Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Ghosts of Halloweens Past

--Today is the actual day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door.  For those of you who expected me to write about Reformation Day, you will not be disappointed.  You will just need to migrate to this post on the Living Lutheran site.

--The World Series came to an end last night, which means that we won't have to choose between Halloween and baseball.  I remember in 1979 or 1980, my grandparents on my mom's side were visiting us.  My grandfather watched every night of the Series while they were at our house--including Halloween.  My sister and I couldn't believe he'd rather watch baseball than go out trick-or-treating with us.

--Of course, I was in my early teens, so I wasn't really trick-or-treating--just supervising my younger sister.  I took a pillow case with me, just in case anyone wanted to give me candy too.  Most people did.

--Years before, when I was the kid trick-or-treating, I devised a witch costume.  I put my mom's green eye shadow all over my face.  I spent the next few days feeling itchy and looking slightly green.

--I had a similar experience years later in college when I dressed like a punk girl.  I put a green streak in my hair.  It took days to wash out.

--What do our costumes say about us?  I know that punk girl is close to my heart; she's emerged from costume attempts throughout the years.  I like her "I can do anything" approach to life.  I like her fearlessness.  I like that she stands up to authority that's abusing its power.  I want to be that girl.  I want to form a band with that girl so that she can teach me to play the guitar.

--I should write a life guide offered by your inner punk girl.  What would that look like?  A little book of short meditations.  Or a multimedia event that shows up at unexpected spots around the city.

--I will have to live to be 158 years old to fully explore all the creative ideas I have--and that's only if I stop having them right now.  And it's not even 6 a.m. yet, and I just got another one.  Sigh.

--But I digress:  back to Halloween.  My favorite Halloween memory at my current school comes from 2009, when I helped with the pumpkin decorating.  In the past, it had been a simple carving station.  But I brought all my yarns, my button tin, paints, and some fabric.  The students had a great time.  It was fun to watch them discover that they could use any of my fabric/fiber supplies that they wanted and to watch the wonderful creations they crafted.

Unfortunately I didn't get many pictures.  Above you see a close up of some pumpkins on the stairs.  I made the pirate pumpkin with the teal eye patch.

--Once the Culinary department made haunted gingerbread houses--amazingly, intricate designs.  I always loved looking at them.

--Here's a close-up:

--Once, I made cookies in the shape of pumpkins and decorated them.  Once I made several batches a year, each and every year.  I can't remember the last time I made Halloween cookies.  They're labor intensive, with all the rolling and cutting and decorating.  These years, I make bar cookies, if I make cookies at all.

--Maybe I'll make an apple crisp for breakfast.  Yes I will.  Our Halloween highs will be in the mid-80's.  I have to do something to get in an autumnal mood.

--Tonight we will give out candy at our new house.  We're expecting more trick-or-treaters.  We live in a safer neighborhood.  But I must admit, even in this safer neighborhood, I'm not aware of a lot of children who live here.  And it's not a gated neighborhood. 

--We may also walk to friends who live a few blocks away.  They're having a Halloween open house.  What a treat to have friends in walking distance.

--Speaking of treats, I must go--my apple crisp is ready to come out of the oven!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Have Measured Out My Life in Hitchcock Films

Actually, I didn't see a Hitchcock film until college.  I first saw The Birds in 1984.  It played in the background as we played Trivial Pursuit and ate the last of the Halloween candy.  I remember that the birds didn't seem so much scary as demented.  I watched the movie until the end waiting for the loose ends to be tied up, waiting for the great reveal.

There was none.  One friend suggested that's what made the film scary.  The birds just started attacking people, and no one could explain why.

Of course, the birds looked so fake.  Maybe that's why I didn't find it scary.

Now, of course, we have a  daily news diet of nature gone berserk.  These days it's not so much animals as the weather patterns we thought we could count on.

What would a Hitchcock film about global warming look like?  A climate science denier trapped in rising flood waters?

I think about those birds as a metaphor for other aspects of modern life.  How often are we attacked by our anxieties?  We think we've allayed our fears, only to find them rising up in black masses to attack us.

Psycho gave many a woman a fear of being attacked in a strange motel.  My mom told me that on her college campus, they went to the showers in teams.  No it wasn't like that--they took separate showers.  But no one was alone in the community bathrooms.

Sadly, we still have to deal with that fear, fear of being physically attacked, fear of being attacked in other ways.  We live in a world of increasingly easy access--who has the keys to our information?

In grad school, my friend was taking a film class, so we watched a lot of Hitchcock movies with her.  We spun all sorts of papers we might write, the books we might create.  So far, she's written a paper or two, presented at a conference, while I have not.

We watched Rear Window, which seemed more creepy than frightening.  We watched Vertigo and Strangers on a Train.  We watched several more, whose names do not stick with me.

It's interesting to watch a bunch of films by the same director all together, especially when doing it for a class.  It's interesting to watch the director develop.  It's interesting to see similar themes and characters.  Yes, I'm an English major at heart, always and forever.

It would be interesting to watch these films with a younger generation.  Are they still frightening in any way?

Younger people may not understand the full impact of Hitchcock, but when you start to look around, it's impossible to avoid coming to this conclusion:  we live in a Hitchcock haunted world.  Hitchcock's imprint finds its way into so many aspects of 21st century life.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Art of Covering Up

I don't have as much time to write this morning, so I'm going to post some writing that appeared last week on my theology blog--but it does have to do with creating and fabric, so it fits here.  For those of you who hate my writing that takes a spiritual turn, you've been warned.  Of course, if you're the reader who rolls his/her eyes at my spiritual meanderings, you've probably stopped reading this blog long ago.

Wendy, one of the commenters at my theology blog, noted the similarities between liturgical vestments and academic gowns.   She says, "Is the longing to wear the gown, the stole, to consecrate the bread and "wine" part of a call or part of the same absurd wish that we still wore academic gowns to teach so I could wear mine every day? Some days I'm not sure."

I'll need to think more about that.

In the meantime, here's the post:

--Here's a strange observation: one of the things I liked best about Thursday's Reformation service is the fact that several pastors participated and they had none-matching stoles. I loved seeing the variety of approaches to the stole. The color is the same, but so much can be done in that color.

--The first time I was at Mepkin Abbey I noticed all the vestments in such an interesting variety. Not every monk wore stoles and chasubles. At first I wondered why, and then I realized that not every monk is ordained.

--At Mepkin Abbey, unlike all the churches I've been in, there was no attempt to match the vestments to the paraments. The robes that the monks put on over their monk robes were all different, although they were white. I've enjoyed going back to Mepkin in different liturgical seasons to see the different stoles.

--I've noticed the same thing about Synod Assembly. I love seeing the stoles. Synod Assembly has an added benefit of having ordained women, some of whom have very different stoles from the men.

--And then there are the Associates in Ministry, who get to wear a stole, but as I understand it, their stole crosses the chest, as opposed to hanging down.

--If I was a grad student or a traditional academic, I'd love to do some research into the kinds of stoles worn by men and compare them to those that women choose.

--Or do they choose them at all? Back when I knew people graduating from seminary, they'd often get a stole or two for a graduation present.

--I have a friend who had a friend who said that Episcopalians have the best vestments.

--Of course, he wouldn't have used the word "vestments." He was a low-church guy before he became an agnostic. He called Episcopalians "God's frozen chosen."

--Once I was at the gift shop at Montreat Conference Center--what a wealth of possibilities! It's worth the trip for the music (both books of music you can play on an instrument and CDs) and books. We wandered to the Ten Thousand Villages shop, where I couldn't stay away from the stoles very long. They had been woven and stitched by 3rd world folk artists.

--I asked, "Is it wrong to want to be ordained so that I could wear such beautiful vestments?" At the time I wasn't even going to church and didn't expect to become a regular church goer, so yes, ordination was unlikely.

--Now I ask, "Is it wrong to go to seminary just so I can consecrate the bread and wine?"

--My mom says, "It's not wrong, but it's a lot of money just to be able to consecrate the bread and wine." She's served her former synod by being on a variety of candidacy committees, so she understands the amount of money spent by seminarians. She understands the debt load.

--You might ask, "If you like vestments so much, why don't you make them?" I'm not that good a seamstress.

