Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween at Mepkin Abbey

Ten years ago, I'd have been spending this week-end at Mepkin Abbey, the first time I went to Mepkin Abbey.  I had an idea of what to expect, since the friends who went there with me had gone a few months earlier.  I knew that we wouldn't be staying in the Abbey itself, and we might be in a trailer.  We were.  I knew that the meals would be vegetarian and that we'd only have a fixed amount of time to eat the midday meal.  Because I'd read Kathleen Norris, I had a sense of the schedule of worship.

I was not prepared for how that brief visit would transform me.  I went home with Plainsong ringing in my years and yearning to return.  And so I have returned for 10 years now.  I do some of my best writing and revising while I'm there, and some of my best poems have been inspired by my time there.  I have seen how a schedule that returns us to our center can be both calming and invigorating.

Maybe I will write more later on all the ways I've been transformed, but for now, let me remember that first week-end.  For more spiritual/religious details, go to this blog post.

--It was the only time so far that I took a plane.  I often find travelling by plane a bit discombobulating, and it's more so with a visit to an Abbey in the middle of the plane trips.

--For some reason, I associate monks with homemade bread, but the main breadbaker at Mepkin had died a few years earlier, so we had grocery store bread.  It was still fairly tasty.  I remember the cinnamon swirl bread for morning, the pumpernickel for evening sandwiches.

--I expected austerity with the meals, but the food was tasty and plentiful.  We had dessert with every meal.  I was amused by the cookies in Halloween shapes.

--The library was amazing.  With the exception of university libraries, I've never seen such an amazing collection of books that covered every type of theology.  And I was able to see copies of magazines and journals that a university collection would be happy to include.  It was wonderful.

--The gift shop had an amazing collection of books too, along with a wide variety of treats, both edible and non-edible.

--We were there during the week-end that the time changed back to Eastern Standard--interesting to see how the light changed during services from Daylight Savings to Eastern Standard.

--Halloween came on a Sunday.  On Saturday night we took a walk by the banks of the Cooper River.  We could see the housing development in the distance.  We saw flickering candles and children trick or treating.  I rarely feel the "thin space" that so many feel on Halloween, that time when the separation between worlds is thinnest.  That night, I caught a glimpse, there on those very historic grounds.  I would not have been surprised to see the ghost of a runaway slave or a Native American.

--On Sunday night, we took an evening walk along the wide drive that connects the Abbey to the road.  It's lined with huge trees draped with Spanish moss.  We saw a pair of monks in the distance, and they, too, looked ghostly.  I told my friend that if she vanished, I wouldn't be surprised.  It all seemed so otherworldly that I wouldn't have been surprised by something truly supernatural.

--We walked a lot when we were there.  The trailer was about a half mile from the Abbey, so we went back and forth about 7 times a day.  And then we had long, rambling walks across the grounds.  And what beautiful gardens.

--I also loved how there were statues throughout the grounds, some traditional marble statues, and some carved out of wood.  I felt like I was always happening upon a treat.

--That first year I read more than I wrote.  In later years, that hasn't always been the case.  I was amazed that first year by how many naps I took.  I just stayed open to what my body was telling me.  I wondered what it would be like to always be that in touch with my physical and intellectual self, that I could just take what comes and trust that it's what is best.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Longings Fulfilled

I have the Living Lutheran site on my brain for several reasons.  One is that my latest post is up today.  Its subject:  what we lost in the Reformation.  Go here to read it.

I also have the site on the brain because I have finally updated my complete CV--the CV I no longer send out, because it is far too long because it lists every individual poem publication, and every online site essay, and on and on.

For years, I've just put the link to the Living Lutheran blog posts that I've written on my CV.  But at some point in the last year, the web site changed and the links no longer worked.  I thought the easiest way to get the titles would be to work my way back through the archives.   I've been a bit worried that the archives would vanish before I had a chance to do it. 

So finally this week I had a chance to go through the archives and copy titles and dates into my CV.  Unfortunately, if there was a filter that would have allowed me to just view my posts, I never found it. I say unfortunately, but it was pleasant in a way, looking for my posts, reading others which sounded interesting.

Pleasant, but time consuming.  At least it is done now.

As I finished, I said to myself, "Wow.  Look at all you have accomplished:  52 blog posts, all of them 500 words or more, about a wide variety of subjects, since November of 2010."

I often go through my days feeling like I'm not living up to my potential or that my projects are going very slowly, too slowly.  It's good to have a reminder that I'm not completely off track.

And of course, maybe the idea of a track is flawed.  The work will take the time that the work takes.  I'm loving this post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, which reminds us that "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."  Her post talks about the work of parenthood and the work of attentive living, but her thoughts also hold true for our creative work.

I'm also thinking about how prayers are answered, but maybe not in ways we thought.  Last night, I was reading parts of Paul Wilkes' Beyond the Walls:  Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life, and I came across this quote (I will leave the gendered language for God that the author uses):  "I will also never be a Trappist Monk, yet I am able to come to Mepkin on a regular basis and share in this life I find gratifying and rich.  Our deepest desires will be fulfilled, discernment promises, though not always in our time or in ways that we would choose or even imagine.  God hears our prayers, knows our yearning.  He is at work in the world.  We need faith and we need patience, but he will fill the hear that is open to him" (p. 121).

