Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Inspirations from Two Richard Blanco Events

Yesterday, I went to the 2 Richard Blanco events at the South campus of Broward College.  What a great way to end National Poetry Month!

At 12:30, at the South Regional branch of the public library that's at the campus, there was a question and answer session.  I walked in with swarms of students.  Were they there for the free food?  It was certainly worth the trip:  surprisingly good fruit salad, wonderfully soft cookies, coffee perfect in its strength and heat.  I couldn't have asked for a better lunch.

When Richard Blanco got settled on stage, you'd have thought a rock star was among us.  Students took pictures with their phones and there was an air of excitement that I'm not used to seeing in student gatherings--and for a poet!  It made me grin.

Of course, he's a poet whom many of us down here feel is one of us.  I wonder if he gets that reaction when he goes to Indiana. 

I was impressed with how personable he was.  He talked openly about navigating and negotiating identities.  In this multinational, multigender, multiethnic, multisexual age where people are always on the move, who cannot relate? 

He talked about how his life has changed since being asked to read at the Inaugural. He said that reading at the event felt like taking an oath of citizenship.  He told us about the process, about writing 3 poems from which one would be chosen.  One of them was about his mother, and he really wanted to read that one.  He said that Julia Alvarez convinced him that the one that was chosen was the better choice.

His grandmother sounds a lot like mine, hypercritical and full of faults, not at all modern when it came to being accepting of diversity (mine was not, although she knew enough to keep quiet most of the time).  How I miss her.  He said, "My grandmother was as xenophobic as she was homophobic."  His poem, "Queer Theory:  According to My Grandmother" was funny and sad and shocking and seemed to affect many of us.

He talked about his 3rd collection, released in 2012, the only collection where he is out of the closet with his sexuality.  But what interested me most is that he said that some of the poems in that collection were written 20 years ago.  I'm not sure why that heartened me so much.

The students made me SO happy.  After each event, there was a raffle.  Multiple copies of his chapbook of the Inaugural poem were given away.  The students who won acted like they'd won a car.  It was so heartening.

I felt such a fondness for the students.  One of the students who introduced the participants plans to go elsewhere to study English, Anthropology, and Photography.  I remember feeling like everything was possible and that I might be a triple major.  My mom said, "In the amount of time that would take you, you could be done with a Master's degree."  She was right, of course--and I couldn't decide what my 3rd major would be.  History?  Philosophy and Religion?  Psychology?  So I double-majored in English and Sociology and went on to grad school.

I felt such sympathy for the student who stood up to ask the question about how to deal with parents who want him to major in something that's marketable, but he really wants to write.  I feel sympathy, so much more sympathy than I once did, for the father who just wants his son to be OK financially.

Richard Blanco reminded him that he could do both.  He said that we make a mistake in thinking that we can only be this or do that, that we must choose.  He talked about how his career as an engineer has fed his art.  He talked about the mathematical structure to his poems.  He talked about being surprised by how much he used the skill of writing in his engineering life:  inches thick manuals and 4 page letters and the like.  He talked about learning to use language in a whole new way.

He also talked openly about dreams he didn't follow.  He might have wanted to be an architect, but at the time, no public university down here offered that program, and he knew his family couldn't afford a private college--so he majored in engineering.  And then, after a few years of being an engineer, he wanted more, and so began taking creative writing classes.

He mentioned that when he got the call inviting him to be the poet of the inauguration, he hadn't written a poem in 6 months.  That made me feel such relief!  I'm not the only one who takes breaks--although if I go for longer than a month, the anxiety gets me back to the page.

Blanco gives a great reading (I came back for the 7:00 reading).  I love his introductions to the poems--but if you're the kind of person who finds that irritating, you might find him too talkative.  And he reads well.  It's not that arty, affected style that so many poets adopt.  It's folksy and funny and just the right time for the words to sink in.  If you ever have a chance to hear him read, I'd recommend you go.

Here's a Blanco quote to inspire you on this, the last day of National Poetry Month:  "Poems aren't about answers.  They're about possibilities."

Monday, April 29, 2013

Leaving National Poetry Month with a Bang, Not a Whimper

April will be over soon, and with it, the end of National Poetry Month.  To paraphrase a famous poet from a different age, let's go out with a bang, not a whimper!

If you're in South Florida, especially on the southeast side of the state, Richard Blanco will be at 2 events today.  At 12:30 at the South Regional Library, which is on the South campus of Broward College, Blanco will participate in a question and answer session.

At 7, he'll do a poetry reading in the big auditorium of the South Campus of Broward College (7200 Pines Blvd. in Pembroke Pines).

If you can't get to a poetry reading, you can still have poetry to keep you company.  This week's episode of the radio show On Being featured the poet Marie Howe.  What a treat!  This link takes you to my favorite poem of the hour, in which Mary Magdalene speaks and tells us about her demons.  Those demons will be familiar to modern readers too.  Be sure to click on the player and have Howe read it to you.

The whole interview is fascinating.  Here are some bits to whet your appetite:

She talks about loving science fiction:  "I adored it. And about the robots were going to take over and the machines were going to take over. And just last week it occurred to me. Well they have. It's just different from what we expected. You know, uh, Joseph Brodsky — it's just different. And one of my teachers at Columbia was Joseph Brodsky, who's a Russian poet, wonderful, amazing poet, who was exiled from the Soviet Union for On Being a poet. And he said look, he said, you Americans, you are so na├»ve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn't come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language. And I was thinking the machines — what do you look at more? What face do you look into more than any other face in your life — the face of my iPhone."

"Well, that poem ["Letter to my sister"]was written to a sister who, uh, you know. in a big house different people experienced different things. And depending on where you are and the age, you know — and one of the things that I grew up understanding was that multiplicity of viewpoints and truths. But that particular poem was to my sister, a sister who I love very much, who was experiencing trauma and trying to speak to how, in our case I think, alcoholism shatters a unity. It can fragment a community so that you are now in separate shards. And as much as you want to be all in the same room, the nature of that illness fragments any unifying understanding, or even experience. So I think that's what those lines were trying to say. One sister is trying to speak to another from that fragmentation, you know, shard to shard."

She talks about a multi-week exercise she has her writing students do:  I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It's very hard for them.  . . . Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. You know I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth. Uh, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason.  . . . just noticing what's around them, which is — we don't do. And not, and again, not to compare it to anything, they're not allowed. And that's very hard for them. And then on the sixth, fifth or sixth week, I say OK, use metaphors. And they don't want to. They don't know how. Why would I? Why would I compare that to anything when it's itself?  . . . so then you think why the necessity of a metaphor? Why, why do you have to use a metaphor now, you know? Not just to do it to avoid it, but to do it to avoid it, but to do it to make it more there, you know. And it's very interesting."

This link takes you to the main page where you can hear the radio broadcast, watch the interview or read the transcript--and there are lots of extras.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Night at the Symphony

Yesterday, we went to see the Broward Symphony Orchestra--what a great concert!  As we watched, many thoughts went through my mind.  If you're interested in discovering what the Symphony can teach us about worship, see this post on my theology blog.

The Symphony conductor was the most energetic I've ever seen.  My spouse said, "There's no mistaking her cues."  It was wonderful to watch.  Her enthusiasm kept me engaged and made me want to know what was coming next.

The conductor also plays the piano.  How do I know?  The concert began with her playing a beautiful Liszt piece, the kind that utilizes the full 8 octaves on the keyboard.  Wow.

And then, the orchestra assembled as the piano was wheeled away, and the pianist transformed into the conductor.  And I spent the rest of the night in amazement.

I am used to hearing a single instrument, or at most a few instruments playing together at church.  I am used to hearing my husband practice his violin. 

How rarely I experience a symphony!  How wondrous it is to hear lots of instruments, all playing one piece beautifully.  How much richer it is as a musical experience.

And how much better live.  I've heard many a symphony as recorded music, but I've rarely heard a live symphony.  Wow.

I watched as many of the Symphony members as I could. It fascinated me to see how they played their instruments.  Some sat in a very prim way:  knees pressed together (or against the instrument, if they played cello or bass), no expression on their faces.  One violinist in very high heels sat with her ankle turned and the side of her shoe touching the floor, the other foot normal.  I wondered about that.  Some of the members played with an expression of rapture on their faces.  Some seemed to be approaching it as an aerobic upper body work out. 

I wondered if they had to position themselves so that their bows didn't poke the faces of the people around them.  Maybe it's never a risk, but last night, it looked like it could be.