--But then I think about the quilts I've made. I'm actually not that bad a seamstress, if I can make a project that doesn't require fitting difficult seams together or piecing tiny patterns.

--I like the idea of making a stole because it would let me have fun with fabric without committing to a quilt. I could have fun with decorations. I could do all kinds of artistic things because stoles are going to be worn once or twice a week and rarely laundered.

--And a chasuble would be an even broader palette. As would paraments!

--One cannot make a living by handcrafting vestments and paraments. At least, I can't. Maybe if I had third world expenses or lived without first world luxuries, like abundant electricity.

--I like the idea of supporting other artisans who are trying to make a living by making vestments and paraments. I'll think more about this.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Captivity Narratives

As I'm working away at various projects on the computer, I often listen to NPR programs that I've missed.  This past week-end, I listened to several shows' discussion of the new movie, Twelve Years a Slave.  At first I thought, this movie will be too difficult to watch on the big screen.  This Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast has made me reconsider, and the podcast makes me think that maybe I'll go see it earlier rather than later.

One thing that stands out at me in all these discussions is the total lack of discussion of modern slavery.  Many of us think that slavery is something safely in our distant past.  But many scholars would tell us that it's never been easier to own a slave than it is today, and that in terms of percentages, we have a much wider slave problem today than we ever had in human history.

But happily, it's also never been easier to rescue people, at least in most first world countries. We have laws against slavery and human trafficking. Law enforcement will likely intervene when notified about the problem.

In my week-end listening, I was struck by how many NPR commenters talked as if we wouldn't find our modern selves living the nightmare that Solomon Northrup endures in the movie. Yet that's always been a fear of mine, to find myself kidnapped and unable to escape a horrific captivity. Am I just strange that way?

I've spent my life reading captivity narratives of one kind or another.  Perhaps that accounts for one of my deepest fears.  I remember reading all sorts of World War II narratives even as young as elementary school, and many of them revolved around people being hidden from Nazis or people not lucky enough to be hidden and having to endure concentration camps.  I read stories about white settlers captured by Native Americans.  I read about slaves in America.

And then there was the cultural drama that was Roots.  I remember tuning in each night--me and the rest of the nation.  I was in the sixth grade, ripe to be affected by that kind of movie.  I'm old enough now that I can appreciate how that miniseries was groundbreaking, while being old enough to think about the ways that it fell short.  I'd like to see it again.  It's been decades since I saw it.  I wonder how I'd view it now.

It wasn't until eleven years ago, when I read a play that one of my Charleston writer friends created, that I understood the real horror of the captivity of the slave.  I hadn't really stopped to consider that captured Africans wouldn't understand the language.  They wouldn't know for sure where they were.  The food often made them sick, as did the hard life.  As a younger reader, I'd always wondered why people didn't try harder to escape.  After reading my friend's play, I realized that they wouldn't know where to go if they could get away.  And of course, as a younger reader, I didn't understand the bonds of love that could keep a person in place.  I didn't fully understand the bonds of fear.

My friend's play inspired some of the details in the poem that I'll post below.  Longtime readers of this blog will see similarities to other poems I've written.  It's no surprise to me that images that come out of slavery haunt my poems. They haunt our country, so why shouldn't they haunt our creative work?
I do worry that perhaps I trivialize some of the material by using it as a metaphor to explore a mental state.  A white writer using details from slavery times will always face that worry.
This poem first appeared in South Carolina Review, and I included it in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Running from the Plantation of Despair

I dwell in the plantation of despair,
held in the chains of mistakes and doubts,
whipped by all the demons who keep vigil
over this boggy rice farm of depression.
I’m an ocean away from my home, my happy
self, in a land where I can’t speak the language,
digest the food, or interpret the constellations.

I inhale the dust
of a million dashed dreams. I sink into a songless
sleep and wake to a day drained of color.
Gradually I forget my real name, my mother’s face,
the syllables of my own language. I can no longer
trace the steps that brought me here or plot
escape. No revolutionary, me.

And then she appears at half a crack of dawn, dark
as the night, with my running shoes in her hand.
“Girl, we got to set you free.”

She doesn’t listen to my fears, my creaking
knees, the slow heaving of my lungs.
I follow her light, my North
Star, setting me free. We run to liberty,
avoiding the dangerous dogs, the slaveholders,
naysayers who would sell us back
to the plantation of despair.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Scenes of Joy for a Serene Sunday

--On this day in 1962, my parents married each other.  The Cuban Missile Crisis had just been resolved.  Right up until the day of the wedding, they weren't sure my dad would be there.  For that matter, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over them all.  This blog post explores those threads, and it's one of my favorites.

--On Friday, I stopped by a grocery store.  When I returned my cart to the store after putting my groceries in the trunk, I wanted to stop total strangers to say, "Do you see that sunset?"  I didn't.  But as I pulled out of the parking lot, I noticed that the surly looking man who'd been leaning against the car beside mine walked into the lot.  He held up his cell phone to get a shot of the sunset.  Hurrah for beautiful sunsets.

--Earlier on Friday, I headed over to Broward College for a symposium on BMI.  No, not Body Mass Index, but Brain Machine Interface.  It was geared towards students, so these ideas were not new to me.  I daresay they're not new to anyone who grew up reading sci-fi or watching any incarnation of Star Trek.  Are we our machines?  At what point are we cyborgs?  Do machines have rights?  But it was fun to see the students engage with these ideas.

--Afterward, I went to lunch with my friend who met me there.  She had said, "I didn't think you'd be interested in stuff like this."  When I asked her why, she looked puzzled and said, "Well, to be honest, because you don't watch Star Trek. How can you be a geek if you don't watch Star Trek?

--On Thursday, I was waiting in the bank drive through line when I noticed a small boy, maybe 8 or 9, running across the end of the drive through lanes.  The security guard kept an eye on him as he ran up the sidewalk to the door.  He turned not one but two cartwheels and went inside.  A few minutes later, he came outside with his hands full of lollipops and such a look of joy on his face.  He ran back to his mom's car, which was in the furthermost drive through lane.  I love that he was so overjoyed because of a handful of lollipops.

--I had a quieter joy yesterday morning.  I got to my church early to help set up for the fall festival and to deliver butterscotch bars for the bake sale.  I wasn't really needed, so I walked over to our pumpkin patch.

We've sold a lot of pumpkins since we unloaded the truck 9 days ago! There were pathways through the pumpkin piles, so I walked slowly, dare I say, meditatively.  I thought about how similar it was to walking a labyrinth--and how different. The main difference, of course, is that a labyrinth goes in a set pattern so that there's one way in to the center, no matter how much the walker winds around the center. The pumpkin patch didn't have that quality.  But I loved being in the cool morning air, smelling the pumpkins and the dirt, marvelling at the diversity of the pumpkins and indeed, all of creation.

--Go here to read my full report from my church's sincere pumpkin patch.

--Go here for a recipe for butterscotch bars.  They're so easy and so delicious.  If your Sunday needs sweetness, they're a simple solution.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Inviting Autumn Home

--We're supposed to get some cooler weather soon.  I remain skeptical.

--It's that time of year when the weather doesn't match the calendar, or doesn't match it in ways that I expect. Halloween and autumn decorations appear, yet the daytime highs are still in the 90's. If it wasn't for the decorations and the shortening of the days, I'd barely notice the passing of the seasons.

--In some ways, I feel sad about this. I want autumn days with a hint of woodsmoke in the air. I want the leaves to change. I want to unpack sweaters. I want something that summons my attention back.

--Of course, I've rarely lived in that climate--but I've always yearned for it.

--I do like the lighted decorations.

--I think of my grandmother and her sadness as summer passed into autumn and then into winter. She hated shorter evenings. She was one of those women who, while she lived alone in her house, didn't leave the house once darkness fell. Late October meant the end to evening walks through the neighborhood.

--I bought a huge bunch of sturdy autumn flowers in a beautiful bouquet. It's a cheap way to bring Autumn indoors. It's a great way to remember to say, "Great show God."

--I've been doing other autumnal things too: decorating a bit and making treats like gingerbread.  I helped my church offload pumpkins. I bought a few and invited autumn home that way.