I thought of my years of writing and sending work out in the first years of this century.  I had discovered Kathleen Norris and modeled my writing after her.  I sent my essays to places where she had published, but to no avail.  At the time, I would not have been able to imagine a site like Living Lutheran.  But how wonderful that it has come into being and that this publishing arm of the largest Lutheran denomination in the nation is open to such a variety of ideas that we find there.

My deep yearning of 2003, that I could write and find an audience, has been answered but not in ways I would have imagined then.

And in the spirit of full disclosure, let me confess that new yearnings have replaced the old--variations old yearnings, to be precise.  Now I dream of book length collections of these essays (to go with book length collections of poems).  I still dream of making a living with my writing.  I still yearn for a speaking tour, although when I went here and saw the 2015 schedule of Nadia Bolz-Weber, I confess that it made me tired.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Autumn Songs

One of the advantages of travelling by car is the chance to listen to CDs.  For a variety of reasons, I almost never do so at other times.  Sigh.

I took a variety of CDs on our recent trip to the mountains.  It's the older Johnny Cash CD that I can't get out of my mind:  American V:  A Hundred Highways.  It's an amazing CD, with a variety of spiritual songs.

Some of the songs are flat-out spirituals, like the older "God's Gonna Cut You Down."  I loved the last song he ever wrote, "Like the 309." That one is a somber look at aging and death, but it's cut through with humor.  It's built around a reference to a train, and that lonely train song shows up again in his cover of Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train," a melancholy song about a husband putting his wife's coffin on the train, while their child weeps.

I wept at his cover of the old Gordon Lightfoot song, "If You Could Read My Mind."  I knew that this album was the last one that Cash did before he died, and while I can't be sure that he recorded this song after the death of June Carter Cash, it does have the deep longing and loss wrapped through it.

He also covers Bruce Springsteen's "Further On Up the Road."  While it's not overtly a spiritual song, when it's offered in the company of these other songs, sung in the rough voice of an aged Johnny Cash, it's hard NOT to see it as a spiritual look at death.  I like that idea that we'll all meet again, even if we're not sure exactly where or how, whether it's later in life or after death.

I'm late to discovering this CD--it's been out since 2006.  But what an excellent find!  It's an oddly comforting CD, even though hopefully, I'm not at the end of my life.  And while I don't agree with all the theology, like a God that will cut us down, it speaks to a heritage that I'm glad to be able to access.  Plus, it's a great song.

Many of us likely don't place Cash alongside other great spiritual singers.  But listen to this CD, and you might change your mind.

When I got home, I did some research on the album, and discovered that I own the The Rising, the CD from Bruce Springsteen which has his recording of "Further On Up the Road."  So I've spent the time since we got home discovering that CD.

Should I say rediscovering?  Probably not.  I bought the CD shortly after it came out and listened straight through.  It was almost too painful to bear.  If I listened to it again, it was only once.  And then I put it away.

What an amazing CD!  And what an amazing song.  When I hear Johnny Cash sing it, on the last album he would ever record, my brain goes to death and seeing our loved ones further on up that road.  Cash's version is somber and meditative; his voice is both strong and appropriately wavery in places.

Bruce Springsteen gives a more spirited recording.  When I listen to him sing at a much faster tempo, I think of folks who need to get out of town quickly.  I think of people who live on the margins of the law, of transgressives of all sorts.

Both CDs are perfect for this autumnal time of year, when shadows grow, before the darkness of winter crashes down upon us.  It's the time of year when we think we might make a mad dash and avoid the snares that are set for us.  It's music for plucky people who might just pull it off.

And if not, we'll all meet further on up the road.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Delights of Autumn

Yesterday, when I got to my office, it looked like the Great Pumpkin had come!  Ten pumpkins in my little office--a happy reminder of our good week-end.  But my office is small; there's barely room for my desk and a chair across from it.  It's less than 8 x 8--maybe 7 x 7?  More than one of my colleagues commented on how festive my office looked.

I'll try to remember next year to bring a bigger pumpkin to the office.  I have a very small one on my desk.  It's the size of an apple.  I've noticed that people like to hold it.

Yesterday was a day of many festivities.  We had scary movie day in the library, so I ate more popcorn than advisable.  It was also a colleague's birthday, so I brought in a cake. 

In the afternoon, I saw a call for submissions at the website of Crab Orchard Review:  "To celebrate twenty years of publication, CRAB ORCHARD REVIEW is seeking submissions for our Summer/Fall 2015 issue focusing on writing inspired or informed by the experiences, observations, and/or cultural and historical events of the following topic: '20 Years: Writing About 1995-2015.' We are open to work that covers any of the ways our world and ourselves have changed due to the advancements, setbacks, tragedies, and triumphs of the last twenty years." 

I thought it sounded interesting, so I had a pleasant time going back through old files looking for poems that might fit the theme ( if you want to submit, go here for more details, but don't wait too long--the submission must be mailed by Nov. 10).

I got home to find out that my spouse had thawed pork chops.  So the autumn festival atmosphere continued.  I sautéed apples in butter and apple cider--yummm.  I also heated up some frozen butternut squash puree.  It was the perfect fall meal.

Perhaps today will have more autumnal delights.  I awoke to discover that my blog post was up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"And then I thought of all those agricultural metaphors, where Jesus says, 'The kingdom of heaven is like ... .' That parable of the seeds and the different types of ground – do we really understand that parable if we’ve never planted anything?"

"Unloading the pumpkins also reminds me of something else that I cherish about church communities: At their best, there is room for everyone. The littlest ones can carry pumpkins, if they want to help that way. Those of us without the strength to carry pumpkins can help sell them."