I also loved seeing all the instruments.  I loved all the different browns of the cellos and basses.  I loved the oddness of the horns and woodwinds.  I felt gratitude that I've spent my life around musical instruments.  I felt a longing to spend more time playing music.

I sat in a place where I could see off the side of the stage, and once again, I was struck by this great facility that an ordinary community college constructed.  It was during a time that's feeling very far away, a time where there was money and will and agreement about the common good.

I'm grateful that these facilities exist, since it may be awhile before we see a chance to build replacements.  I'm grateful for community concerts, where for the price of an eight dollar ticket, I can be transported by a symphony.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rootedness in a Sandy Place

Our Barbados cherry tree has exploded in fruit, far more than we can use.  So last night, we took our abundance over to our friends' house.  She has been experimenting with jams of all sorts:  Surinam cherry, sea grape, all fruits you don't find in your jar of Smuckers.

We took a tour of the garden that she's put in.  She's managed to grow broccoli!  It's a feat I thought would be impossible down here in our warmer climate.  She's had luck with tomatoes, and she's grown jalapeno peppers from seeds.  We saw a cucumber that's about ready for harvest.

On Thursday night, we had an amazing sandwich with a cucumber from our own garden.  We had grown a cucumber plant which got devoured by some garden pest.  But a few weeks later, a new plant started to grow, and now, 7 weeks later, we've enjoyed one cucumber.

Yes, in some ways gardening makes no sense.  Economically, it's a ridiculous use of time and money.  So far, we've harvested 1 cucumber, 2 small tomatoes, and 2 tiny bell peppers.  We've spent a lot of money on soil and pots.

Our friend has had better luck with her garden.  And we'll both keep doing it because of the joy of seeing seeds grow and the good that comes from remembering our connection to the earth.

We talked about our yearning for chickens.  Our friend already has an incubator!  Who knew?  We're not sure about whether or not our houses are zoned for chickens.  I wonder about who would take care of the chickens when we're away.  She wondered how to keep chickens safe from neighborhood predators, from neighborhood dogs to the kind of threat you wouldn't expect to encounter so close to the beach, like raccoons--do raccoons kill chickens?

I got the glimmerings of an idea:  could we timeshare our chickens? 

We talked about building coops, about different colors of eggs, about other farm animals, like the goats my step-mom-in-law has been yearning for.  We talked about how to be self-sufficient down here at the far tip of North America.

My spouse remembered seeing sugar apples for sale in a farmer's stand, the permanent kind, a year ago--they were selling for $8 a pound.  We should check with that farmstand.  Would he buy our sugar apples?  They usually just rot on the tree.

Last year at harvest time, we pulled up into our driveway to see a couple gazing at the tree.  Trespassers!  Luckily we asked questions before calling the police or handling the issue more combatively.

Turns out, she's an immigrant from a Carribean island, and she hadn't seen sugar apples growing on a tree since her grandmother's tree.  I recognize that longing I saw on her face.  We invited them to come pick fruit whenever they wanted.  I wonder if we'll see her again this year.

Could we grow sugar apple seedlings from the stones of the fruit from the tree?  We must try!

Again, I think of rootedness, what it means to commit to a place, what it means to sink our hands in the soil--or the sand, as the case might be.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Of Irrefutable Laws, Cheese, and Writing Projects

One of my frustrations as an administrator is having to sit through presentations that I could get through much more quickly if you just gave me the material to read.  Our sexual harassment training is like that.  We have to spend 2 hours with the webinar, but it would take me 15 minutes to read.  It's not like the material changes from year to year either.

Yesterday, it was our hurricane preparedness plan.  I count myself lucky this year.  Some years, we've gone over the plan page by page.  Yesterday was a general discussion.

Any time when we don't have to listen to someone read the hurricane plan via PowerPoint presentation, I consider myself lucky.  Some years, we've done that.  Happily, this year we're a bit more short-staffed for all sorts of reasons, and the person who's usually in charge of reading the PowerPoint of the hurricane plan has been moved to a different area.

Recently we had a PowerPoint presentation about John Maxwell's The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.  We went through them, law by law.

Some of these laws are not surprising:  Surround yourself with good people (I'm paraphrasing, I think).

Maybe it's my problem.  I've been doing leadership training events since my teenage years.  This information doesn't change much from decade to decade.

I thought about how many of these books--leadership books, cookbooks, diet books, how to live your life books--are not necessarily saying anything new.  I wondered if I could create such a new work, a work out of ideas that are already out floating in the world.  I thought about Maxwell's book and the Who Moved My Cheese? book.  What would happen if I combined the two bestselling books?
I’m currently working on a book I’ve titled, Twenty-one Irrefutable Leadership Laws of Moving Cheese. I currently have chapter ideas for melting, creating a cheese plate, and shredding.

Creating a Cheese Plate:  The types of cheese you need to make a capable team (which cheese would be which attribute?  Oh what fun!)

Melting:  How to get the team to work together.

Shredding:  Sometimes you have to take the team apart to get the best opportunity for working well together.

Only 18 more laws to go!

And I’m only partly kidding.

At the dinner we had before the Hobo Poetry event, we talked about my idea.  I think it could be a best seller, but I wondered if I could sustain interest long enough to get it done.  We talked about whether or not we could work on projects that didn't completely move us.  My friend who's teaching said, no, we have to feel passion for the project.  My friend who makes a good chunk of her living by writing said that she could write about anything.

I thought it would be cool to have one project that was the high art form of the concept, and one that was for the masses.  My leadership/cheese idea does not have a high art component.

But the metaphor continues to intrigue me.  Cheese as leadership lessons.

Maybe I should also create some recipes.  Again, I'm only halfway kidding.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Vows of Stability: Good to Be Here in This Place

We have just enjoyed a whirlwind visit--24 hours--with my spouse's dad and step-mom.  What a treat!

I rearranged my work hours on Tuesday so that I could be fully present.  I know how lucky I am to have a boss who lets me do that.

We spent hours relaxing in between fixing meals.  We got caught up on family news.  We did some creative play with alcohol inks, our newest creative toy.  We went for a walk at the beach after dinner.  We enjoyed an ice cream extravaganza at Jaxson's in Dania.

Why is it so easy to do these activities when we've got out of town visitors and so hard to remember to enjoy the delights right outside our door when it's back to regular life?

Part of it is that I do have to exercise, to do certain chores, and go to work.  But I wonder what might happen if I approached every day with the resolve to do one thing that reminds me that I live in a delightful place.  It's so easy to let the drudgery of daily life overtake me.

I've been wrestling lately with my longing to be elsewhere.  Even though I know that if we picked up and moved, I'd miss this place intensely, I still find myself looking at other parts of the nation.  I want a little farmstead in the Blue Ridge.  I want a place that's more like a real college town.  I wonder what it would be like to live in the middle of a metropolis, like Manhattan.  I want to go back to school, debt be damned!

I am drawn to monastic practices for many reasons, but one of the things I admire most about monastics is their vows of stability which means a commitment to place.  Sure, I say, it's easy to be committed to place, when you've got a wonderful monastery and beautiful grounds, like at Mepkin Abbey.

But I have a beautiful place here, full of galleries and amazing public libraries and museums and goodies of all sorts.  I have the Everglades to the west and the Atlantic to the east.  What more could I possibly want?

Sandra Beasley has been thinking about the delights of her hometown, Washington D.C., in this blog post, and she's been strategizing about how to better utlilize what's there and what to create to make it better.

I read her post, and I feel this longing to move to a city where I could build a life that's closer to what I had in mind as the ideal.  But lots of elements of life that I love are right here, just a short walk or a car trip away.  I'm not going to find a place that has both mountains and beach and a cheap farmstead that I can buy--all in the middle of a big city.  If I did have a farm, I'd grow tired of the chores and long to have time to play with alcohol inks.  If I made a living as a writer or a farmer, I'd spend untold hours worrying about the next writing project or the next harvest and all the things that could go wrong--just as I do with my current job.

It's been a good morning.  I've made cookies for a festival of desserts at work tomorrow, I've written a poem based on yesterday's blog post where I talked about poems carved of stone vs. poems with bits of pie dough stuck to them, and I did some revision work on my memoir.  I'm getting some laundry washed, even as I type.

As they said in ancient communities, it is good to be here in this place.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Happy Birthday, Robert Penn Warren!

Today is the birthday of Robert Penn Warren.  Now he seems like a figure from the distant past, a generation born not long after the Civil War, a generation of agrarians, a generation who would not recognize the modern South. 

Heck, some days, I don't really recognize it myself.

