-end before.  While my husband went to his Board meetings, I stayed in bed.  The week-end before, I  needed to be leading workshops.  I'm glad I maintained my health for that week-end.

Having a cold makes me grateful for my usual robust good health.  I am ready to return to the land of good health.  I am lucky to have a short journey ahead of me.  There are so many people who can see the land of good health all around them, but have no way to get there, no boat, no bridge.  I am aware of my good fortune.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Poem to Mark the Shift in Seasons

Over the past few weeks, I've noticed the light changing.  I get out of evening exercise class, and it's only dusk, not night.  In fact, last week it was still light, though just barely.

I suspect this week, with the time change to Daylight Savings Time, will feel radically different. 

Or maybe it won't.  Maybe you're saying, "I get to an office before the sun comes up, and I leave well after sunset."

So, no matter how you're experiencing this shift in seasons, here's a poem, which appeared in my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Slant of Seasons

Now she knows the seasons only by the slant
of light against her windshield.
Her car protects her from the extremes
of climate--hot or cold outside, it's the same
seventy-eight degrees as she sinks
into the luxurious leather seat
waiting for the traffic to crawl forward.

She thinks of her ancestors' farms, row
after row of rich dirt furrowed
to keep a family fed. She wonders
about the land below the pavement,
land that lies fallow to allow commuters
the fast route to the office.

She looks across the lanes of cars,
row after row of metal husks,
pod after pod with precisely one person
per car, lying fertile,
waiting to blossom in the workplace.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lace Up Your Shoes and Broaden Your View of Justice: Happy Harriet Tubman Day!

Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman.  I've written about this anniversary before on this blog in this post.

Careful readers of this blog know that Harriet Tubman influences me in many ways.  In this post, I talk about Harriet Tubman as role model for managers.

For those of you who would like a poem, there's one in this post.

Here's a great conversation about Harriet Tubman on NPR's Tell Me More.  It talks about the challenges we see in modern life and our need to be brave like Harriet Tubman.  When asked what we should remember about Tubman, Jacqueline Serwer, the chief curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, says, "Well, I'd like people to think of her as really complex and multifaceted and as a person who was very able and very strong and very determined, but also as somebody who was lovely and soft and spent most of her life - certainly after the Civil War - looking after her family and elderly people, people, indigent African-Americans who, you know, had no way to support themselves after the war. And also she went on to be very involved in the suffrage movement as well. So she really had a very broad view of justice and what was important and what people needed to endeavor to do. And so she was involved in all kinds of good things that supported other people."

A broad view of justice:  a great goal to renew on this day that celebrates Harriet Tubman!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Gratitude Haiku

A week ago, I'd have been leading a workshop on gratitude haiku.  Why gratitude haiku, you ask?

First of all, a disclaimer.  I'm using the word "haiku" very loosely.  I understand that there's much more to haiku than the syllables per line (5-7-5).  But I was asked to talk about spiritual journaling, and the gratitude haiku was part of a list of ways to use your journal as a spiritual practice.

I also talked about regular gratitude journaling:  at the end of the day, write down 5 things that fill you with gratitude.  No doubt that it's a powerful practice.  But I wanted to be honest.  When I've kept this discipline for any length of time, my gratitude lists begin to seem quite similar.  As always, cultivating a quality of mindfulness does not come naturally to me.

I've only been doing the gratitude haikus for a few weeks, and they short-circuit my tendency to keep the same list.  I find myself paying attention and trying on subjects for haiku possibilities.  I find myself more lighthearted than I sometimes am when I'm keeping a gratitude journal--it's fun to write haikus.

Will this practice turn into drudgery eventually?  I have no idea.  Truthfully, I'm not likely to do this practice year after year.  But it's a good practice to take up occasionally.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Dreaming of a Coral Mask

For the past several nights, I've been dreaming about a piece of art that I have yet to make.  I see it so clearly in my dreams.

Last week, I met with two colleagues for our postponed poetry day.  We had planned to meet on Valentine's Day and to eat red velvet cake.  We had planned to write poems inspired by the Poe story "The Masque of the Red Death."  Life got in the way, and our poetry date was postponed until Feb. 28.

We made good use of the time.  One colleague is working on her MFA.  She found a treasure trove of glass Christmas ornaments, and she made a red mask.  I had a vision of a flat, glittery Mardi Gras mask, but what she created was so much more wonderful.  If I wore what she made, it would completely cover my face; in fact, it would cover over half my head.

But I wouldn't wear what she made because it is too jagged.  She arranged pieces to jut out and to resemble orifices and other facial feature.  The whole thing is both delicate and frightening.  She put it on a styrofoam head that she's covered in fake, white fur.

We looked at a book that the library has on the work of Alexander McQueen.  We decided that for our next get-together, we'd write poems based on some work of his.  And then we decided to make some kind of physical object.

My spouse and I are clearing out a lot of our stuff.  We have lots of coral that we've picked up through the years.  My spouse has talked about repurposing it.

Alexander McQueen has dresses made of shells.  And this week, I've found myself literally dreaming of making a head or a mask out of the coral.  I've been waking up with Shakespeare's lines in my head:  "Full fathom five thy father lies."  I've been trying to remember how that piece of text weaves its way through James Joyce.