"As I cradled those pumpkins, which so resemble human heads, I felt a strange tenderness toward them, the tenderness that I imagine God feels toward us all. In some ways, pumpkins are so sturdy and yet so fragile. All it takes is one slip and the pumpkin is rendered useless, a pulpy mess of slime and gunk. And yet, even from that accident could come new life, if one planted the pumpkin seeds. From that one pumpkin, we could grow a whole new patch, life out of death."

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Week-end of Concerts

Yesterday we went back to Bailey Hall at Broward College--this time to see the Symphonic Band concert.

You might ask why 2 concerts in one week-end.  You might say, "I don't remember you being this kind of a music fan."

My spouse has to see 10 concerts as part of a music theory class that he's taking, so when there were 2 concerts in one week-end, he saw a way to make up lost time, from when the concert hall was closed for renovations.  With our school IDs, we get to go for free.

I didn't expect to like the Symphonic Band as much as I did.  I thought it might be more marching music, but there was a wide variety.  Like the Broward Symphony, they try to bring the public new works.  Two of the pieces were written by a member of the Band, who was there to conduct--and we were part of the professional recording, so we tried to be very quiet, except for when we erupted into applause.

One of the best parts was a selection of music from the Disney movie Frozen.  What made it wonderful was that the small kids behind us burst into song, even though their parents shushed them.  When I was younger, it might have bothered me.  Now I found it delightful to be near children who couldn't hold back.

I can't quite decide on the acoustics of the new design.  Yesterday, we sat by the professional recording microphone, which my spouse thought would be the best for sound, and it was fine.  Saturday night I thought the sound was a bit more muted, like I was listening to a recording.

After some shopping on our way back, we came home to enjoy a simple meal of a burger, baked beans, and some chips.  We ate by the pool, which is now almost too cold to enjoy much these days.  We're true Floridians now.  But it's still lovely to sit outside as the sun slips towards the horizon and enjoy a meal together.  Our pool has a water feature, a waterfall wall, so it's peaceful.

Then I did the straightening and the getting organized for the coming week, the laundry and the putting away.

The week-end was a good one, which makes it hard to return to work.  Plus we have big changes at work.  Our dean was let go last week, and I probably shouldn't blog too much about that.  Still, I'll have more thoughts on the overall changes at work--maybe in tomorrow's post.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Restorative Power of Pumpkins and the Symphony

I enjoyed a wonderfully restorative day yesterday.  I had a good writing morning, which I already wrote about here.  And then I went to spin class, which restored me in a different way.  It's good to have a tough workout and come out the other side.

I'm often amazed when I stop to consider how many good ideas come out of a tough work out.  I often come home with a clear idea of how to organize a manuscript, for example.  A few months ago, I had an epiphany about the sections in my memoir.  I came right home and put the section markers in.

Yesterday wasn't as profound an epiphany.  I am tasked with buying the pumpkins for my school for the coming week's festivities (see this post for more).  I decided that it would be easiest to buy them and transport them on Saturday, not Monday.

My spouse was open to the idea, so off we went to my church's pumpkin patch.  What a wonderful interaction.  One of the children helped us choose 10 pumpkins, and I had a bit of a donut, which felt like a treat.  I was happy that our pumpkin purchase helped both my school and my church--a win-win!  And yes, I'm biased.

We got a parking space at school near the building, and my spouse helped me carry them in and figure out where to put them in the office.  And on our way back, we stopped at Doris' Italian Market--now our freezer is restocked--a clear marker of the end of hurricane season.

We had yummy burgers for lunch, and I got some writing done in the afternoon.  I'm changing the introduction to my memoir.  Later I'll wrestle with the harder work of weaving all the Epiphany bits together.

We finished the day by going to the Broward Symphony's concert--what a treat!  And it was in the newly refurbished Bailey Concert Hall, which has transformed a shabby-in-spots space into something much more elegant.  How nice to sit in seats that aren't saggy with decades of use.

We got to hear the American premiere of a work, "Overture No. 3," by a Russian composer, Rashid Kalimullin.  That was my favorite piece of the concert.  It had interesting instruments, for one thing.  But it also sounded fresh with notes put together in new ways that I don't have the language to understand.

I love that the conductor of the symphony is committed to showcasing works by new composers.  I wonder if she simply chooses works that she likes and thinks deserve more attention--or does she think about the strengths of her members?

In any case, it was a wonderful way to end the day--and then we returned home, and the World Series was still on.  So my spouse got an additional treat.  I had a late supper of cheese, crackers, and wine and fell into a happy sleep.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Home Repair, Lost Names, and Reformations Large and Small

It's been a good, but unusual, writing morning.  For reasons unknown to me, I woke up wanting to know the timeline of cottage repair a year ago.  I decided to go back through blog postings of last year at this time.

I came across this nugget in this post that made me think I had a poem beginning:

"Those home repair/improvement shows don't show the mountains of wasted raw materials: the tiles that cracked in the wrong place, the carpet cut in the wrong place, the gobs of masonry/plaster/paste that we thought we'd need but didn't, the lumber that split the wrong way when the saw hit it.  No one fights on a home repair show.  No one hurls tools in anger/disgust/frustration.  No one dissolves into weeping."

But I wanted to get a more pressing project underway.  I am responsible for the more interactive worship service tomorrow.  I needed to write some prayers and to find some images for Reformation Sunday.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, we are living in a remarkable time:  type some words into a search engine and voila!  I had the images I needed.  And it was fairly easy to get them into the PowerPoint template for the service.  Not for the first time have I thought of the connection between Luther and easier printing technology and our own time of technology that makes it easier to communicate (see this post for more).