But in many ways, Robert Penn Warren's work is timeless.  I remember reading All the King's Men in undergraduate school and being blown away by the poetry that crept into the prose.  I suspect that the character of Willie Stark, the corrupt governor, would still feel relevant.

I must confess that I haven't spent much time with the poetry.  You can get to some of his poems from this page at Poets.org.  I read a few this morning when I realized I couldn't recall a single poem of his that I had ever read.  They are masterful pieces, but they remind me of a certain type of poem, popular at mid-20th-century:  somewhat distant, masterful in form, a bit like Greek philosophy. 

Let me try a different explanation.  These are poems made of stone, cold and carved and impressive.  But if I'm honest, I prefer poems made of colorful scraps of fabric or squirts of paint.  I prefer my poems to have bits of pie dough stuck to them and a whiff of decaying vegetable scraps.

Those of you who know about Robert Penn Warren's friendship with Cleanth Brooks will protest:  "Those aren't the kind of poems he was trying to write.  No fair."  That fact is true.  But those are the poems I want to read.

Those of you who are tired of doing literary criticism that is rooted in historical time periods or the biography of the author or feminist analysis or Marxist analysis or looking at what isn't in the work--and by now, maybe that's all of us to an extent--you might want to remember the New Criticism, which Brooks and Warren helped catapult into universities across the nation.  In the 80's, in undergraduate school, I was trained as a new critic.  My favorite professor let us look at only the work on the page.  We were not to bring in knowledge of biography or history or our personal feelings or anything else as we analyzed poetry from the past.

How heady to get to grad school and to discover feminist criticism.  How I delighted in applying knowledge of history to my analysis of the work.  How we debated what was most important in our understanding of poems--and it wasn't the form of the poem and rarely the subject matter.

And then, after teaching for a decade or so, I began to wish that students were a bit better at looking at the text that was right in front of them.  And now, my colleagues and I spend time thinking about all the different things that a text can be.  What would Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks make of a world of Twitter and Facebook updates and all of us writing such widely disparate kinds of work?

I imagine their ancient visages, wrinkled before they would wrinkle their faces in protest.  Or maybe death has granted them a completely different perspective.

I think of my favorite undergraduate professor.  She used to say that no one had written a good political poem.  Now I could intelligently disagree.  But now, I must confess that I do grow increasingly weary of strident political discourse.  When poems become strident, I look away.

What would Warren say?  Here's a quote from today's post at The Writer's Almanac site:  "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake."

It makes me think about our historic time and how we dwell in it.  Some of us will write strident political poems and some of us will write meditative poems about current events.  And some of us will turn away, back to earlier times.  Some of us may dream of becoming agrarian farmers ourselves, quoting classical poetry as we tend the vegetables, just as Robert Penn Warren's grandfather did.

It's interesting to think which poetry stream we swim in, although it may be hard for us to know, given that we're often paddling too hard to understand the nature of the water and the rest of the environment.  I thought of this idea a bit more when I came across this Harold Bloom quote at the the Poets.org site:  "At their strongest, Warren's poems win their contest with the American Sublime and find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant, Emersonian tradition."  That's high praise! 

When you need a daydreaming moment today, think about what Harold Bloom would say about your work, and where it fits into various literary traditions. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Manuscript Revision and Retreats

This morning, I did a bit of revising of the memoir manuscript.  I'd like to have it into solid form by Labor Day. 

What does solid form mean?  All of the blog posts revised into stand-alone essays.  A book manuscript, ready for one last revising and editing.  Close enough to being done that I could consult agents.

I have been trying a different approach to my writing mornings this past week.  On mornings when I have time to do more than one writing task, I do the memoir revising first.  Then I turn my attention to blog posts.

Of course, my approach to the book writing/revising is very old-fashioned.  I came across this blog post, where Rich Melheim has a completely different approach, one that employs social media in interesting ways that builds buzz and also garners feedback along the way.

I should also revisit my poetry manuscript at some point.

My essential problem, and one that many of us have, I'm guessing, is that many of my poems could be grouped together into a book. It's now been several years (7 or so, actually) since I last revised the manuscript, and in the intervening time, I've written poems that would fit with the other poems, and many of the newer poems are stronger.

Do I revise? Do I just compile a new manuscript, as if older manuscripts had never existed? It's hard to approach it all with fresh eyes.

I find myself yearning for three kinds of retreats.  One is a writer's retreat, a longer retreat than the quick week-ends I sometimes take.  I get so much done on those two week-end days that I wonder what a week-long or month-long retreat would birth.  I imagine having long stretches of time to revise and compose and think about a different approach--and then time the next morning to actually make some of the changes, while it's still fresh on my mind.

And then there's the kind of retreat which is really a vacation, where I sit by a pool and sip tropical drinks while reading my way through a pile of delightful books.

And the idea of a spiritual retreat is never far from my head.  I wrote this piece which just posted at the Living Lutheran site which says more about that.

But no time for retreats today.  It's off to work, and then back home, where we have the treat of a 24 hour visit from in-laws who are visiting various family members in Florida.  We're the furthest away, so I'm honored that they're making the effort.

Their visit will be a kind of retreat, but the kind that's all too familiar lately--too short, over too fast.

But a short retreat is better than no retreat.

Monday, April 22, 2013

April, when We Long to Go on Pilgrimage

On Friday night, before the Hobo Code Poetry reading, we talked about the whole hobo ethic.  One friend completely doubted that ANYONE would have chosen that life.  She said that the Great Depression FORCED people into that life, which was true of a certain segment of the hobo population.

I said, "Haven't you ever wanted to just sell everything you own, buy an RV, and take off to see the nation?"

One friend (the doubter) looked at me in horror, while the other nodded enthusiastically.  She pointed out that I'd be travelling with a house, essentially, so I'd be sheltered in all sorts of ways that hobos weren't.  She said, "And you wouldn't be stopping to work."

I said, "Maybe I would.  I would stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder house and get a job where I'd show people around."

And then some hilarity ensued as we tried to imagine what we'd say.  "Stand at this window and close your eyes and experience the blindness of Mary.  Run your fingers across this braille."

Does such a place exist?  I don't know, but I'd love to work there, if I needed a bit of extra cash.  Me and multiple generations of women who read those books as girls.  Or maybe it's my inner drama major who wants a job where I can dress up in a costume from a different time period.  Or maybe it's because of the brilliant episode of Parks and Rec that I saw on Thursday night when Leslie made a bet about who could last longest living the way that people did in the 19th century.  It was hilarious.

Laura Ingalls Wilder became one of those topics that we returned to throughout the night.  One friend is reading the series again.  I found myself envying her.  Of course, I, too, own the series; I could read them all again.

What I'd really like is to read more about the Ingalls family.  I've gotten some sense of the reality of their lives, as I've come across more facts about that time period and the westward expansion, and I've written a bit about that before on this blog.  For example, when I was young, I was so angry that I had missed the time of the Homestead Exemption when I could have gotten a chunk of land for free had I just managed to farm on it for 5 years.

In later years, I'd learn how hard it was to do that:  60-70 % of Homesteaders failed, either because they couldn't make the land produce or because they died (harsh disease, harsh weather, harsh natives) or because they fled back to the East because of the intense hardship or the intense loneliness.

So yes, I'd buy that RV and go on the Laura Ingalls Wilder trail.  Again, does such a thing exist?  Probably not, but it should.  I think of all the authors who have influenced me who have come from the Dakotas.  What does it mean that I LOVED Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child, and then, in my early 30's, I LOVED Kathleen Norris?  I could perhaps write an interesting essay, academic or popular, about the Dakotas sensibility and its influence on American writing.  But I won't do that right now.

My spouse is still under the spell of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and would love to follow the path of that cattle drive--but without the cattle.  Instead of an RV, he'd like to do it on motorcycles, the modern answer to a good horse.

But for now, I have a job that pays well and provides benefits, so I won't be buying that RV or a pair of motorcycles.  It may well be the last full-time job I ever get--full-time jobs seem to be disappearing from the landscape the way that buffalo once did.  I'll read the Dakota writers whom I love and satisfy my wanderlust that way.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"We Are All Hobos Today"*

After the Hobo Code Poetry reading, we spent some time trying to think about what made it so successful.  Is there something about this particular time in history?  The Great Depression speaks to us here, almost 100 years later, so many of us teetering on economic precipes.

Is it the appeal of dressing up? 

What I think made it most successful was the ground rules.  We had several pages of signs that hobos developed to communicate subtly with each other:  chalk on a fence post that told if a house was safe, a symbol on a town's sign that told if a town would be receptive or homicidal.  It's graffitti of a different era.