--I've also been planting flowers outside. I planted flowers in the window box that's part of my new house. I bought some orange-yellow marigolds. I planted them in pots I have on hand and put them in the arches of my porch. They were joined by some pumpkins.

--I will hold out hope that the pumpkins won't rot too quickly in this tropical heat. I remember doing some errands with my sister when she lived in Alexandria, Virginia. I loved the colonial porches that had pumpkins on the steps. I fear I will not be so lucky. But I'm hoping for a week or two of pumpkins, even as I lose some along the way.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Converted Churches

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted a picture of a redesigned space that had once been a church.  She said, "I want to live in a converted church."

I wanted to write a poem that uses the word "converted" in all sorts of ways.  I wanted to tell her that she'd have a lot of work to do to get it into the fabulous shape shown in the picture.

Another friend wrote to say that there are 2 churches for sale in Dania Beach.  I thought, I know of one of them.

Every day on my way to work, I drive past a church building that's for sale. In many ways, it's an ideal location: in Dania Beach, on Highway 1, between Ft. Lauderdale and Hollywood, just a few miles from the airport. It's an ideal location for a church, or for a church building that's reborn as something else.

Some might look at the building and think about opening a restaurant. Or maybe that's just what I think of because the first transformation of a church building that I'd ever seen was in downtown Charleston, SC, an Episcopal church that had been changed into a Mexican restaurant.

Some might think of the preschool possibilities. After all, many a church has already transformed itself to adapt to the preschool it feels it needs to run/host.

I return to my thoughts of a few weeks ago, thoughts that are never far from my mind. I think of artist studios and an exhibition space. I imagine running day or half day retreats. I envision a space that explores the intersections of spirituality and creativity. And we could do all sorts of creative work. There's room for gardens and fountains. I imagine there would be at least one kitchen.

I have a friend and colleague who suggests that I stop one day and pray as I walk the property. She says that God has already consecrated that space, and that when I assume that my dreams are not feasible, I'm selling God short.

She is right, of course. And yet, I still can't quite articulate that dream, on a day-to-day level. I can't quite visualize how we'd pay the bills.

And while I love the idea of the church as arts space, I'm not sure that I want to be the one to transform it. I want it to exist, but I'm not sure that I want to be the one that does that administrative work to keep it running.

I do love the Dania Beach area. I know it's been trying to recreate itself as an arts district. Once it was a thriving antiques district, so past experience would tell us that the location is viable.

I also wonder about a social justice piece. Could a church-turned-arts-center be helpful in terms of after-school activities? There are pockets of deep poverty that surround that building--how could the arts center church help that situation?

My husband dreams of an empire of rental houses that could be made into safe, snug, affordable places for people to live. I dream of old churches made into artistic spaces. Of what does God dream?

(If you read both of my blogs, you might be feeling like you've read this before.  I am reposting here, mainly because the Facebook post made me return to these thoughts)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's 1517 All Over Again

I have the Protestant Reformation on the brain--yes, that Reformation centuries ago that started with Martin Luther nailing his theses on the Wittenberg door in 1517.   I'm a Lutheran, after all, and Reformation Sunday is this Sunday.  But this year, I'm thinking about the Reformation and how it was made possible with the help of technology.  It's a fact that's often overlooked.

Maybe I'm thinking about that because I've been thinking so much about technology in the past few weeks, indeed years.  I wrote an e-mail to a librarian friend of mine who is the online librarian for what used to be our local community college before it expanded.  An online librarian!  That's a job that didn't exist 20 years ago. 

I signed off by writing "See you in cyberspace!"  And then I wondered if anyone uses the term "cyberspace" anymore.  As a sci-fi geek-lite kind of gal, in a long ago incarnation, I was often one of few people who understood that term, who could even begin to comprehend the ways that an Internet might change our lives.

Back then, I didn't think that whole industries would be wiped out.  With the optimism of the young, I assumed we'd just add new elements to our societies.  We'd work more efficiently, to be sure, but we'd work.  We wouldn't be giving over jobs to robots or lesser forms of mechanization.

You'd think an apocalypse gal like me might have considered these things.

I've been talking about online education with a variety of people.  Yesterday, when I described an online class to my friend who's not in education, but who is a bit of a computer geek himself, he said, with quite a lot of disbelief, "You mean, it's like a giant chatroom?"

I could hear him wanting to say, "That's so 1990's."  He'd be right.  I imagine that within 10 years, we'll be amazed at what is possible.

Or maybe we'll keep using old technology.  There's something to be said for maximizing old technology, which is familiar to more people.  I thought of this element all day yesterday, after hearing this NPR Marketplace interview with LeVar Burton.  He talked about his show Reading Rainbow and using an old technology, television, to fortify an even older technology, books. 

That brings me back to the Reformation.  Very few people understand how the invention of the printing press made the Protestant Reformation possible.  We have this vision of Martin Luther nailing a handmade document to the Wittenberg door.  We don't think of the mighty Reformation as being powered by the lowly pamphlet.  But it's a legitimate interpretation. 

The printing press is the main reason why the Catholic church couldn't contain Luther's dangerous ideas (a great book, by the way:  Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea).  Those darned pamphlets just kept popping up everywhere.  In a way, Luther was an early incarnation of a blogger:  someone who knows how to use technology to get his ideas more widely distributed.

If he had stopped there, the world might not have been transformed so completely.  But then Luther translated the Bible into German, which meant more people could read and interpret for themselves.  And then more people wanted to learn to read, so that they could read the Bible.  Those events have a direct link to the world we know today.

We see the same kinds of things happening today.  Cheaper technology means that more people can learn, not just in our country, but across the world.  And I predict that those of us who once had first world power will not recognize the world that's coming at us.

Yes, in my metaphor, I'm the Catholic priest, much as I'd like to be the upstart Martin Luther.  I'm the one who's seeing the old world sliding right out from under me. 

To paraphrase T. S. Eliot's Prufrock, "I am no early adapter, nor was meant to be."

It's 1517 all over again.  That idea both excites me and terrifies me.  The Protestant Reformation did not spark a time of peace and prosperity, after all.  Massive numbers of people died in the following centuries as people fought about these ideas.

We may not unleash literal war, although I don't discount that possibility.  Perhaps we will look back and say, "Ah, 2013, when we thought the decimation of the middle class was the worst we had to face."  

We have unleashed all sorts of forces that we can no longer control.  And indeed, maybe the idea that we were in control was a massive illusion.

Still, I feel hopeful.  For all the negative developments, I'd still rather live in a post-Reformation world than the world that gave birth to Martin Luther.  I'd still rather live in a world of technological possibilities than one where the computers were massive and expensive and only available to the very few.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Longing for a Keatsian Autumn--or at Least, a Cold Front

There is talk of a cold front coming through.  We have never really left our summer weather behind us, but in the past few days, it's turned uncomfortably hot and humid.  For a few weeks before that, it was hot and dry and breezy, which wasn't bad, but it still wasn't Autumn.

It's hard to believe that just a week ago, the pumpkin truck was headed our way.  And Monday, I cleaned the first of the rotten pumpkins off the porch.  They didn't even make it one week.

Let me correct that:  2 of them didn't make it a week.  I still have 4 left.

Happily, I have a picture, pre-rot:

And at least the proceeds go to a good cause.  I enjoyed the pumpkins while I had them, because I was sure they wouldn't last long.  It's a good lesson.

I've been thinking about my past longings for Autumn.  I used to wait until the first cooler weather to bake pumpkin bread.  Now, I just turn down the AC and bake bread.

This time of year, my thoughts turn to John Keats.  His poem, "To Autumn," is one of the most perfect autumn poems ever.  Go here to read it.

For those of you looking for a teaching/writing idea, here are some. You could have students write about the autumnal elements that Keats includes and the figurative language that he uses. You could have students write about the autumnal elements that Keats leaves out. You could have them research what Autumn would have been like as Keats experienced it. You could show the movie Bright Star and have them compare the experience of Autumn as a visual experience and the experience of Autumn as a reading experience. You could have students write their own poems and require that they avoid all overused autumnal elements: can they write an autumnal poem with no hay rides, no pumpkins, no colored leaves?
Here's a poem that I wrote years ago, after teaching the Keats poem and yearning for a more autumnal October:

Longing for a Keatsian Autumn

What I wouldn’t give for a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Instead we suffer fierce heat and a flowering
fecundity that threatens to pull our thatch-eves down.
West winds bring us nothing but a pall
of heavy humidity, a harvest of hurricanes.