I went back to my blog posts about Reformation to get ideas for the prayers.  They were easy to write.  Would they have been this easy if I hadn't had those blog posts?  I doubt it.

I decided to write a poem.  But first, I decided to finish the poem I wrote the other day, the one that was inspired by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat's poem that you can find here, a poem inspired by Luisa Igloria's prompt: Write a poem about your secret name(s).  If you like that prompt and want others, see this post

And then I wrote parts of a poem inspired by the above blog post.  It begins this way:

No one dissolves into weeping
on the home repair shows.

I envision at least 3 stanzas beginning with 2 lines:

Competent hands hold the tools
on the home repair shows.


No mountains of wasted supplies pile up
on the home repair shows.

I plan to fill in the rest of the lines later; my writing time draws to a close, and I soon must go to spin class.

But let me record another joy in my morning's Internet ramblings.  Much of yesterday I spent creating the Winter schedule.  I walked to look at classrooms as I tried to envision a schedule that would work with everyone's needs.  I created a schedule and sent an e-mail to my department asking them to double check to make sure I had created a schedule that would work for each person.

One of my department members keeps a blog, and this morning, I discovered this blog post with this revelation about her schedule: 

"The only glitch seemed to be the availability of a half hour during my work day to finish this process; I needn't have worried since my schedule for next quarter presents an entire hour between classes! How propitious! It seemed all was falling into place. I was told that even traveling should not be a problem."

I had worried that she might not be happy about the changes I made to her schedule to be able to grant her request for extra time between classes, but come to find out, I was part of a day of blessings. 

I went to a goodbye party for the director of admissions yesterday, and everyone spoke so fondly of her as they toasted her goodbye.  I slipped away, fighting sadness, that funeral feeling that no one would cry at my absence.  I was pleased this morning to be reminded that something as small as working out a schedule request can be a blessing, can be part of bringing good into the world. 

Some reformations are huge.  Some are small, but can have a dramatic impact on a single life.

It's been a good morning.  May the rest of the day follow.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Anniversaries: Hurricanes and Online Teaching

I have anniversaries on the brain.  If it was 2005, at this hour, I'd be up to watch the news.  For weeks, we'd been watching the progress of Hurricane Wilma.  We had just finished cleaning up from Hurricane Katrina, which hit Florida on its way to New Orleans.  We had a huge ficus tree in the back yard, and when it fell, it took up much of the back yard.  It didn't hit the house, but it did smash a shed to smithereens, along with fence line.

So we got that cleaned up and a new shed built, just in time for Hurricanes Rita and Wilma (the shed survived the tests!).  I have no memories of Rita, but Wilma was different.

I got up just before 5 a.m. and watched the news.  I knew that Wilma would come ashore on the west coast, so I assumed that it would lose power as it crossed the peninsula.  Our puny land mass didn't seem to affect it at all.  I watched the news, little imagining it would be the last time for days that we'd have power.

Some people say that Wilma was only a category 1, but I'd swear it was a 2.  When I saw all the damage, I wondered if it was a 3.  At any rate, it's sobering how much damage a strong 1 or a 2 can do.  Some parts of our county were out of power until Thanksgiving.

Let me think about a happier anniversary.  A week ago, more or less, I'd have been starting my first week of online teaching.  I didn't blog about the fact that I was teaching online until much later.  I wanted to make sure I could do it, and for a variety of reasons, mainly fear of failure, I didn't want many people at my full time job to know.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was delighted.  A year ago, I started a Word document.  I thought I might write a post later.

Here's what I wrote:

The students are so enthusiastic about being enrolled.  They write marvelous introductions of themselves.  They respond to my introduction of myself and ask questions (where did you get your Ph.D.?) and ask if I could post a picture of one of my quilts, which I do.

Here's my introduction:

My name is Kristin Berkey-Abbott.  I earned a Ph.D. in British Literature.  I became an English major because I love to read, and I became a college teacher because I wanted to discuss good writing with students and to help them become better writers and communicators.

When I'm not reading, still one of my favorite things to do in my spare time, I'm quilting, going to spin and boot camp class, and working on a variety of writing projects.  I look forward to the conversations we'll have here.

I remember being thrilled at their enthusiasm and at my own corresponding enthusiasm.  Happily, that thrill has not faded.  I've just started with 2 new online classes, and the students are brimming with hope and happiness to be there.  I am too. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Poetry Thursday: Nancy Drew as Teacher

Yesterday I wrote this blog post that talked about my inspirations in writing a poem about Nancy Drew who had grown up and gone back to teaching.  I posted a link to the post on Facebook, and several of my friends wanted to see the poem--and one mentioned Ned Nickerson, which gave me an inspiration about how to end the poem.  I've decided to go ahead and post the poem here and put a link on Facebook.

First, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess to being a Trixie Beldon fan.  I collected that whole series.  While I read the Nancy Drew series, I much preferred Trixie Beldon, who seemed much more spunky and independent.

This morning, as I revised yesterday's Nancy Drew poem, I wanted to find a list of the titles of the Nancy Drew books.  Not too long ago, I'd have needed to go to a library.  Now a simple search gets me to a page that lists them.  Amazing. 