And below, you see our works on the wall.  Imagine 6-7 rows of these pages.

Here's a close up of mine (a reminder that you can see the whole project here; my poem is on page 13; the different symbols are on pages 6 and 7):

I had been writing a piece about St. Brigid, and the Gospels are never too far from my brain.  All those images came together, along with the idea of Mulligan Stew, where everyone throws what they have into the stew pot--hence the potato and the carrot making the cross shape which signified that you could get food if you talked Christian talk.

We could have had Mulligan Stew too:

What I liked about this poetry reading is that we had a variety of types of poems:  limericks, thoughtful meditations on the meaning of home and warm meals, Hansel and Gretel as seen through the lessons of hobohood, light-hearted salutes to life on the rails.  The project involves a variety of writers, from people who have published many books to writers producing their first poem.

And because of the constraints, based on the poem alone, I couldn't tell who was who.  My poem wasn't one I would have considered one of my best.  And yet, when I read it on Friday, for the first time in several months, I thought, well, this isn't bad, exactly.

My frustration with many poetry readings that have so many poets is that it's so easy to get bogged down in poems that are too personal--meaningful only to the writer.  I loved that the hobo theme gave us a way to anchor our work.  You could still write about your cat, but you had to tie it to the larger theme.

It even led to other art forms.  One poet made this collage:

Suddenly I'm thinking of all the themes that are out there, all the historical periods that might lend themselves to this kind of project, all the grant money that might be available.

But mostly, I'm happy to have had such a good experience, the kind that makes me happy to be here.

*Title of this blog piece is a line from "Angel in the Dark" by Donna Ragland-Greene (on p. 35 of the project PDF).

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hobo Code Poetry Reading: The Short Overview

The Hobo Code Poetry reading was enormously fun.  I'm running out of time this morning, so today I'll post a simple write up, and tomorrow, I'll write a more meditative post with pictures.

I had never been to Studio 18 in the Pines, but I knew it was a gallery.  I was expecting a gallery/gift shop in a strip mall, the kind of place where you can pick up a card for your grandmother, a Yankee Candle, and a tasteful watercolor picture of a beach scene or maybe a lightcatcher ornament kind of thing.

Boy, was I wrong!

As we made our way through to the site, we drove past a sign that said "State Hospital."  What kind of hospital?  The state still funds hospitals?  We thought it might be the VA Hospital, which I knew was in the vicinity but I'd never seen before.

We circled around the grounds which had more resemblance to a military base than anything else:  squat buildings built of cinderblock, covered in paint in that color of yellow that you can buy in bulk at a very cheap price.  Buildings in rows that looked like dorms or cellblocks.  I said, "What kind of gallery is this?"  We drove past huge propane tanks, taller than me.  I could not figure out where we were headed.  We had seen a sign but couldn't figure out how to get there.

Finally, we wound our way to the entrance.  When we walked in, it was clear that we were in a space for working artists--18 spaces to be exact, and  lots of wall space for shows.

One of the walls was dedicated to our poems, sheet after sheet of poems.  How cool!  The walls were surrounded by tables with artifacts from real hobos.

We walked around the gallery admiring the art.  One of the artists with a photography studio took our pictures.  We could have had delicious food, if we hadn't already eaten.  I admired the hobo costumes sported by so many of us--even the photographer's assistant got into the spirit!

And then, the reading:  about 18 of us read.  I was surprised by the variety of the types of poems:  limericks, thoughtful meditations on the meaning of home and warm meals, Hansel and Gretel as seen through the lessons of hobohood, light-hearted salutes to life on the rails.  Very intriguing.

After that, we mingled a bit more.  There was a spirit of camaraderie.  We had plenty of food to eat.  We went back to read the poems that were posted on the wall.  Some of them are so different on the page.

In short, it was a wonderful night.  Tomorrow I'll write a post on some of the elements that made it wonderful in ways different from other readings.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Hobo Code Poetry Reading Tonight

Regular readers of this blog may remember that in January, I went to a workshop at the public library, which I wrote about in this blog post.  We were working with symbols used by hobos during the Great Depression as they travelled the country.  We created poems.  We were invited to participate in 2 events for April, National Poetry Month.

Tonight is one of those events: the Hobo Code Poetry reading at Studio 18 in the Pines (1101 Poinciana Dr. Pembroke Pines, FL 33025).

We have been encouraged to dress in hobo clothes.  I feel a bit conflicted about that, since we live in a time and place where we have lots of homeless folks.  I've had friends and colleagues react in a variety of ways:  some are intrigued, some are shocked by appropriating someone else's culture, some have wondered if we'd be seen as mocking the homeless, and some people have thought it would be fun.

I finally decided that I'm at peace with this project because an original hobo, Fran, the Hobo Minstrel (website here), a man who has dedicated his life to preserving this culture, is happy that we're doing it.  And I love that children have been involved.  I love that the first reading was at a park, and that the workshops were at the library.  I love bringing poetry to the community in all sorts of ways, and I love that Broward County still has some money to keep the libraries and parks open and a bit of money to support poetry.

I plan to make some sticks with fabric at the end, the item used by hobos to carry possessions.  I wasn't going to dress like a hobo, but I do have a pair of pants with a heart-shaped patch on the knee.  Not my usual poetry reading outfit, but I think I'll wear it.

The two friends who went with me to the writing workshop at the library are going to participate.  We will eat dinner at an all-you-can-eat sushi place at 5, and then we'll head on over to the gallery.

I'm not sure what to expect.  There will be time to mingle before the reading starts at 6:30.  There will be hobo type food.  My poem is based on the idea of Mulligan stew, the sustenance possible when everyone shares scant resources.

If you can't come, you can still see our poems and read the background information.  The complete project is online here.

I'll take pictures and post a write-up tomorrow.

From a press release:

A free poetry reading will be held for the community from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. on Friday, April 19, 2013, at Studio 18. Hobo style Mulligan stew and light refreshments will be served and live entertainment of Hobo style music utilizing acoustic guitar and harmonica will create an enjoyable atmosphere. Everyone is encouraged to “dress hobo style.”

“The Hobo Code installation is great opportunity for children and adults to learn about the different symbols Hobos would use to communicate with each other,” said Robyn Vegas, Cultural Arts Coordinator for the City of Pembroke Pines.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Making Wedding Dresses, Making Metaphors

Yesterday I touched base with one of my poet friends.  We plan to go to the Richard Blanco reading on April 29 (it's at the public library at the South campus of Broward College, at 7:30, if you're in town and interested).

I said, "It will be a great way to end National Poetry Month.  I need to do something."

She said, "I'm sure you've written a lot of poems."

How touching, her faith in me!  Sadly, in this month when many people are writing a poem a day, I have written precisely 3.  Better than writing no poems, true, but not where I'd like to be.

Of course, I'm never where I want to be.

If you find yourself needing inspiration, try this exercise that Kelli presents in this post on her blog.  I had great fun with the How to Make a Wedding Dress possibility.  Perhaps I shall go back and do more with the different types of fabric.  Or maybe I'll move on.

I've been thinking about metaphor and how we teach metaphor.  Or does it need to be taught?  Do we not intuitively understand metaphor?

I ask this because of an experience I had on Sunday morning which I wrote about in this blog post.  In our service that's more committed to creativity, we sent everyone out to see where they saw signs of Jesus.

Sure, you say it would be easy.  It's a church, after all.  We're surrounded by signs and signifiers, as we used to say in grad school.

But look at the picture of the spiderweb below.  Where do you see Jesus?

The pre-teen who took this picture explained, "It's sticky, and like a spiderweb, Jesus sticks with you."

Does this child need additional instruction in metaphor?  Nope--she's ready for poetry.

The photo below is more obvious.  But it's my favorite of all the ones taken on Sunday.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Inspiration Nuggets from the News

I have a variety of things on my mind this morning, but not as much time to write.  Still, I want to collect them.  Maybe I'll expand them later, or maybe these nuggets will be enough.  I'll put my thoughts inspired by reports about bombs and bombers at the end, in case people want to avoid those.  I'll also use headings.

The Democracy of Running

I've been hearing a lot about the democracy of running in general, and marathons in particular.  In many ways, it's true.  I've met many a person who trained and completed a marathon from a starting point of zero.  It costs very little to enter a marathon, especially compared to other events that are theoretically open to all, like the U.S. Open.  Some marathons are so popular that you need a qualifying time from a different marathon, but it's democratic--if you can provide the results, you get to run.