I want to sing songs of other seasons
than this sweat soaked summer.
I want to be wooed by weather unSouthern.

I tire of this moist mouthed peninsula,
seasonless, cursed landscape of mangroves and swamp grass
that mocks our efforts to pretend that the Southernmost
tip of America has seasons other than warm and hot.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

First in Our Age Divisions

My dad just placed first in his age division (men 75 and older) in the Army Ten Miler.  There were at least 15 other men in the age division and 3 women--they're the ones who placed.  For all I know, there were more men his age running who didn't place.  The woman who came in first in the women 75 and older had a time similar to my dad; she's 80, and he's 75.  They both ran 10 minutes faster than the ones who placed second in their age divisions.

It took me back to when I was young and running community road races put on by the YMCA in Knoxville, TN.  I remember when I placed first in my age division (under 18) in the Pumpkin Run in 1982.  It was cold and rainy, so the turn out was lower than usual.  I had gone to a movie theatre that let you see older movies for $1--the night before the race, my friend Brian and I went to see Rocky III.  That's the movie where they talk about the eye of the tiger. and there's that song by the same name by Survivor.  It's a great movie to watch before a race.

When I was young and placing in my age division, I paid attention to the demographics.  I knew that once I turned 18, I wouldn't have an easy age division to win until I was much older.  I look at the race results for women 75 and older, and I can't imagine running ten miles in that time now (an hour and 48 minutes), much less when I'm older. 

My dad's race results also put me in mind of a compliment that my father-in-law paid me when he was down for a visit.  During the time he was here, I was still going to work, and getting some training for a different work project, and taking care of some church details.  He said, "You sure don't let the grass grow under your feet." 

Today is one of the days that I wish I had let more grass grow under my feet.  It's a day of meetings at school followed by a church council meeting in the evening.  I've tried to put something fun into the day, an early dinner with a writer friend on my way to church.  But a day of meetings fills me with a certain dread in a way that very little else does.  I wonder why that is.

The idea of placing in our age divisions also makes me think of how we compare ourselves to each other.  When my father-in-law sees all the ways that I'm trying to keep myself marketable and cover all the unexpected expenses that have come with this new house, I see all the projects I have yet to complete.  I haven't made many submissions of individual poems to journals yet.  But frankly, if I don't do much submitting this year, I won't beat myself up.  It's time to think about larger projects.

One thing I love about knowing about the success of various poets around the country, like Sandy Longhorn's recent book The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, is that I feel encouragement.  If it could happen to them, it could happen to me.  Maybe it's time to put together a new poetry manuscript or dust off the old one.

I also need to get back to making steady progress on my memoir.  I'm getting back to that.  It feels good.  Of course, I'm continuing to add to it, as I write essays and blog posts that fit. 

On Friday, a group of us who work together were talking about getting ready for the future.  During a week of lay-offs (or "restructuring"), our thoughts turn that way.  Should we look for jobs elsewhere?  Do something while still employed to give ourselves more options later, like get an additional degree?  One of my writing friends said, "It's time to get an agent."  She may be right.  I could at least start to compose the query letter that I hope to be sending out after Christmas.

I also need to stop periodically to give myself credit for all the things I have gotten done.  It's no wonder that I haven't finished my memoir draft in the time frame I originally planned.  My original plans didn't take into account buying a house, moving, and selling a house.  The changes that we've made happen this year take my breath away when I stop to think about it.

It's good to stop and think about it.  These changes leave me better positioned for the future, I think and hope, regardless of what that future will be.  Maybe I'm on my way to being a sought after speaker, retreat leader, or workshop leader.  Maybe my memoir will sell a lot of copies.  Maybe I'm headed back to grad school.  Maybe I'll be a dean.  Maybe I'll be the U.S. Poet Laureate, still one of my favorite possibilities.

It's good to remember that I haven't been letting the grass grow under my feet.  It's good to plant seeds for the future.  It's good to strive to place in our age divisions.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"Sisterland" and All the Lands Where We've Lived

I've spent the last week reading Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland.  What a great book!

I first started hearing about it in the summer, but of course, the library had a waiting list a mile long.  That's how I came to read American Wife.  I doubt that I'd have ever picked up that book otherwise.  I'd have read the plot summary on the jacket, thought about Laura Bush, and shrugged.  But we were going on our summer sailing trip with my sister's family, and I needed something to read, so I invited the book along.  I was surprised at how compelling it was, given that the bones of the story, which is Laura Bush's story, were so familiar.

I'm impressed with Sittenfeld's ability to get inside her character's heads, to make them multi-dimensional, and that I'm drawn to them even when they're less than admirable.  But we expect that of our authors, after all.  What impresses me more is her ability to capture so much in just a few details.

Here's an example:  "Our first year out of college, we hosted Thanksgiving in Chicago for our friends, who were mostly other Mizzou graduates, and I felt a particular kind of twenty-two-year-old's pride in the fact that, unlike at Thanksgivings of my youth, we used fresh rather than frozen spinach for the casserole and real whipped cream instead of cans of Reddi-wip.  (Also around this time, one ordinary week-night after making dinner, I heard myself say to Ben, 'I'm going to compost the rest of the bok choy'--there was a little yard with a compost bin behind our building--and pretty much everything I was smug about then was encapsulated in that single sentence.  I thought--foolishly, obnoxiously--that I'd left my former self behind.)" (p. 146).

Those few sentences capture so perfectly what I call the self-righteousness of the late adolescent, the one I call my inner 19 year old. 

I may read the book again at some point.  It's got some surprises at the end that I won't ruin--the kind of surprises that make me want to read it again to see what Sittenfeld might have planted in terms of foreshadowing.

The depiction of the cooking took me back to various points of my life.  I've spent time in the past  weeks cooking for various groups of people.  It's getting hard for me to remember who is eating what, so I usually cook vegetarian food as the default option--although one friend with a kidney condition has just been told to avoid dairy, and I am not a vegan chef.  Of course, she has to avoid a lot of vegetables too, so the safest route is just to serve what we ordinarily would and let her decide how to proceed.

My go-to cookbooks for delicious vegetarian food are written by Mollie Katzen, books that have been on my shelf since high school.  I've written about her before, most notably in this blog post.  I've recently discovered that her recipes can be simplified further.  For example, in the recipe that I'll post below, I bought a broccoli salad mix and shredded carrots from the grocery store, rather than get out the food processor, shred, and clean the equipment.  My inner 19 year old would not approve.  Present-life Kristin is simply looking for simple ways to get more vegetables into her life.

This recipe works well for brunch, for dinner, for a snack that has heft.  Enjoy!

Savory Vegetable Cheesecake

From Mollie Katzen’s The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook

Before you start, note how long the creation takes to bake and cool (75 minutes)

3 C. coarsely grated zucchini (grated broccoli salad mix worked well)

3 T. butter

1C. minced onion

2-3 cloves garlic, crushed

Pinch salt

1 C. grated carrot

3 T. flour

1 tsp. of both basil and oregano

¼ C. minced parsley

1 T. fresh lemon juice

3 C. ricotta cheese (non-fat, reduced fat, regular, or a combo all work fine)

1 C. grated mozzarella cheese (cheddar works well too)

4 large eggs

work load reducer: mix everything together without the draining and cooking—I don’t like raw onions in this method, so I use dried flakes; with the work load reducer option, I beat the eggs and cheeses together with the herbs, stir in everything else, and dump it in the pan--works just as well

Original recipe instructions
Set the grated zucchini in a colander over a sink or bowl. Salt lightly and let stand 15 minutes. Squeeze out all excess moisture.

In a large skillet, sauté the onions in butter with pinch of salt. After several minutes, add garlic, carrots, zucchini, flour and herbs. Keep stirring and cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in parsley and lemon.