At some point, perhaps I'll weave more elements from these titles before I call the poem done.  This morning, as I mulled over how to end the poem, I found the list inspiring.  I had written these lines:

She contemplates the oldest mystery
of all, why we lose
the ones we love,
how we become phantoms of our younger selves.

Below, you can see how the poem evolved differently.  I was going to end the poem with those lines.  Then I wrote what became the last 2 stanzas.  I decided that the lines above weren't necessary, and in fact, detracted.  I think that I often reveal too much, that I don't trust the readers to connect the strands.

I'm not calling this poem finished, so if you have any ideas or suggestions, feel free to let me know.  Or if it inspires you to write a poem of your own, swell!

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Pre-Drop Outs

Nancy Drew decides she needs new
mysteries to solve, so she returns
to school, to mold young minds.

Long ago, in between cracking cases
involving diaries or letters or maps and solving
secrets in attics and towers, she got a teaching
certificate, as ambitious women did in those days.
Now she calls the school board to see
how she might be of use.

Her credentials, old and out of date,
don't prevent her from taking charge
of the most hopeless classrooms,
the students on a layover
on their journey to juvenile court.

Given tattered textbooks and worksheets without
answer keys, Nancy Drew adopts
a different approach.  As always, she calls
on her friends.

Bess runs a bakeshop, so she teaches
the students to cook, a retro home-ec
approach.  Nancy Drew's feminist critics
would not approve, but this generation
of students, raised on cooking shows, responds
with rare enthusiasm.

Nancy Drew believes in fresh air and sunshine,
so she recruits her friend George, a marine
biologist, for ideas.  George leads
field trips to various ecosystems:
swamp walks and snorkeling and soon
some of the students are ready
for college-track science classes.

These clues to a better future don't prevent
some of her students from sneaking
away to explore more ancient secrets.
She tries to keep them focused on the future,
but she remembers Ned Nickerson
and those cars now considered classics.

She thinks Of Ned in the roadster,
and later, her love confined to the hospital bed,
immune from rescue, unable to hear
her whispered pleas.

She kisses the old locket always worn
around her neck and writes the day's lesson
plan on the white board.  At the end
of the day, she erases the smeared
lines from the board to leave a blank
space to be filled again in the morning.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Pre-Drop Outs

Once again, I look at my purple poetry legal pad, and I am appalled--can I really not have written anything since Oct. 4?

Well, of course I've written something:  responses to student writing, blog posts, and more e-mails than I can count.  But no poems.

A few weeks ago, in this blog post, I read a poem written by Jeannine Hall Gailey, a poem which features Nancy Drew.  Throughout the years, I've been writing poems about fictional characters in their older ages (for example, see this blog post to see what happens to Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird).   What would happen to Nancy Drew in her later years?

A few years ago, I wrote a poem about Ebeneezer Scrooge as an adjunct professor--I thought I might send Nancy Drew back to the classroom.

This morning, I sat down to write, and the pieces snapped into place.  Nancy Drew wouldn't be teaching college.  She'd have had a teacher's certificate from pre-feminist days.  And they'd let her teach the kids that were headed to juvenile jails and drop out land--who cares about those kids?

I thought about a friend's experience teaching those kinds of kids.  She was allowed to do basically whatever she wanted, to abandon textbooks and to teach whatever came to her, so long as she kept the kids from hurting each other or the other children in the school.

I thought about Nancy Drew's friends, Bess and George--what happened to them?  Could they help Nancy Drew solve the mystery of how to reach these students?

Of course!  Bess has started a bakeshop and this generation of students, raised on cooking shows, eat up what she has to offer in the way of old-fashioned home-ec.  George, the tomboy, has gone on to become a marine biologist, so she leads field trips into various ecosystems.

Now I need to figure out how to end the poem.  I need to avoid doing what I often do--leaving the poem to percolate and never getting back to that ending.  I pledge to return to this poem tomorrow.

I shall now float through the challenges of the day, secure in the knowledge that I've written a poem and delighted in the knowledge that Nancy, Bess, and George have grown into good lives.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What I Read During My Autumn Vacation

One of the anticipated joys of travelling is more time to read.  This year, I took Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book with me.  I read a reference to it in this post.  At the time, I was reading a different book about the medieval plague, Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders.  I decided to read Willis next.

But it's a big book, and I've been having trouble making progress.  However, during my time away, I devoured it--amazing what having no computer access can do.

The book revolves around time travel--a researcher is supposed to go back to a time in the medieval period before the plague arrives in England, but something goes wrong, and she arrives just in time for the arrival of the plague.

The book also revolves around the idea of disease.  The researcher is stranded because back in the current time, a strange strain of flu begins to sweep through the city.  At the end of the book, we find out that the lethality rate of the flu was 68%--not quite as bad as the 90% mortality rate of the plague strain that the time travelling researcher experiences, but it's easy to imagine that in more challenging circumstances, with lack of medicines and fluids and soap, the lethality rate would be higher.

It's a book that also has some interesting meditations on religion, especially at the end.  The time traveler talks into her recorder, even though she's unsure that anyone will hear her.  She says, "He [the priest for the village] continues to say matins and vespers and to pray, telling God about Rosemund and who has it now, reporting their symptoms and telling what we're doing for them, as if He could actually hear him.  The way I talk to you.  Is God there, too, I wonder, but shut off from us by something worse than time, unable to get through, unable to find us?" (p. 348). 