The Democracy of Art

Are all art forms similarly democratic?  Or is the price of admission too high for some of them?  There are paints priced at bargain rates, and writers could do a lot with a ream of paper and a pen.  But some art forms need a huge space in which to work--that could be prohibitive.  Some equipment is out of the reach of some of us.

Being a Poet, Being a Marathoner

Is a poet the marathoner of the arts?  We enter the field knowing that we're not likely to make our living from doing it, although poetry may open some doors to other opportunities.  Likewise, unless we happen to be a speedy Kenyan, most of us will never make money from running marathons.

Like marathoners, poets must be committed for the long haul.  Few will understand what motivates us.  Just as marathoners must log lots of lonely miles, most poets, too, will work in solitary quarters for many years before anyone notices what they're doing--if anyone notices.

The Art of Police Investigations

I heard a police investigator say that the worst mistake one could make in an investigation is to assume you know what's happened before you really do.  The evidence should point you in the way that you should go.

That's so different from my life as an academic, where I come up with a point I want to prove and then go out and look for literary examples to prove my point.

It has occurred to me that I might have been a more successful academic if I had approached my intellectual life the way the police investigator approaches a crime scene.

Segregation Then, Segregation Now

Thinking about King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" made me think of my own grandfather, who could have been one of those white clergymen that King addressed.  During the 50's and 60's, my grandfather was the Lutheran pastor of a church in a small town in South Carolina.  The white pastors talked about what they'd do if a black person ever came to church.

I need to talk to my mom who first told me the story.  I'm fairly sure that she and her dad disagreed about what should be done.  I'm pretty sure my grandfather would have counseled patience and not getting up in people's faces about social change.

Some of you may not be able to comprehend the idea that a black person worshipping with white people could upend the whole social order.  Indeed many of us are part of churches that wrestle with how to be more inclusive.

Yet, I would argue that all efforts towards inclusivity would stop the minute a transgendered person showed up--especially a transgendered person who is still in transition.  Most of us are still not comfortable with that.

Jesus would be.  Jesus spent time with the outcast, after all.  Once, I wrote these lines as I imagined Jesus in a modern church:

Jesus prefers to sit with the pre-op
transsexual, to talk about the difficulty
of finding attractive women’s clothes
in larger sizes.

Bomb Making as Do It Yourself Project

I've been listening to talk of bomb making and the online forums in which people trade directions and tips.  I had a sudden strange vision of an Etsy site for bombmakers. 

It's probably not that absurd.

The Anarchist's Cookbook

Before the Internet was widely accessible, there was The Anarchist's Cookbook, which gave information about incendiary devices.

In 1994, I last saw a copy of this book in a feminist bookstore that carried used books.  I was tempted to buy it, just as a curiosity.  I liked its DIY approach, even as I was somewhat horrified by the subject matter.  Now all of that information is widely available.

Terrorism Then, Terrorism Now

It may feel like we're subject to more terrorist attacks these days, but we're really not.  Go back to the late 60's and early 70's.  During many weeks, there were several terrorist attacks a week.  Of course, those bombings were often planned to be symbolic, with the intent that no humans be hurt.  Clearly the Boston bomber(s) had different intentions.

Weather Underground

For a great movie with insights into what makes ordinary people turn to terrorism, check out the documentary Weather Underground.


I've been hearing people talk about the bombmaker's signature.  I'm enchanted by that term, but repulsed by what it means.

I've thought of other kinds of signatures:  time signatures, how we sign our names.  Is a poem brewing?

I've thought of our poems as our signatures.  What do they say about us?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bombs: Boston and Birmingham

I have spent many formative years running road races.  I've run neighborhood 3 mile events and more 10Ks than I can count.  I've done the Army 10 miler once, and the Kiawah Island half-marathon once.  I've been at numerous finish lines cheering for loved ones and everyone running around them.  My dad just finished 2nd in his age division (70-75) in the Cherry Blossom 10 miler on April 7. 

When I first started running, back in 1980, I didn't know many marathoners, and the ones I knew were male and young and just out of college where they'd run track and field.  When I first started running, women didn't run the marathon in the Olympics--that event was first added for the 1984 Games.  The world has changed--in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse.  In all my running years, I worried more about my body failing or being attacked as I logged my miles in the early morning.  Now, we may have had a new worry added.

Yesterday, when I heard about bombs at the Boston Marathon, my first thought was, is it that time of year already?  Once upon a time, the calendar of road races and track and field ran alongside the regular calendar in my head, a different liturgical pattern.  And then I felt sick and sad.

Those of us who have spent time around road races know that they're vulnerable events:  runners move through city streets cheered on by people who really can't be screened.  It's not like going to watch a baseball game.

I hope we don't decide to cancel a lot of events. I hope we decide that some things are worth the risk. Marathons teach us to be brave and to attempt things we never thought we could do. We can't turn into scared mice who refuse to leave the house.

Today may be a day when many of us struggle to feel hopeful.  It's a week of grim anniversaries:  the Virginia Tech shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings.

Let me remind us all of a more positive anniversary.  On this day, in 1963, Martin Luther King wrote his influential "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  Go here to read it and be impressed.  Here's a taste:  "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

This letter didn't change the world immediately.  In fact, it took months before a critical mass of people became aware of it.  But it is one of the documents of the Civil Rights movement and of U.S. history that changed the trajectory.

We live in a more just world because of that letter.  It was a bomb of a different sort.

We all have choices to make each and every day.  Some actions will move the world towards peace, towards justice, towards love.  Others will move the world towards terror, towards fear, towards hate.

Like marathoners, like Civil Rights workers, we are in training for a much larger event, maybe larger than we realize right now.  In days like these, it's important to continue to commit ourselves to love, courage, and peace.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Let "Unexplained Fevers" Infect You

Here it is April 15.  Income taxes are due, if you haven't yet gotten around to it.  But you don't need me to tell you that.

It's also the halfway point of National Poetry Month.  I haven't done as much to celebrate as I do some years.  I'm not writing a poem a day, as I have in some years.  I haven't read as many new poetry books, as I have in some years.

But the good news:  it's not too late!

If you need a boost to your poetry or a reward for getting through tax day, let me recommend Jeannine Hall Gailey's newest book, Unexplained Fevers, just out from New Binary Press.  A week ago, when we returned from the creativity retreat, the book was waiting.  I consumed it all in one sitting.  Through the week I've gone back to savor it.

Gailey returns to the world of Western fairy tales for inspiration and what enchanting spells of poems she casts from them. We see Red Riding Hood at the car dealership and Sleeping Beauty undergoing an MRI.

Gailey does far more than updating fairy tales into modern situations however. I love the poems where she weaves Biblical imagery with the fairy tale roots. Don't miss "The Princess Becomes a Prophet."  She uses imagery of John the Baptist, and the poem makes me not only want to write poems of my own, but create mixed media creations of the haunting angels that she depicts.

I found myself returning to the poems that used imagery from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," a fairy tale that's haunted me since I first read it as a child.  My favorite:  "The Princess Turns to the Sea."  I love this picture of a mermaid turned human who lives on a northern shore, baking bread for otters, seagulls and rats, swimming with seals in a sea so cold that it turns her skin blue.

Just as fairy tales do, these poems analyze the society in which we're all rooted.  And the poems analyze fairy tales too, along with other pop culture narratives.  In "Advice Left Between the Pages of Grimms' Fairy Tales," we get this piece of advice:  "Forget the sword and the magic stone, / forget enchantments and focus on the profit margin, / the hard line.  Read the subtext."

These lines demonstrate what I most love about Gailey's poems.  I typed those line, and it was the first time I took in the part about the profit margin.  Hmmm.  Are profit margins a different kind of fairy tale?  What does Gaily really mean?  I'll ponder this one off and on all day.

In this way, her poems are both accessible and haunting.  I know that some may object to the term "accessible," but I mean it as the highest compliment.  I could give this book to a reader who claims not to understand poetry, and that reader would be fine.  

But there's much to ponder here.  These are not accessible poems that leave you alone.  I found myself chewing over lines and images long after I first read the poem and understood it.

If you loved her first book, be sure to add this one to your list of must-reads. And if you have yet to discover this wonderful poet, you're in for a treat.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

How Can We Keep from Singing?

Last night, I went to a fascinating dinner where Rich Melheim was the guest of honor.  I expect to write a post or two about him in the coming weeks; today, we spend the whole day with him, so I expect to have more to say. 