Beat together cheeses and eggs in a very large bowl. Add the sautéed veggies and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Put into a greased pan (9x13 works well, as does a 10” springform pan. Bake uncovered at 375 for ½ hour. Then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for another 30 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the door, and leave the cake in there for an additional 15 minutes. Let cool 10-15 minutes more.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

King Tides and the Pull of the Moon

We recently walked to the beach--nothing unusual there.  But as we walked down from the bridge that connects the barrier island that is Hollywood Beach to the mainland, we noticed lots of standing water on the streets that lead to the beach.  What had happened? A burst water main?

Nope.  Just a King Tide.  It happens every year around October or November.  The moon and the sun align in a certain way, and when the moon is full, the streets flood.  Our beach area streets only flood ankle deep.  Some surrounding beaches reported even deeper water.  This year we got 9-14 inches of extra water.

It's what we can expect in the future.  By the year 2030, the projections call for that much extra water to be part of regular tides, not just seasonal strangeness.

Readers of this blog know that sea level rise is never far from my mind, especially now that we've moved closer to the ocean.  My first thought on hearing the various stories about the South Florida King Tide:  great, my street seems pretty dry.

But then I thought about the fact that global warming is happening faster than we thought it would.  What if we have 18-28 inches of extra water by 2030?  Or worse?

And it's not just street flooding.  It's salt water intrusion into ground water.  It's the sewers backing up.  It's unaffordable flood insurance.

As I've said before, we're surrounded by signs that we're not here very long.  I'll keep sea level rise projections in my head, while I do my best to enjoy every aspect of living in South Florida, now, while I still can.

Last night I decided to walk to the beach to watch the full moon rise at 7:24 p.m.  What a treat.  I can't always get there for moonrise, but I want to do it more often.

I took my camera and tried a variety of shots, but I got nothing good--until I walked home and turned around to take shots of the lights changing on the bridge.  Here's my favorite shot:

I love the different light qualities in one shot:  the spookiness of the blue, the haze of the street lights that reminds me of London in the 19th century, and the cold wafer of the moon in the background.

It reminds of a poem that I wrote way back in 1996, when I first returned to writing poetry.  I'd been writing poems since I was 14, and then I went to grad school in 1987.  I didn't write poems again until 1995.  In some ways, that's not a very long gap.  But I thought I'd lost poetry forever, and I was profoundly grateful to return or to have it return to me, which was how I experienced it:  the prodigal muse coming home.

I wrote the poem below, which appealed to me at the time, although I know that writing poems about the moon is fraught with danger:  the danger of triteness, the danger of using a tired metaphor, the danger of not even knowing that one is veering into the land of sentimental or non-scientific, or . . .

Still, this post requires a poem about the pull of the moon or maybe I simply want to post this poem. 

It's a first person voice, but I should hasten to add that it doesn't describe my reality.  I used to use first person all the time, thinking that it made the poem more immediate and intense.  I didn't realize how many people would assume that I was talking about myself.

Maybe I'll write a poem for the self at midlife, not the self in adolescent agony.  I am now the moon, stuck in various orbits, yearning to pull free, but leaving all sorts of tides and floods in my wake.  I am now the moon, cold and distant and unaware of flooded streets.

Hmm.  I'm not sure I like that vision of a self any better than the one in the poem below.  But it could make an interesting poem.  I'll putter with that possibility, and you should feel free to play along.  It's an interesting issue for creative writing classes:  can you use a symbol that is so drenched with meaning and history--like the moon--and make it new?

Now, the poem:

Yearning for the Moon

Like the sea yearning for the moon,
I’d follow you anywhere,
my salty, tear-stained emotions
always at high tide,
while you remain
a cold, cratered chunk of rock,
only reflecting my radiance.
I try to pull out of your orbit;
I crash against the shores of other lovers
only to find that they sink
beneath me.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Celebrate Strength on This Saturday

You might think by the post title that I have some heavy duty Saturday activities lined up.  While I do have some work to do on some projects today, they don't require physical strength so much as persistence.  I've already made some progress on my memoir manuscript.  Later this afternoon, I may work on putting together disparate writings about Kathleen Flenniken's Plume to transform them into a unified review that an editor asked me to do. I've got some work projects that may get my attention.

No, I'm thinking about strength because of the events of the week, primarily the pumpkin offload (go to this post for more on that subject). 

The other night my spouse said, "You had trouble because you have no upper body strength."

I said, "I beg to differ.  Just yesterday, I carried 400-600 pumpkins."

He said, "Well, true."

I said, "They didn't weigh a lot--5 to 40 pounds per pumpkin.  But I carried pumpkin after pumpkin for 3 hours, and I was one of the few people able to do it.  I can't bench press 600 pounds, but I can carry pumpkins for hours."

I might argue that it's a different kind of strength, but a more useful kind of strength.  How many of us live lives where we'll need to lift hundreds of pounds? 

You might argue that we don't need to lift smaller weights either.  But we do need to carry our groceries and lift laundry baskets and pick up children.  Living in South Florida, I'm surrounded by an older population who can no longer do these basic tasks.  It becomes a disability.

A bad attitude is another kind of disability.  We've had the kind of week at work that makes it very hard to keep our spirits up.  But I'm impressed by how we try.

We remind ourselves that we're only here a very short time.  I got together with a group of people who were at my school from my very first day; in fact, when I interviewed, one of them, who knew me from our teaching time at the local community college, acted so happy to see me that I decided it could be a good place to work.

We talked about other job possibilities, should the wolf come to our door.  We reminded ourselves that we have lots of skills.  We had sobering news of a former colleague/friend who is suffering a medical crisis. 

It's good to remember that in the long range scheme of things, we're not here very long.

Yesterday, I got my copies of Sandy Longhorn's new book, The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths.  I finished my grueling week by devouring the whole thing right before I fell asleep.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, and soon I'll write a more unified review.  In the meantime, you should get your own copy; go here to purchase (go ahead, I'll wait).

Let me say how cool it was to remember seeing some of those poems on her blog.  I've been looking forward to seeing how they work together in a collection.  It's a treat.  And for those of us who wonder if we're undercutting future book sales by putting poems on our blogs, I'm here to assert that we're not.  On the contrary, it can lead to anticipation.

I woke up with a new poem of my own in my head.  I recognize some of the elements from the book that my subconscious wove into a new creation.  I also recognize John Donne.  My poem alludes to his line about a bracelet of bright hair about the bone.

It's good to write a poem that has potential again.  I've been writing, don't get me wrong.  But I've been writing down lines I thought had potential, and adding to them, only to find that I'm not even writing good prose, much less poems that achieve flight velocity.

As I look at Sandy's book, I'm struck by not only the strength of the poems and the strength of the collection, but also the strength of the journey.  Through her blog, I know how long she's worked on getting a second manuscript published.  The book that's on my desk is not the one that she always thought would be her second book; she's had other manuscripts in circulation.  I've been reading her blog before she started writing these poems, and it's been fascinating watching her process of writing them and thinking about them in a larger context.

Yes, I think persistence and a good spirit are the most important strengths we can develop.  I'm not suggesting that we abandon our other strength training disciplines.  But I am going to work on keeping an eye on my long term projects, while doing my best to treat everyone kindly and gently.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How Does Your Light Get In?

I recently read Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In: Writing as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2013). It’s a wonderful book, full of hope and inspiration that comes from Schneider’s long life of writing and teaching.

She talks about the different ways that writing helps us get to the truths of our lives, with chapters titled to let us know what she’ll be exploring, with labels like “Forgiving,” “The Body,” “Doing Good,” and “Death. Each chapter is full of experiences from Schneider’s own life and those of her family, friends, and students; each chapter ends with a poem by a famous poet. The astute reader will get some ideas for teaching, but the book isn’t primarily about teaching.

The book concerns itself with how to live a good life, and with how various writing practices might help us live better lives. There’s a spiritual component here, but I didn’t find it offensive. I can imagine that Christians of all variations would enjoy it, as would Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and all the adherents of the world’s religions.

Would the spiritual language get in the way of atheist writers? Perhaps.

I found myself scanning some of the autobiographical material. Much of it plumbs painful depths, painful to Schneider, and I just didn’t want to dwell there. In my younger years, I’d have devoured it. But I was able to scan those parts and not lose the thread of the book.