Even more daringly, Willis connects the time travel with the Christ story.  There's an interesting meditation in this passage that haunts me:  "God didn't know where His Son was, Dunworthy thought.  He had sent His only begotten Son into the world, and something had gone wrong with the fix, someone had turned off the net, so that He couldn't get to him, and they had arrested him and put a crown of thorns on his head and nailed him to a cross" (p. 366).

Both narratives also deal with the issue of hospitality, of being a stranger in a strange land, of being stranded and how we cope.  It also explores how humans deal with the unexpected and the strange, and why we panic or don't.  It has all sorts of lessons for us as we deal with the Ebola crisis--and a good reminder that flu has been far more lethal throughout history.

Willis' book was published in 1992--why haven't I discovered it before?  I think about 1994 or so, when I started to research the plague and its impact on early British literature.  I read Plagues and Peoples, but no fiction.  I read Laurie Garrett's excellent The Coming Plague, where I first heard about Ebola.  The Doomsday Book deserves a spot beside them.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What I Did On My Autumn Vacation

We have done one of our mad dashes to Lutheridge, a church camp near Asheville.  I am experiencing that feeling of tiredness and displacement, like I've left parts of myself all over the southeast.  Or maybe it's because I've been reading, and just finished, Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book, a great book about both the future and time travel back to the time of the Bubonic Plague.

Let me make a list of what I want to remember about my autumnal trek.

--On Wednesday, we were still in South Florida.  We headed over to our church, where an 18 wheeler full of pumpkins waited for our church to unload it.  Hours later, we had transformed our church's front area into a pumpkin patch.

--It is perhaps not the wisest idea to spend hours moving heavy gourds from place to place twelve hours before one drives several states to the north.  We had to stop along the way to buy some ibuprofen; it's been a long time since my back ached like that.

--We stopped along the way to buy apples--what a glorious day in the orchards!  We bought apples, cider, jams, and sweet potatoes.

--I was ready for fall colors, but there weren't many of them.  The trees were both green and brown with a touch of gold.  Did we miss the glory of the leaves?  Is it going to be one of those autumns when the trees don't remember to blaze forth?

--My spouse had a Board of Trustees finance subcommittee meeting, while I went to a retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat.  We both got lots of good work done.

--It was wonderful to be with my Lutheridge artist friends again.  It was great to be part of the retreat planning, even though I will miss the retreat in the spring.

--As we drove up and down the Interstate, I thought of all the friends who live along the way, friends whom we didn't have time to stop and see.

--And here I am, back in the land of mostly endless summer.  I have pumpkins on the porch--some traditional and some a cream colored gourd streaked with green and orange.  One of the advantages of being part of the pumpkin offload is having first chance at the pumpkins.  But I only know that it's autumn because of the seasonal decorations--and the apples in my fridge!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Starved for Time

The days grow shorter, and so does my writing time.  I wish I had time to spend here:

Or even a length of time to spend here:

I'd love to have time to garden:

Or even just to water the plants:

Or just to have a cup of tea:

If my grandmother's experience is any indication, at some point, I may have more time than I know how to fill.  But not this month.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Creative Pursuits on the Feast Day of Saint Luke

Today is the feast day of St. Luke.  You might be saying, "Wait, don't you have a theology blog where you could discuss that?"

Indeed I do, and I have a more theological post over there today.  But even if you're not a spiritual sort, you might find all sorts of inspiration from St. Luke.

St. Luke was a writer, after all (he gets credit for the Biblical books of Luke and Acts).  He's also given credit as one of the first iconographers.  Today would be a great day to write our own Gospel that tells about the Good news that we're seeing in the world.  Or we could celebrate this patron saint of artists this way with the visual arts.

 We could experiment with a variety visual arts to see how they could enrich our mental and spiritual health. We might choose something historical and traditional, like iconography. Or we might decide that we want to experiment with something that requires less concentration and training. Maybe we want to create a collage of images that remind us of God’s abundance. Maybe we want to meditate on images, like icons, like photographs, that call us to healthy living.

St. Luke is also the patron saint of students.  Maybe it's time to plan for a class we want to take in January.

Or maybe we just want to make a beef stew; St. Luke is also the patron saint of butchers.  This NPR webpage gives a great beef stew recipe, and a link to an interview between Fresh Air's Terry Gross and the America's Test Kitchen chefs which tells how to maximize flavors in your beef stew along with other culinary chemistry wonders.

So, enjoy the feast day of St. Luke, a saint that should be dear to the heart of creative types.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Two Weeks Until Halloween!

Have you made your Halloween costume yet?  Does it require sewing?

Do you need a mask?

Perhaps a bouquet of flowers to go with a mask?

Do you need a new hairstyle?

Perhaps a painted face?

We are two weeks out from Halloween.  Hard to believe.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pet Funerals

Our friend who rents our cottage had a bird who had been with her for 29 years.  Monday, the bird died.  Our friend feels deep grief.

I worried that I might insult her, but I sent a Facebook message with the offer to help her bury the bird in our yard.  Far from insulting her, she saw it as a gift.

Come to find out, it costs $200 to cremate a bird--shocking!  It only cost us $325 to cremate my mother-in-law.  Our friend didn't have the money for a cremation, and she wasn't sure what to do.  She was happy to have our yard as an option.

I knew that my spouse would play the violin.  I wondered if I should create some sort of liturgy.  But in the end, we kept it simple. 

My spouse had already dug a hole, which was good.  Our friend had wrapped the bird in some fabric from one of her old shirts.  I said a prayer, with references to God paying attention to the fall of the smallest bird and death not being the final answer.