Over dinner last night, we talked about technology, time, sleep, and how to be effective families, whether we have children or not.  Melheim has done a lot of studying of neurology.  Some of what he brought up was familiar to me, like the importance of exercise to creativity and problem solving.  Some of it was not.  Did you know that your brain produces the most neurons between hours 6 and 8 of sleep?  Me neither.

So, what does it mean if we only get 5 hours of sleep a night?  We should probably get more.

I was lucky in that I was part of a small group.  Two of us had other evening commitments so the time of the dinner was moved back to 5 p.m. so that we could participate more fully.  I enjoyed my 2 hours and 20 minutes, and then I went over to the Central campus of Broward College to enjoy the spring concert of the Broward Chorale.

My spouse has been singing with the group for two semesters now, and what a neat experience it has been.  The Chorale group is like a church choir, in that anyone can participate, regardless of musical skill or talent.  I have been to two concerts now, and I'm amazed at the fabulous concert possible, given the range of the talent and the fact that people have worked on the material for just one evening a week.

Last night was even more impressive than the holiday concert back in December, which I wrote about in this post.  The group sang a varied collection of folk music from around the world; they sang in 9 different languages, and with some pieces, wondrous musical instruments accompanied them.

My spouse always makes practice CDs from concert clips that he finds on YouTube, and then he spends months singing along.  Our car trips mix NPR, practice music, and CDs that we've both loved in the past.

Last night I was intrigued to realize how much better the music sounds live.  Not an astounding revelation, I know.  But one of the practice pieces, from La Traviata, was sung by Pavarotti.  It sounded SO much better sung by the Chorale's tenor lead.  Of course, I'm one of the few humans who doesn't much care for Pavarotti.

Last night I also marvelled at this community resource, the performing arts center at a community college.  Last night's concert was the quality of many a professional concert that I've been to, but it cost much less ($8 a ticket--what a value!).  And it amazes me to think about the performing arts center, which isn't decorated as elaborately as some of the ones that have been built later, but it's perfectly functional, and so much more than most community colleges have.  Our community college has a planetarium too.

I know that our community college isn't typical, but it did make me mourn the loss of that enthusiasm for learning that fueled the building and subsequent growth of so many community colleges across the nation in the 1960's and 1970's.  It's tough for me now, being in a time of compression and shrinking.

Let me hasten to add that it's only the funding that's compressing and shrinking.  We have more students than ever who need what a community college, or other kinds of higher education for that matter.  But we don't have the commitment to funding that we had in earlier decades.

I thought of all the changes that this community college has seen, and not just funding challenges.  The school now offers several B.A. and B.S. degrees, so technically, it's no longer a community college (although the music stands are still have a big, white BCC painted on them).

I sat beside two older men (at least in their early 60's).  I first saw their wedding rings and assumed that they were two friends out together.  Perhaps they were relatives of the same Chorale member.  After all, the audience is mostly comprised of students who come for extra credit and family members.  But as the evening progressed, the two men were more open about holding hands, and I realized that they're a couple.  Or they're two men married to women who are having a secret affair--but I like the idea that they're a gay couple much better.

Again, I'm in a different part of the country, and I know I'm more likely to see an elderly gay couple out for the evening down here than I am elsewhere.  But it made me observe a minute of gratitude that they felt comfortable expressing their love outwardly that way.  Even in a darkened theater, it's not always safe, but it is getting safer.

So, today will be an interesting day in a different way.  We spend the day with Rich Melheim.  He's preaching at 3 services at church and then leading an afternoon workshop and then there's an evening comedy kind of event.  I'm not sure what to expect, but I do expect to return home with much to write about in the coming days.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

What's Your Sign: Flowers in the Interstate, Buildings Holding us Hostage

When I was a teacher, I could predict which weeks would be rough, full of student melt-downs and lots of grading to do.  I miss that predictability.

As an administrator, I can no longer know what the week is likely to bring.  I expected this past week to be relatively calm, but it was a week that made me continually check the calendar:  it's only week 2 in the quarter?  Why does it feel like the end?

In addition, a roofing project at church that was supposed to have cost $4000 and been done in 3 days has mushroomed into something much larger.  I am church council president, and thus, I can't just shrug my shoulders and say, "Whatever y'all decide is fine with me."

I could write a long diatribe about how our buildings hold us captive--and I have written variations of that topic over at my theology blog.  I could write a long essay about how Jesus did not come to earth to give us church buildings to take care of and shepherd.

I also know that previous generations have left this legacy, and they would be shocked to know that I feel this way.  How long did some generations yearn for a space to call their own?  How many pennies were saved?

Still, I plan to write a poem some day based on Psalm 137, with the building being the captor who demands a song of Zion.  Could I pull it off?

Maybe I'll set it to a bouncy reggae beat and it will be a big hit and I will get enough money to both pay for the roof and to remodel the building to make it more functional for 21st century uses and have enough money left over to feed all the poor in Broward county.

Maybe no one would remember that someone else has already put reggae beats to this Psalm and released it-- several groups, in fact.  Hey, it's time for a new version!

But in the meantime, there is joy to be found.  Yesterday, finally, was a quiet day at the office.  This week-end, our church hosts Rich Melheim of Faith Inkubators, a group that's doing some interesting Christian curriculum experiments.

The story of Faith Inkubators is a story that cheers me on, a story of a company founded with a vision of a better way of faith formation, and the vision carrying the group through the days of using their own credit cards to fund the publishing efforts and ultimate success.  So many of us are doing the same thing in so many arenas that I love bringing success stories to us all.

Soon, I will make a variety of bar cookies and sweet iced tea for the week-end events.  A potluck dinner--it's still one of the joys of being church.

You could argue that Jesus Christ did not come to earth to give us potluck suppers either, but I would tell you to go back and read the Gospels.  The God depicted in those texts is a creator who makes meals of all sorts, whether by multiplying loaves and fishes or by making a barbecue breakfast on the beach.  Sometimes he invites the whole crowd and sometimes it's a smaller gathering.

Last night, we drove home from our meeting with the church member who's been in charge of building issues, the man who can go no further until we make some money decisions, the man who returns north for 6 months and hopes to come back to find a repaired church.  My spouse and I alternated between despair and hope.

My spouse talked about his habit of looking at the palm trees when he needed to feel a boost.  His whole life he's wanted to live in a place where he could watch the palm trees, and now he does!

I often complain about living in a place of pavement and concrete.  But it's also a place of hibiscus and bougainvillea--much as I miss hydrangeas and azaleas.

Last night, as I drove home from work and came to a halt in the late rush hour traffic, I noticed some dirt with flowers growing out of it, right in the middle of the road reconstruction site.  No dirt for miles on either side--but there was a patch with bunches of flowers.

Did some ecoterrorist group bring it in to make a point?  Did construction workers do it to beautify their work place?  How did it get there?  It's not like it was growing there before, soon to be destroyed.  Several lanes of traffic was all that existed there before.

I took it as a sign, a wink from some creative type.  I wrote a gratitude haiku:

Land of paved gardens
Flowers grow in road asphalt
Life cracks the concrete

May signs of hope continually crack the concrete!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Arts Meditation with Clay

A week ago, we'd have been getting ready for our Friday night experience.  On Thursday, we'd have done our arts meditation and the clay would be drying.  By Friday night, we could carry our creations in a candlelit procession down the mountain.

What did we make?  Pinch pot candle holders.

On our car trip to North Carolina, the passenger made the meditation kits (directions are below, if you want to make them for a larger group).

I loved dividing the 5 pounds of clay into smaller lumps.  I found it oddly soothing.  I tried making a pinch pot or two.  They looked misshapen.

It was quite a contrast to our arts meditation that ended our first night session.  We took the clay in our hands and closed our eyes.  Our leader led us through the clay shaping process, while reminding us of how we're being shaped like clay.  In so many ways are we being shaped like clay:  in our relationships, with our art, at work, by way of our various disciplines (spiritual, physical, educational).

Here's the big surprise for me:  the pot I shaped with my eyes closed was much more shapely and pleasing to the eye than the ones I made with my eyes open.

That result wasn't a surprise to my friend who makes her living as a potter.  She said that vision often gets in the way.  When we close our eyes, we can work with the clay that we have, not the clay that we think we should have.  Our hands are better guides to what pleases in terms of shape, smoothness, balance, and all the rest.

Seems like a metaphor for much of life to me! 

And the exercise seems like it would be a good one for classes of all kinds.  You could do this with a creative writing class and ponder how our senses might get in our way and how to get out of our way.  You could do this with a composition class and have the students write a process paper or a paper that describes the experience of working with the clay. 