I enjoyed seeing Schneider’s writing process and writing life. We get poems-in-progress, journal entries, all sorts of writing. I enjoyed reading about her publication progress. I also enjoyed reading about her spiritual journeys, especially about the retreats she’s led.

It’s the kind of book that you could read straight through, or just dip in and out as the chapters call out to you. It’s the kind of book that gives comfort and succor. It does what too few books on writing do: it shows writing as part of an integrated life, a life that isn’t afraid of spiritual elements or family duties and joys. It’s worth your time.

Here are some quotes to inspire you:

“The word ‘prayer; evokes strong feelings for many people, depending on past experience—positive for some of us, negative for others. Any other word that I might choose—‘contemplation,’ ‘meditation’—would come with its own set of varying reactions, and so I choose the word that I have used since childhood: prayer. Prayer is, for me, an intentional openness to the presence of mystery in my life. Sometimes it is labor, sometimes ecstatic surprise. Sometimes both.” (p. 10)

“For both the writer and the spiritual pilgrim, an ‘answer’ is not always the greatest gift. Rather, coming to deeper and deeper understanding of the question itself can give us a place to stand in the presence of mystery, in the cloud of unknowing. Answers build walls that sometimes seem protective, bu they may shut out the light.” (p. 64)
“Each of us has a private inner life, and in that life there are secrets that drive us to be who we are. Writing is not the only way for a pilgrim to identify, name, and find his or her way through the dark night of the soul. But writing, I suggest, is where we humans most make our own minds visible to ourselves and to others. There, on the faint lines of our pages, we can take down our masks. Ironically, even when we think we are building masks, creating entirely fictional characters, our very mask-making reveals us. In writing, we see, sometimes with fear and trembling, who we have been, who we really are, and we glimpse now and then who we might become.” (p. 99)

“Sometimes tradition holds us when we cannot hold ourselves.” (p. 101)

“Writing as a spiritual practice sometimes necessitates going where the door is locked and the key has been misplaced. A lot of things may need to be turned over, looked under, opened up, to find the key that will open the door. It is clear to me that I can’t write about forgiving only from the perspective of the one who needs to forgive.” (p. 150)

“If you write the truth, you will change the world. If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world. If you write publicly, you give voice to what is, and that assists what is becoming. If you help someone else to write the truth, you may not live long enough to know it, but you will have changed the world.” (p. 178-179)

“Elizabeth O’Connor has written that we are not called to our own soul work by ‘ought’ or should.’ Rather, we are called by joy. She says that if we are working out of ought or should, we are not only in the wrong place ourselves; we are blocking someone else whose joy it might be to be where we are.” (p. 264)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pumpkin Prescription

It's been a dreadful week at work--and it's only Thursday, and I took Monday off.  It's been a week where more lay-offs were announced, which makes us all feel queasy.  It's been a week of ugly talk and unpleasant meetings.  What to do?

Last night, I headed over to my church.  No matter what was happening elsewhere, an 18 wheeler full of pumpkins was arriving, and we had to get them off the truck.

You may say, "Why?"  My church transforms the lawn into a pumpkin patch each year, and we spend several weeks selling the pumpkins.  For more on this experience and the ways it turns into a means of spiritual formation, see this post on my theology blog.

As I drove to the church last night, I was sick with anxiety.  I worried that I had said too much to the wrong people.  I thought about the swirl of rumors that surrounds the school every time we experience lay-offs.  I wondered if there are repercussions yet to come.

When I got to the church, those anxieties faded as I thought about the enormity of the task.  I began by helping arrange small pumpkins.

But soon it became apparent that I could do more.  We realized we'd be losing daylight, and so more of us scrambled into the trailer to help.  Three hours later, we were still there, carrying the last pumpkins to the front of the trailer.  A group was on the ground, carrying pumpkins into the patch we were creating out of the front lawn of the church.

It felt good to use my muscles in a practical way.  I try to do some strength training each week, but it's rare that I actually need to haul a heavy load with just my arms, legs, and strong back.  Again and again, I thought, this is what it's all about.

As the hours went by, soreness set in.  I handed pumpkins to people on the ground and said, "I no longer have a sense of what these weigh."  For much of the night, we'd been saying, "Here's a medium one.  This one is heavy."  As the evening deepened into night, we just wanted to get them off the truck.

Let me note that these are not the nice, clean pumpkins you find in your grocery store.  These pumpkins came to us still dirty from the field in New Mexico where they'd been grown.  Occasionally, we'd find a rotten one, which meant that the pumpkins around them were slimy.  By the end of the night, we were all slimy and dirty too.

I wish I had taken the paper cup out of my pocket, before the above shot.  Oh well.

It was a fun experience.  It was good to get out of my head and live in my body.  It was even better to come home and take a hot shower and then soak my sore feet in the cold swimming pool under the light of the almost full moon.

Most of all, it was good to get perspective.  Much of the drama at work is a tempest in a tea pot.  And some of it, like continued lay-offs, I can't fix, no matter how much I want to.  It does no good to dwell in the drama.  Pumpkins need to be off-loaded and lawns transformed into a pumpkin patch.

Much of life is like that.  It's too easy to get sunk in the drama.  It's too easy to get overwhelmed by the task.  But to paraphrase Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, the work can be done, pumpkin by pumpkin, until the truck is empty.

This metaphor holds true, whether it's working on a book of poems, heading towards a degree, learning a new skill, creating a family, dealing with workplace issues, working towards a more just world.  Pumpkin by pumpkin, we move to where we want to be.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Trip to the Health Department

One of my default positions, when I was unhappy with life, was to think about returning to school--longtime readers of this blog might argue it's still one of my default positions.  In the past, I've thought about public health, but long ago, people who went into public health could look forward to a career of contacting people's sexual partners to let them know they were at risk of a disease.  What kind of job would that be?

Yesterday I went to the Broward County health department to get a tetanus shot.  I haven't been to a county health department in decades.  In fact, the last time I went was probably the last time I got a tetanus shot, the summer we were married, 25 years ago. 

I've been meaning to get a tetanus shot since our disastrous hurricane season of 2005, which showed that even if you're not expecting to do home repair or be exposed to dirty metal, it could happen.  But I haven't gotten around to it.

I've spent the last several weeks helping with home repair, being acutely aware of rusty nails and all sorts of metal points waiting to do injury to me.  On Monday, when I noticed blood running down my leg, I decided I should not procrastinate any longer.

You may wonder why I didn't just go to my primary care provider.  I don't really have one.  Last year, I asked my OB/GYN if her office did tetanus shots, and she said, "No.  But we should."

I was happily surprised to find out that the county health department still gives shots, and that they'd be delighted to give one to me at low cost at the walk-in clinic.  So on Tuesday morning after boot camp class, I headed on over.  I put my name on the list and waited.  I'd brought a book, so it wasn't so bad.

Alas, waiting rooms these days are full of screens, and at times, I couldn't concentrate.  I found myself enchanted by this public service announcement, which made me want to start a midlife career in public health.  But I suspect it would still be depressing.

After all, I was in a place with a children's dental clinic and eye charts on the wall.  You could get a complete set of immunizations.  I pretty sure that for many poor residents of our county, this walk-in clinic is as close as they get to having a primary care doctor.

Will that change with the new health care legislation?  Florida's Republican governor has been doing all that he can do to make sure that it doesn't change.  And that approach makes me so sad. 

I saw so many young parents who clearly just want the best for their children.  What was more sobering was the fact that for most of the morning, I was the only white, non-Hispanic person in the clinic.  Not for the first time was I struck by all the intersections between race, gender, and class--and where poverty strikes.

Eventually, I got my tetanus shot and a band-aid and was on my way.  All day, I was struck by how many people asked me if I had gotten a flu shot--another indicator of class status?  But down here, why get a flu shot?  We rarely have outbreaks this far south.

Of course, many of us travel, so perhaps a flu shot isn't an extravagance.  And many of us are surrounded by those disease vectors known as children.

I spent the day trying to not sink into discouragement.  I tried to envision a more just world, where public health departments wouldn't be necessary, except to keep a watchful eye on possible outbreaks of disease.  Yesterday was one of those kind of days that threw all kinds of challenges to my usual sunny nature.  Perhaps I'll blog more about it later.