Do I really believe in the resurrection of animals?  Yes, in some ways, I think I do.

Do I believe in a Heaven where our pets wait to be joined with us again?  I am less sure.  In the spirit of full disclosure, let me say that I am less sure of answers to all questions that concern Heaven.  I am fairly sure that Heaven will not be the way that most of us envision it--it's much too saccharine sweet a vision.

Once we prayed, we put the bird in the grave and replaced the dirt.  Our friend had collected a variety of natural objects, which she laid on the grave.  I offered a variety of glass objects that I collected when we were working in mosaic.

I confess that I hadn't really thought about the graveside as art project.  It made me wonder if we treat our the graves of our pets differently.  Do we feel we have more creative freedom if a pet is buried in a back yard than we would in a cemetery?

Then we sat in the twilight as our friend wept some more.  Finally she was ready to return to her cottage to try to get some sleep.

I am already thinking of some of the ways we could have had a better burial.  We could have had a reading, either from the Bible or a great poem.  We could have sung.  We could have done some sort of responsive reading.

The mercenary impulse kicked in immediately, that voice which always wonders if there's a market for any project that's underway.  I thought of a couple I know who will arrange weddings on the beach:  he's a minister, and she's a photographer, and people are willing to pay for wedding packages.

Would people be willing to pay for people to come to their homes to offer a funeral ritual for a pet?

I am thinking about the ways that funerals help us deal with death and the need to come to terms with the fact that a loved one has gone.  And even if the theology is shaky, a pet funeral may be a significant way that we can minister to those who grieve--whether we turn it into a small business or not.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday Gratitude: Good Eyes, Good Writing, Good Teaching

Many things are making me happy this week.  Let me list a few:

--My chief happiness comes from my eye appointment yesterday.  I've had some issues with my left eye since I got pink eye a few years ago:  some crustiness, some ooziness, a tendency to produce tears at inopportune times.  Until the past year, these issues came and went.  In the past year, these conditions have been constant.

The eye doctor has proclaimed these issues normal-ish.  There's no infection, no tumor.  In this year of many cancers, I was worried.  My tear duct is not blocked.  My eye doctor thinks it's sinus/allergy related.

It's strange that it only affects my left eye, but that eye has always been more vulnerable.

I didn't realize how much I had worried about my eye until she told me I was essentially OK.  I got a bit teary, but it was OK, because I'd had drops in my eyes, so no one looked at me and said, "Why are you crying, silly girl?"

--And my eyes are in good shape otherwise:  good pressure, no cataracts, no change from last year.  At my age of 49, I'm grateful.

--I have had some good writing sessions this week.  I am most pleased with this blog post (you'll have to scroll down) in which I confess my queasiness with my church's breast cancer Sunday.  I wrestle with the theological question of a meticulous creator who seems to insert a design flaw, and I ask, "Can it be that God loves the cancer cell as much as the human?"  Could the cancer cell be part of a larger plan?  The essay went in a surprising direction at the end, and it delighted me.

--One of the online classes that I teach is coming to a close.  I have gotten some heartwarming e-mails from my students.  They have talked about how much I helped them improve their writing skills.  In the online environment, I can't always tell what's working and who is responding.  I prize these e-mails that give me praise and feedback more than you can imagine.

--Some weeks I don't feel like I'm being a good friend/wife/sister/daughter/department chair/teacher/community member/church member.  This week, I'm not feeling that way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Praying about Our Projects

Yesterday afternoon, a colleague took me out for a late lunch.  She wanted to do something to show appreciation for how much I had helped her during the great syllabus project of late September.  She had been in a place with limited Internet access while she helped aging family members.  I did most of the syllabus work for her.

I told her that a simple thank you was enough, but she continued to ask me to let her buy me lunch.  And so, I did.  Sometimes it's good to let people return a favor. 

As we walked to lunch, she asked me what I was working on in terms of my writing.  I told her that I was transforming blog posts into a book of essays that explores how one woman tries to live an authentic life even as the values of one place, like work, conflict with another, like church.  I joked, "It's going to be like Eat, Pray, Love, but with a more solid theological grounding."

My colleague has solid theological grounding herself, although we come from different Christian traditions.  We talked about the need for books that explore the idea of authenticity.  We talked about the need for grounding.  She even prayed over me/with me about the project.

I must confess it was not a typical lunch with colleagues.  But I found it nourishing nonetheless.

She prays in public much more differently than I do, when I remember to pray at all.  She talks to God like God is sitting there eating garlic rolls with us.  She asked God to be my PR agent, to find me the best deal for my book, the one that would let my important words be spread far and wide.

And she prayed for the other books that she knows that I will write.

Our late lunch made me think of all the ways that the world sends us validation.  I worry that I've taken too long with this project.  I think about the inner wisdom that I got 2 years ago, the experience where I heard clearly, "Get that memoir written," not "Go to seminary" (for more on that experience, see this blog post).

I've been feeling a bit of despair because here it is 2 years later, and though I still feel the urgency, I'm not done yet.  I've worried that I've blown it somehow, lost a chance.  It was good to be reminded that there is still hope. 

I have other friends who also function as believing mirrors, as cheerleaders, as people who prod me to go in the direction I should go.  But what was interesting about yesterday is that this colleague did the same thing, but in a different way.  She said, "Have you asked Jesus for what you need?"

Actually, no I haven't--and for much the same reason that I offered when she asked me if I would self-publish.  I am not good at self-promotion.  I am not good at asking for what I need.  I know that God has more important priorities than my writing life.