Can I get the coral to stay attached to a styrofoam head?  It's heavier than glass ornament shards.

Well, we shall see.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Expirations of Dictators and the Dreams of Exiles

--I keep thinking about the death of Hugo Chavez and all the Venezuelans I've met who fled his regime.  How do you know when it's safe to go back?

--How do you weigh the love you have for your current life against the yearnings you feel for home?

--But when we leave a place, our very leaving changes the place we leave behind.  Maybe we can never go back, and if we can only realize that fact, we'd be happier--or at least yearn less.

--Of course, if we could simply tell ourselves to yearn less and then obey--wow, wouldn't that be an accomplishment?!!

--Moving to South Florida has made me think differently about exile.  I used to think that people chose to go into exile, but now I know how many ways exile can be forced.

--I used to think that people went into exile in response to brutal governments.  I now know that many of us must go into exile because of families or because of repressive social situations back home.

--It makes me wonder, though, what happens when the situations we felt compelled to flee change.  If you left your conservative town to feel free to be your transgressively gendered self, and now those communities have embraced gay marriage, is it safe to go back?

--Do exiles ever feel safe again?

--When I first moved here and taught at the local community college, I met so many people who had fled the civil wars in Central America--and I met the children of those refugees.  But I've been meeting those people since the 1980's.  Back then, I wanted to be a modern Harriet Tubman, leading those people to safety.  I wanted to live in an intentional community, like Jubilee Partners, and devote my life to that.

--Instead, I went into teaching, to become a different kind of Harriet Tubman.  I know that English teachers are often the gatekeepers.  I know how powerful it is to be the gatekeeper with hospitality, the one who says, "You can do this, and I'm here to show you how."

--Here's one of my many poems that uses Tubman-esque imagery.  It first appeared in the journal The Julia Mango and appears in my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Uncle Tom’s College

You have bought the American myth, staked
your very life upon it, that a sheepskin
will procure your freedom. But before you can grasp
those precious identity papers, you face
a harrowing trip.

You thought that no one could be as big an ogre
as your Simon Legree of a boss who ogled
you and timed your bathroom breaks.
But now, you discover that some of your college
professors find a perverse joy in preventing
you from continuing on your path to freedom.

You unearth the few lights in the darkness of this Southern
college landscape, the ones who can guide
you through the swamps. You like best the ones who escaped,
just as you hope to do, although you can’t imagine
what enticed them back. You warily trust
the pale-faced conductors of this underground
railroad, even though they can’t possibly
know your torments. You keep the lattice
of your scars well-hidden.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What to Watch When a Dictator Dies

I was somewhat surprised to hear that Hugo Chavez died.  You're probably saying, "How could you be surprised?  He's been seriously sick for months, if not years."  I'm always taken by surprise when dictators who have spent their years expending such power turn out to be mortal just like the rest of us.

I will likely write more about the idea of dictators and exile and all the refugees who flee and find themselves in South Florida.  I may try to determine how I have come to meet so many refugees who have such gruesome stories--and they tell me of their experiences.  Yes, some women get hit upon while they wait for public transit, but not me.  Is it part of my pastor vibe that I sometimes give off, even though I'm not ordained?

As I drove home, I thought about the fact that I find Tuesday night a wasteland in terms of TV.  When Richard Nixon died, we watched Where the Buffalo Roam.  I thought about the movies that we own and what would be appropriate for the death of a dictator.

We could watch Missing or Salvador to get the Latin American dictator vibe.  But my spouse doesn't often watch movies he's already seen.  Luckily, I had ordered Argo, and we hadn't gotten around to watching it yet.

What a great movie!  It was better on the large screen, of course, as most movies are.  I remember watching it in the theatre and thinking that Affleck had done a masterful job showing the mob behavior at the U.S. embassy in Iran.  In my head, I had imagined a sparser crowd, and I had always wondered why the embassy didn't do a better job at defending itself.  Now I understand.

And even before we got to that scene, Affleck does a fabulous job of explaining the history that got us to 1979.  It made me wish he'd do the same for some other countries--like Syria or Venezuela.  I love the bit that Jimmy Carter says at the end.  I love the idea of getting everybody out safely without compromising our American values.  You go ahead and scoff at me for getting weepy about that, call me naive, call me stupidly optimistic.  Guilty as charged.

I watched Argo and thought about how the lives of Iranian women changed radically in just a few years.  I thought about Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, and how relevant it still is.  I thought about those early scenes in the movie and the airport scenes, where we see Iranians desperate to leave, when it is much too late.  Even in childhood, I've been fascinated by the early years of dictatorship--how do people know it's time to pack up and flee?  I feel certain that my optimism would sink me in this area.  I'd keep believing that life would get better, that the dictator couldn't really mean what he (and it's always a he) said or do what he planned.

I'll be interested to see whether or not people return to Venezuela, and I know it will depend on a number of factors.  If I had gotten out of Iran at any point, as a woman, I would never go back.  Or would I?  We shouldn't underestimate the pull of home.

The pull of home:  it's an emotional state that drives many a plot, including Argo.  Perhaps the pull of home undergirds all conflicts in some way.  But that's a subject for another day, or for some grad student who needs a dissertation topic.