Or maybe I'll just keep hoping for a world where children get their shots, and parents have good jobs, and the U.S. government raises the debt ceiling and doesn't send the U.S. into default.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rejection Slips and the Last Issue of "Hawaii Pacific Review"

For years, decades even, I've been sending poetry packets to Hawaii Pacific Review.  They'd come back, and often with an encouraging note written on the rejection slip.

Let us now consider the rejection note and why we keep sending out our poetry packets again and again, only to face certain rejection.  I have some journals to which I submit even though I know that the odds of success are almost non-existent; I know how many submissions that a journal like Poetry gets.  Yet I also know personally one poet who is not all that different from me who has had work accepted there, and so, even though I've gotten no encouraging notes, I keep submitting.

Last year, I finally got an acceptance from Hawaii Pacific Review.  And last week, my contributor copies of the journal arrived, along with a letter that explained that this issue would be the last paper edition.  I understand the economics that make this move necessary.  I know that online journals offer all sorts of possibilities that those committed to paper cannot afford or even accomplish if money was no object.  Still, I felt a bit sad at the news that an era had passed.

I also had the disconcerting feeling of scarcely remembering the poem of mine that appeared in the journal.  I remember a line or two.  I vaguely remember coming up with the first stanza after watching a Clint Eastwood movie.  But did that really happen or would it be the way that it happened if I was a character in a short story?  I can no longer tell you.

Once I could have told you the inspiration behind every poem I ever wrote, and for many of them, I could have told you exactly where and when I wrote it and what I was feeling.  Of course, once I was moving every few years and my circumstances changed and my writing settings also changed.  So it was easier to recall the specifics behind every poem.

Until this summer, I had written most of my poems of the past decade and a half in the same house, in the same room.  So, the process of composing poems hasn't changed, and therefore, I remember the particulars less and less.

Or maybe it's a function of getting older with a larger mass of poems created.

In any case, here's my poem that appeared in the last issue of Hawaii Pacific Review.

Sure Shot

I want to be that woman
who can aim a gun
while shifting through the sticky
gears of a tricky transmission
of a truck made in the year
before my birth.

I want to chop
off all my hair and not cry
over lost locks. I want to dress
in monochromes that haunt
my coloring with hints
of a sunnier day.
I want to practice yoga
every morning and drink
only weak tea for breakfast.

I want to swim submerged
in a distant sea.
I want to log long miles
running before dawn through the streets
of abandoned cities.

I want to snack
on melons and pineapples grown
on an exotic island.
I want to be that island
of volcanic ash baking
in the middle of a vast ocean.

I want to believe in you
the way I once did,
And so each morning, I tend
the flowers after kneading
the bread dough that rises
on the window sill.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus: Metaphors for a Creative Life

Today we celebrate the federal holiday of Columbus Day, although October 12 was the actual day of the first sighting of land after almost 2 months at sea. I’m always amazed at what those early explorers accomplished. At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

In our creative lives, we may have to set off on a tiny boat. We might wish we had different resources, but we start with what we have. Sure, it would be nice to attend that MFA program or to have the job that only has a 2-1 teaching load (do those exist at an entry level anymore?). But the good news is that we can make our way across a wide ocean, even if we have less resources than others. All we need is a smidge of time and the resolve and self-discipline that it takes not to waste that time.

Important journeys can be made in teeny-tiny boats. It's better than staring longingly out towards the sea.

We often think that starting the voyage is the biggest hurdle. But once you begin the journey, the hard part may be yet to come. I've often wondered if Columbus and other explorers ever woke up in the middle of the night and said, "What am I doing here? I could have just settled down with my sweetheart, had a few kids, watched the sunset every night while I enjoyed my wine." Of course, back then, a lot of options were closed to people, and that's why they set off for the horizon. No job opportunities in the Old World? Head west! Sweetheart left you for another or died? Head west!

Maybe we need to just set sail, knowing that we're going to be out of sight of land for awhile. Maybe we need to get over our need for safe harbor, for knowing exactly where we're going.
It's easy to feel full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project. It’s far harder to keep up that enthusiasm when you're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but your instruments and the stars to guide you, with no sense of how far away the land for which you're searching might be.

Maybe we have a manuscript that we feel is good, but no publisher has chosen yet. Maybe we have a batch of poems that seem to go together, but we have no sense of how to assemble the manuscript, while at the same time, we know we need to create 20 more poems. Maybe we have a vision of the kind of job that might support our creative selves, but no idea of how to get to where we want to be from where we are.

I'm guessing that many of us have similar feelings during our creative lives. We start a project full of enthusiasm. Months or years later, our enthusiasm may flag, as we find ourselves still wrestling with the same issues, even if we’ve moved on to other projects. We can take our cue from the great explorers of the 1400s and later. It’s true that we may feel we’re making the same explorations over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we won’t make important discoveries, even if it’s our fifth trip across the Atlantic on a tiny boat.

I keep thinking of the ship's logs and the captain's journals, which Columbus kept obsessively. Perhaps we need to do a bit more journalling/blogging/notetaking/observing. Maybe it’s more calibrating or more focused daydreaming. These tools can be important in our creative lives.

Maybe we need a benefactor. Who might be Queen Isabella for us, as artists and as communities of artists?

The most important lesson we can learn from Columbus is we probably need to know that while we think we're sailing off for India, we might come across a continent that we didn't know existed. Columbus was disappointed with his discovery: no gold, no spices, land that didn’t live up to his expectations. Yet, he started all sorts of revolutions with his discovery. Imagine a life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox."

Still, the metaphor holds for the creative life. Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Views from My Back Yard

--Every so often, I meander back through old blog posts.  Occasionally, I'll choose a month and read all of the posts in that month.  More often, I have a topic in mind and want to know what I've already written about that topic, and that search tempts me to meander, and I often do.  I value these posts for so many reasons, but one is the capturing of daily life, all the details that would be lost without this blogging discipline.

--Are these blog posts valuable?  Yes.  I would still write them, even if I knew that no one would ever read them.  I do value their various potentials; many of my blog posts have led to essays and poems and publication possibilities.  But I also value them as a record of my life, which I understand may be important to no one but me.

--But with my advanced degrees, I also know that some of the writing we consider most mundane, like letter writing or keeping a journal, has great importance to scholars of all sorts.

--So let me record some observations from the past week, which may be mundane or profound or both.

--Our nation-wide network of schools is exploring ways to redesign our approach to English classes.  We're wrestling with questions which plague many schools:  should we require developmental/remedial classes?  If so, how many classes should be in the sequence?  If not, how do we help students who somehow made it through the K-12 system without acquiring basic skills like sentence structure?  We've been divided into teams which will develop possibilities, and then we'll field test some of them before adopting one.  Our teams are working together by way of conference calls. 

--Last week, I took part in a conference call from home.  It had been a very rainy morning.  I looked outside to see a woman riding her bike down the alley.  She was a vision of the color pink incarnate.  Her bike was pink, her raincoat was pink, she wore pink pants and a pink scarf around her blond hair, hair that seemed pinkish, surrounded by all that pink.  What a vision, all that pink against a backdrop of bright green, rain washed palm fronds.

--Last night, my spouse told me of a similar sight, a couple zooming down the alley on a red motorized scooter.  He said the woman wore a black evening dress, and she waved at him.  He thought they looked a bit like friends of ours who live in the neighborhood and asked if they'd bought a scooter.

--I saw a different set of friends in the neighborhood, friends who just had a baby in June.  On Friday, as I drove home for work, I saw them out for a stroll.  One of them pushed the baby stroller, while the other walked the dog.  They looked so picture perfect.

--I've been helping with a repair project in the back yard.  I am always amazed that despite decades of experience that should convince him otherwise, my spouse is unwavering in his belief that I have home repair skills which I just do not.  I can hardly hold the cordless drill, much less manage the task of connecting with a screw.

--But there are other things I can do.  I've been taking down old drywall.  I'm amazed at the various uses for a utility knife (cutting, prying).  I have a sense of awe at the focus of the drywall screw:  while chunks of drywall fall, it holds fast.

--I've been cutting insulation.  That, too, I can do.  It doesn't make me itch as much as it once did.  Has the nature of insulation changed?  Is my skin tougher?