When I was the Vacation Bible School Arts and Crafts Leader last summer, I found that kids of all ages loved working with clay.  I suspect the same would be true of students of all kinds.


Directions for assembling meditation kits:

What You Need:

Sandwich bags that zip
Crayola Air Dry Clay (5 pounds = 30-40 kits)
Thick wet wipes (not the pop-up kind)
tea light candles

The meditation kit consists of a sandwich size baggie with a small ball of
clay on one side of the baggie and two wet wipes, a tea-light candle and a
toothpick on the other side - with the baggie twisted or taped/tied in between -
so that the wipes stay clean & wet (otherwise the clay will soak up their
moisture).  I put the wet wipes in one zip-lock baggie and added it to another baggie
that contained everything else.

It does not need to be a lot of clay. The ball should be about the size that
would fit into the opening made if you touch your thumb to your index finger. At
least for me, that much clay easily makes a nice pinch pot that fits a tea light
candle inside with not a lot of extra clay to worry what to do with... The wet
wipes have to be the thick kind - not the "pop up" kind. They dry out too fast.

Now for the complication: the kits probably can't be made more than a week
ahead or they'll dry out - and even then you'd need to squeeze out as much air
as possible to keep the clay soft and the wipes wet. To be on the safe side, you could
put the meditation kits in another plastic bag or container.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Thursday Threads: Clay, Turkish Prayer Rugs, Accidental Soup, and Bloomings

Once again, we get to a Thursday where I have more threads than one unified cloth.  Let's see what happens.

--A week ago, I was making meditation kits (more on this tomorrow).  It required me to take 5 pounds of air dry clay and turn them into small lumps the size of a really large strawberry.  I found it very soothing to do that.  It's similar to gardening, which I wrote about yesterday in this post.  So if you're longing to garden, but you can't, get your fingers into some clay.

--Yesterday's post also talked about prayer flags, which I keep thinking about.  Could one create prayer flags with children?  I'm already on the lookout for good arts and crafts projects for Vacation Bible School.  I love the idea, but I wonder if parents would object to a discussion of Tibetan Buddhism as background to prayer flags.

--But hey, I'm a big believer in ecumenical outreach and education.  Today I wrote this blog piece for my theology blog on the travels of my Turkish Muslim prayer rug.  It includes a photo of an altar lit with dozens of candles, and that picture captures the glow.  I wish I could take credit for it, but it was taken by a different participant (Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn?  I found it on her Facebook site, but that doesn't guarantee it's hers).

--While I was away, Roger Ebert died.  I'm still processing this reality.  Linda Holmes expresses the strangeness of it all in this blog post.  I particularly love this quote:  "The irony is that it all feels so personally sad. It feels so personally, profoundly awful and unfair, and I feel it with the grief nerves, not just the admiration nerves, because people whose books you destroy from overuse as a 16-year-old, you will grieve when they die as if you knew them, whether they are novelists or critics. But still, after all that, I was doing all right until I remembered that he's not going to write about any more movies. And I'm still not ready for that."

--I'm making an accidental soup which smells so good that I may make it again on purpose.  I had grilled cauliflower and grilled peppers from a week and a half ago, both of which have texture issues.  The cauliflower is too hard, and the peppers are too slimy to eat by themselves.  So, I've put them in a pot along with some potatoes and spices:  basil, oregano, cumin, garlic, onion, and a bit of cocoa.  I'll grind it all up in the blender and send it back to the pot with grated cheddar.  Yum.

--All my D.C. friends are posting pictures of cherry blossoms.  I always feel a stab of envy, and then my competitive streak shows up.  I want to post bougainvillea blossoms.  I want to show everyone the mangoes ripening.  I'm resisting this impulse.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Prayer Flags and the Smell of Dirt

It's a soft morning down here on the southern tip of the U.S.:  warm but not hot, slightly moist but not humid.  April is the month when our weather is often in sync with the rest of the country, although this April, Winter seems to keep stalking the upper 48.  Last week I was driving through a cold rain slicked with sleet--not weather we usually experience down here in South Florida.

It's the kind of weather that makes me want to plunge my hands into dirt.  Instead, I'll go inspect the container garden that we've been nursing.  Just before my spouse's back surgery, I helped transplant seedlings, so I'm happy to see them keep growing.  We've got a lot of baby tomatoes, which I'm hoping will ripen before the really hot weather gets here.

Yes, we've got a different growing season down here.  Most people are in the middle or at the end of harvesting their tomato harvests right now.  It's almost impossible to grow traditional Southern crops (tomatoes, corn, peppers) down here in the summer--the light is too intense, even though the temperatures are similar to the ones that graced my ancestors in South Carolina and Tennessee with bountiful harvests each summer.

When we got back from our latest southeast driving trip, one of our tomatoes had ripened.  We had the best tomato sandwich ever!  We've grown all sorts of cherry tomatoes with success, but never managed to bring a full-size tomato to maturity.

Have you heard of an Everglades tomato?  It's teeny-tiny, but full of intense flavor.  We've grown several harvests full of them.  They're labor intensive to pluck, because they're so tiny.

At our recent creativity retreat, I talked to a woman who's created a variation of Tibetan prayer flags.  She writes prayers on tulle fabric.  She ties them to a pieces of lattice in her garden, and she takes great joy in seeing them flutter in the breeze.  The fluttering reminds her to pray.

I've wondered about this practice and how we might use it for non-prayer purposes.  We could write our wishes for our creative work on tulle or write our problems for which we need solutions.  We could write our dreams and visions, our hopes for what we'd like to see in our lives.

If we write them out, we may find ourselves able to release the anxiety that often comes from our unacknowledged needs or our inability to find solutions.  If we tie the tulle in places where we'll see them, we can be reminded of both our goals and our wildest dreams.  We may be more likely to stay focused with this kind of reminder.

I was thinking of this approach as I drove through the Florida morning on Monday.  All of a sudden, I smelled that wonderful smell of fresh-turned earth.  I thought of all the gardens I'll never have.  I thought of the rich dirt that I used to take for granted until I moved down here, where my yard was once sea bed.

I reminded myself that what I was smelling was likely land development, not gardening.  That reminder took me to a poem I wrote after a similar experience when I ran down the Broadwalk by the beach and whiffed the loamy smell.  But I was smelling the destruction of a quirky old hotel, not the planting of a garden.  Sigh.

The poem is part of what I'm thinking of as my Ash Wednesday series.  It first appeared here in Hobble Creek Review.

Ash Wednesday on I95 South

Of flowers, I sense a dearth.
It’s night, but I should smell them now.
Someone has been turning earth,
but with a bulldozer, not a plow.

Trees smolder in piles.
New housing developments will sprout
in their place. But there will be no smiles.
Concrete covers us all, there is no doubt.

Ash smudges our foreheads.
Ash frosts the windshield.
Ash across the country spreads.
The earthly process will not yield.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
All you love will turn to rust.

Before the poem was a sonnet, it was a non-formalist poem, which I'll paste below.  I was trying to generate enough poems for a formalist manuscript, so I spent a month or two back in the autumn of 2009 transforming non-formalist work into sonnets and villanelles and forms with a definite rhyme scheme.  It was an enchanted time, since I had always assumed I couldn't do much with form or rhyme.  Even though I still don't turn to form first, it was a great experience, and one I highly recommend.

Here's the non-formalist version.  Which do you prefer and why?  A good question, for both creative writing students and literature students.  If you're looking for an exercise with your students, feel free to use it.

Ash Wednesday on I 95 South

The scent of night blooming
jasmine, the smell of smoke.
Someone has been turning earth,
but with a bulldozer, not a plow.

Trees smolder in piles.
New housing developments will sprout
in their place. Concrete covers
clay, an ineffective bandage.

Ash smudges our foreheads.
Ash frosts the windshield.
Smoke obscures our vision.
Lust into dust, and all too soon.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Of Iron Women, Mouseketeers, and Juice-Stained Sundresses

We are back from Create in Me, the creativity and spirituality retreat that we go to every year.  It's not too early to plan for next year--join a great group the week-end after Easter to explore the intersections of creativity and spirituality.

I expect to write a bit more about the retreat in the days to come.  In terms of new art forms/mediums, I only discovered one:  I had great fun playing with alcohol inks.  They are completely impossible to control, which is part of the intrigue.