--It's fascinating to consider how the light has shifted.  Three months ago, at 5 in the afternoon, we sat in the full sun by the pool.  Yesterday, the light at 5 was full of shadows.  We could still read outside, and would be able to read until 7 or so.  But I didn't worry about sunburn.

--I thought I would be helping with a pumpkin project at my church today.  We were expecting the truck to arrive today.  We would need many hands to get the pumpkins off the truck.  But there's a problem in the pumpkin patch in New Mexico (they grow pumpkins in New Mexico?); the truck hasn't even left yet.

--So, I have an unexpectedly free afternoon.  I will probably spend it helping with the repair project in the back yard.  But there should also be some time for reading by the pool, for enjoying a few last shreds of summer.

--It's easier to enjoy last shreds of summer, even as I yearn for pumpkins, by a swimming pool in my back yard.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Day That Celebrates Friends

I have decided that I love Fridays at work, for the reasons that you'd expect, but more because it's fairly quiet around the office.  We used to have a lot of Friday classes in my department, but then when cuts to the Fall schedule were demanded, many Friday classes were cancelled.  In the past, when our numbers were different and we had to add extra sections, I often could only find classroom space on Fridays.  But now, life is different at my school.

I know that I shouldn't like a quiet day.  It means we don't have student demand, and we know that this trajectory leads us to a place we don't want to be.  But for now, I'm enjoying the peace.

Yesterday was a surreal day in ways I can't quite articulate.  It wasn't unpleasant; it was the kind of day when I looked up to say, "Wow!  Where has the time gone?"  In the morning, I met my friend and colleague in the library, which was also deserted.  We could set up in the small computer lab and work beside each other, with several computers devoted to our project, with papers spread out, and we disturbed no one.  We don't have much space like that--and an added bonus, the windows which let in so much light. 

I had one morning interruption, but it was delightful:  a student hand-delivered his CLEP test scores so that he could get credit for French class.  Sure, we don't teach French, but he could use it as elective credit.  His dad was along for his errands, and both of them were delightful and patient with the process, which involved forms and copies and policies.  In the end, it was a fairly easy matter to settle.  I love problems that are easily solved.

In the afternoon,  I worked on some additional paperwork as I completed one faculty member's annual review, did some filing, and some copying.  I went back to the library where it's movie afternoon on Fridays and Wednesdays.  I got some popcorn, while Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds played in the background.  I remember the first time I saw the movie, somewhere back in the mists of undergraduate school, where I was simply baffled by the attack of the birds and the lack of an explanation.  Now it makes more sense to me, nature gone berserk, and we can't explain.

I finished the day by going over to my church's parsonage for a wonderful dinner and some worship service planning; I wrote about that event more extensively in this piece on my theology blog.  It was wonderful to gather around my pastor's huge dining room table for a delicious homemade meal and fellowship with good friends.

I started the day writing a blog post about friendship, and I ended the day enjoying time with those friends.  I felt the little bit of frustration that I always feel, the wishing that we could do this more often.  Not for the first time did I wonder what it would be like if we lived closer to each other. Could we organize our lives around a communal meal that happened more often?  Could we eat together once a week?

But of course, that's not our lives, and so we got into our separate cars and headed back to our individual houses. I took some time to remember that I've tried communal living before, in a single house, which came with a wide assortment of blessings and frustrations.  I dream of land and small cottages and a central communal space where we'd have meals and board games and creative projects in process.

I drove home on the alert for Halloween lights, and I saw a house here and there decorated. I thought back to my first trip to Mepkin Abbey which coincided with Halloween and All Saints Day, an interesting juxtaposition in any setting, but especially in a monastery.  As the darkness fell, I'd see monks in the distance, in their white robes, and I'd think about ghosts and Klansmen.  I've tried to write a poem that captures these images, but never been successful.

As I drove to dinner, I was listening to an NPR piece on the afterlife, so my thoughts of Mepkin led me to thoughts of a later trip to Mepkin, where my friend said she had a strong presence of her father in the chapel.  I asked if it was a good experience or scary, and she said it was enormously comforting.  I feel a poem bubbling.

I want to feel poems bubbling more often.  I feel like I've fallen out of my poetry habits, and I need to get them back.

Today we have a friend coming over to help hang sheet rock, and later, another friend will bring Texas cornbread to say thank you for helping her move a few weeks ago.  My gratitude for good friends will continue!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Midlife Friends

I've been thinking about friends, about the kinds of friends I think I should have, the kinds of friends I wish I had, the kinds of friends I've had in the past, all the ways that friendships change.

Before we moved here in 1998, I hadn't lived in any place longer than 5 years.  And even during those 5 year stints, there were changes:  grad school years starting and ending, different houses, job variety, that kind of thing. So if friendships changed, it was easy to find apparent causes.

Now I've been in my current workplace for over 10 years, which means I've been friends with these people for a long time.  And yet, there have been changes:  health crises, the trajectory of children, the job itself, our creative interests.  It can be tough to navigate.

When I was young, my family moved a lot.  I felt like the outsider, always seeing other people who seemed to have deep and intricate friendships.  I wanted friendships like those.  I imagined that we would tell our deep, dark secrets.  I wanted to be known and loved despite of my shortcomings.  Those were the kinds of friendships that I saw depicted in books and movies too:  two people who commit to each other through thick or thin, who know each other in all sorts of ways, who stay together.

It sounds like marriage, doesn't it?  And like our unrealistic expectations of marriage, I think that our unrealistic expectations of friendships can doom us.

I've been thinking about the people in my life who are friends of sorts, yet my younger self might not have described them such.  For example, at my gym, I know all sorts of people.  I see some of them more regularly than I see most friends; some of them I see daily.  I often know about how they're feeling, about their recovery from various ailments, and I often hear about family members.  Yet I don't know everything about them.  I have no idea where they went to school, if they went to school, what kind of significant relationships they've had, or their view of spirituality.  And yet, in many ways, they are good friends.

Last night I got to spin class after work only to discover that I had packed two shirts, instead of a shirt and a pair of shorts.  I went back to the spin room to tell my teacher why I couldn't stay.  Not one, but two of my spinning friends offered to loan me an extra pair of shorts.

I said yes to one woman, even though I felt strange about borrowing her clothes.  It felt intimate in some way; I'd be sweating intensely.  When I said this to my friend, she shrugged and said, "You'll wash them."  I also worried about ruining her shorts in some way:  splitting a seam or stretching out the cloth beyond repair.  But it was only an hour, after all.

This generosity amazed me and touched me deeply.  On some level, I felt unworthy, like we didn't know each other well enough to be sharing clothes.  And yet, two days earlier, we'd gathered around this woman's  iPhone to see pictures of her granddaughter, a child not one year old, a child who is on a liver transplant list. I've spent the summer praying for this baby and her family, as have the rest of us who are praying people.  On Tuesday, we found out that the child's liver appears to be rejuvenating, although she'll stay on the transplant list just in case.

Maybe these are the kinds of friends one has at midlife.  I think back to my college friends, back when we lived in the same dorm or a no further away from each other than a quick walk across the Quad.  We spent lots of time together.  We had intense conversations.  We helped each other through all kinds of crises.

Once I'd have said I missed that level of intense friendship.  Now that life throws plenty of drama our way, I marvel at the manufactured drama of those college years:  why did we do that to ourselves?

Still, in having stayed planted in this place, there's a bittersweet nature to my longterm friendships, a memory of what we once had, a sadness at what's gone.  When did we all get so busy?  What happened to our good health?  How did we once create so much, and now it's hard to see any project to completion?

Is there abundant recompense, as Wordsworth might have phrased it?  I'm sure that there is, but it will take me time and distance to be clear about the nature of that recompense.

And in the meantime, there are all sorts of friendships that provide comfort and succor.  There are friends who notice my absence when I don't make it to the gym.  There are friends from past places who write e-mails and plan to meet me at retreats or monasteries.  There are friends at church, with whom I will unload pumpkins on Sunday.  Those kinds of projects cement us together in ways that late night philosophical conversations used to do for college friends.

I am rich in friends of all sorts, and on this Friday, I'm grateful for that.