It was also wonderful to talk to people, many of whom I've been seeing regularly for 10 years now.  Ten years ago, I went to a Wild Women retreat with my mom and sister.  I found myself wanting to talk about work-life balance in terms of creative work, and found no one who was wrestling with that issue.  At the end of the retreat, Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn mentioned the Create in Me retreat.  I remember thinking, that's the one I should have gone to!  And then, I realized I still could, and I did--one of the better decisions I've made.  For more of those reflections, see the post I wrote today at my theology blog.

On our drive back yesterday, I heard of the death of Margaret Thatcher and Lilly Pulitzer.  Later in the day, I heard of the death of Annette Funicello.  Every so often there's a constellation of deaths that make me reflect on history and the changes wrought over a short period of time, or that make me think of the metaphor and symbol inherent in it all.  The deaths of Mother Theresa and Princess Diana in the same week in 1997 was such a time.  So was yesterday.

I was fascinated to hear about Lilly Pulitzer, who despite being an heiress, opened a juice stand.  She needed dresses that would camouflage the juice that ended up all over her clothes, and thus, a brand was born.  Soon, the dresses in tropical colors were more popular than the juice.

I've had a few of the dresses (ah, the preppy years of the late 70's and early 80's), and I'm as amazed at the softness of the cotton as I am at the colors that I wouldn't put together, but that work in a sundress. 

As an artist, I love these tales of happy accidents.  Lilly Pulitzer didn't set out to change the world of sundresses.  She was just working on the solution to a problem--and she stumbled upon something that the world didn't even realize it wanted.

I can't say as much about Annette Funicello, but she seems to belong to the sundress world too.  Like Lilly Pulitzer, she was somewhat contained by the world she lived in and the choices she made, but she worked within the boundaries.  I read about Disney requesting that she wear a one-piece swimsuit in the beach movies, or if she had to wear a bikini, to be sure that her naval was covered.  What a different time!

And then, there's Margaret Thatcher, a woman that I can't imagine ever wearing a sundress or a bikini.  I understand all the ways that she destroyed certain industries.  I know that her style was authoritarian.  No one would accuse her of inaction because she was building consensus.  But there's also something about her that I respect.  She had core values, to which she held firm.  She didn't adopt them just to get elected.

I also admire her for showing that a woman could rule a country.  You might argue that Golda Meir had already done that.  Both women opened doors that had been assumed could not be opened.

I've spent time away thinking of my own trajectory.  I've spent the last two weeks thinking about seminary.  If I never go to seminary, I imagine that my thoughts will always cycle around to seminary.  On the way to the retreat, in Thursday's steady, cold rain (with occasional sleet!), I prayed for discernment.

My dad had said he'd be praying for clarity for me, which always worries me a bit.  Clear marching instructions might include job loss or house fire.

I don't return home with that kind of clarity.  I still plan to ask some questions at Synod Assembly, in between sessions where we elect a Bishop.  But I did return home with cautionary tales.

The way we train church leadership as ELCA Lutherans is still somewhat mid-20th-century.  Lots of schooling that often requires relocation, not once, but twice.  I don't know if every Synod requires several years just out of seminary in a traditional parish, but many do.  That made sense in the 1950's, when staffing couldn't keep up with all the new churches being founded.  It doesn't make as much sense now.

I'll keep moving slowly towards an alternate career.  In the meantime, there's my memoir.  I am more convinced than ever that the subject matter is important: how do we live an authentic life, especially when we're at workplaces that may not always support our authentic expressions? I come home vowing to have the next draft finished by Labor Day. And then, perhaps by Christmas, a polished draft!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Writer as Miracle: Happy Birthday, Barbara Kingsolver!

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver. The story of how she moved from being an academic and a technical writer to a woman who makes a living as a creative writer has probably inspired tens of thousands of people.

She was pregnant and suffered insomnia. Her doctor suggested that she clean the bathrooms with a toothbrush, so that she had motivation to stay asleep. Instead, she decided to write what would become her first novel, The Bean Trees. She moved her typewriter into a closet so that she could write on her typewriter and her husband could sleep.

Notice that she had always been a writer. In addition to the academic and technical writing she had been doing as part of her work, she had been writing poems and short stories (for most of her whole life). But The Bean Trees catapulted her into popularity. She's continued to write fantastic novels and wonderful essays. I love how her novels weave themes of social justice into compelling plotlines with characters who are utterly believable.

I love her essays too. If I ever give up this South Florida life and move to a farm, her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle will be partly to blame. That book makes sustainable living sound doable.

Hardly a week goes by when I don't wonder if I'm living a good life, the kind of life that makes a difference to anyone.  Kingsolver's books show us ordinary people doing simple actions that tilt the trajectory of humanity towards a more just and humane future.  She assures us that we can all do these things.
If you've been having a similar time, where you wonder if anything you do is worth doing, here's a quote from Kingsolver to inspire you: "What a writer can do, what a fiction writer or a poet or an essay writer can do, is re-engage people with their own humanity. Fiction and essays can create empathy for the theoretical stranger."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Season of Alleluias and Assessment

A week ago, it would have been Easter. As I sat in church, at the second service, a poem idea bubbled up.

I thought of angel committees who are putting together an assessment document for God, who simply wants to hear the alleluias, without having to quantify their effectiveness.

Clearly, I may have been in the world of higher ed administration a touch too long.

Yet when I told one of my poet friends of this inspiration, she responded, "No no! Convince the Almighty about the value of clean columns and rows with detailed rubrics! After all, the Universe MUST NEEDS make quantitative sense! How else can we tell of its effectiveness?"

How sweet of my friend to give me words that the angel committee will use!

I think of God, lonely for the days when one could hear the alleluias so clearly, as they echoed across the universe. I think of God, surrounded by chatter and charts and numbers and rubrics for assessing the effectiveness of the alleluias and a matrix for assessing the accuracy of the rubrics.

It's the second Sunday in what should be the season of alleluias--but for many of us, it's assessment season.  Which one will win?

Friday, April 5, 2013

What to Read and Research when One Spends Holy Week Contemplating Seminary

A few days before I gathered my thoughts to write this post about an interesting new program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, I discovered the program by way of its website.  I wanted to know more, but I couldn't find some of the basic information on the website.

I came home Tuesday night last week feeling scattered.  I wanted to read about people who faced similar times of discernment, but most of my books about seminarians focus on the young.  No, I wanted a narrative about midlife.

Happily I remembered Nora Gallagher's Practicing Resurrection:  A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace.  I'd read it before, at least two other times, but it was perfect for last week.  The book deals with Gallagher's loss of her brother to cancer, and her journey towards the possibility of ordination in the Episcopal church.

She wrestles with the role of a priest and the role of the layperson.  She explores the idea of vocation, including the possibility that her writing might function as a priestly vocation.  Some of her struggles seemed familiar, and some don't seem quite as central in my thoughts.  I was most touched by her exploration of what her choices would mean for her husband, who didn't share her faith commitments.

She has many moments of discouragement, and in one passage, she remembers hiking near the mountain goats after she's been reading the book of Habukkuk.  She concludes the chapter by saying, "I will find small passages just wide enough for my feet" (p. 173).

It's a compelling book, even if the reader isn't thinking of seminary.  I highly recommend it.

Later, on Easter Saturday, I decided to do some online research.  Perhaps some of the other programs that had interested me long ago (Emory, Yale) might have developed online components. 

No such luck.  And I researched local schools.  If there's an M.Div. program within an easy driving distance of my house, I'm not finding it--although I do need to investigate St. Thomas U. further (not an easy drive, but within the tri-county area).  As far as I can tell, they're the only school with an M.Div. program down here in southeast Florida.  It doesn't seem like it could be true, down here where there are so many schools, but I think it is.

Next I must think about whether or not getting the M.Div. from a Lutheran institution trumps distance.  More on that in later months.  Right now, I'm not sure.

Holy Week seemed to be a week when many people I met were thinking about alternative or additional careers.  I talked about retreats with a colleague at work, and we wondered about having science retreats at church camps.  One set of friends has become enthralled with the idea of food trucks--it's a much cheaper, lower risk way to fulfill one's restaurant/chef dreams.  One of them only needs 3 more grad level Culinary classes to be able to teach, and he can take them for free through our school, which he plans to do.  I also had a lunch with friends who agree that the future of higher ed is quite shaky, at least as a way to a full-time job, and they're in the early stages of exploration.  Another friend has just come back from an education and technology conference, and she's convinced there's a future in being a content developer in those areas.  She's convinced that the technology changes are upon us, a wave crashing that will drown us, if we don't learn how to launch our surfboards.

It will be an interesting year or two as we all explore the possibilities.