I also realize the fallacy of these thoughts.  Is my God really so limited?  Surely God can find time for our issues, in addition to the bigger issues of Ebola and war and trafficking and all those other injustices that we heap on each other.

By now, some of you might be saying, "Don't you have a theology blog for these reflections?"  It's interesting to me how I feel strange about discussing the idea of prayer and creativity and God over here at this blog.

At one point, my colleague talked about the prayers that we offer before we start on our work.  I confess that I did not confess that I don't often pray before I start on my writing tasks and other creative work. 

What might happen if I did?

I thought my colleague was returning a favor with a simple lunch together; I didn't realize that I'd get so many blessings in return.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus and Metaphors for a Creative Life

Writing time is short this morning, so let me run a Columbus Day post that I wrote last year.  It's one of my favorite meditations on Columbus.

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 12, 2014

Grief and Gratitude on Columbus Day

Although tomorrow is the federal holiday, today is the real anniversary of Christopher Columbus stumbling across the "new world" as he searched for a shorter trade route to Asia. For most cities, gone are the days when we'd mark this holiday with parades and time off. Those of us who grew up in the 70's and later have likely rethought this holiday.

What marked an exciting opportunity for overcrowded Europeans in the time of Columbus began a time of unspeakable slaughter and loss for the inhabitants of the Americas, many of whom have never recovered or who disappeared completely.

We could also celebrate this day in the name of religious freedom, including the option not to practice any religion.  We could remember that day in 1492 as the beginning of a time of enormous religious expansion, first for the Catholics and later for Protestants, many of whom needed a place to escape religious persecution. We could feel sorrow at the religious persecution of the Natives and of various other minority groups--or we could celebrate the religious diversity and tolerance that somehow survived our best efforts to kill it. 

We could celebrate the ways that various cultures were enriched. Look at the European cuisine before the time of Columbus, and let yourself feel enormous gratitude for the vegetables that came from the Americas. Look at the cultures that existed in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and let yourself marvel at the ways in which technology enables the building of cities.

Or maybe we want to leave humans out of the picture and once again marvel at this amazing planet which is our home, at its diversity of land, water, and weather, at the currents that swirl through the oceans and the air, at the abundance of natural resources just waiting for us to stumble over them on our quest for something different.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Music for Midlife: Bob Seger while Baking

I woke up yesterday morning craving these pumpkin cinnamon rolls, a recipe that I found a few years ago at the Smitten Kitchen site.  But it's clearly not a baked good that one can crave and have emerge from the oven in half an hour.  So, I put off making them until evening.

In the meantime, some CDs I ordered from Amazon came in the day's mail.  So, as I was putting together the dough, my spouse put a greatest hits compilation CD in the player.  I listened to Bob Seger songs that I haven't heard since college.  I was struck by how many of them center around characters who are struggling with the dissatisfactions and dissolutions of midlife.

It's amazing to me that this group was so popular with high school and college kids in my youth.  Of course, in my youth, I never thought I'd identify with these washed-up and out voices in these songs.

So, it was sort of a bittersweet backdrop, hearing those songs.  In so many ways, it was a delight--those songs hold up well, and they take me back to a happyish time.  But those lyrics also led me to make assessment of my own life.  In so many ways, my college self would see me as very successful.  But she would wonder why I hadn't yet published any of the novels that I've written. 

My college self would likely have expected to see my spouse, who began as my college boyfriend, helping make the pumpkin rolls.  It's amazing to me in so many ways that we've been together for decades now--and yet, my younger self would not be able to comprehend how quickly those years zip by. 

But Bob Seger knew--even as a much younger man writing those lyrics, he knew.  It's music full of images of "autumn closing in."  He knew that something as innocuous as the "sound of thunder" can take us back to a very specific time.  He understood the qualities of wistfulness and nostalgia that haunt us.

This morning, it's on to a different nostalgia.  I'm making gingerbread from a recipe from The Silver Palate cookbook.  I remember saving up my precious grad school dollars to afford the book.  I got a discount because my young spouse worked at B. Dalton--remember that bookstore that was in almost every mall in the U.S.?  Remember those sprawling U.S. malls?

Many of those recipes called for ingredients that were quite exotic in those days.  Candied ginger?  Calvedos?  And all those cheeses I'd never heard of?  Now I can find many of the ingredients that once could only be found in the big cities in the regular grocery store.

But I digress.  The gingerbread recipe had simple, easy-to-find ingredients:  molasses, flour, sugar, eggs, spices, vegetable oil, and boiling water.  It seemed fairly healthy as far as desserts went.  And as it bakes, the house fills with the scent of autumn.

We still have summer weather, down here in the southernmost parts of the U.S.  But the pumpkins and the cinnamon brooms have shown up in the produce sections of our grocery stores--a sure sign of the shift of seasons.  In the big stores, the outdoor items have been moved aside for Halloween and Christmas.

I don't do the autumnal baking for all the same reasons I used to do:   to warm up the grad school apartment by having breads in the oven.  But some of the reasons remain:  to note and to celebrate the changing of the seasons.  And listening to the music of my youth fulfills some of the same yearnings.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Strength: of Planks and Persistence

Last night, I got word that my Tuesday morning Spin and Strength class would be cancelled.  On the one hand, I'm sad.  It was my favorite exercise class, the one where time flew, and I was amazed that we were already at the end of class.

It was also the one where I was shocked to discover that my instructor thought of me as strong and fit.  In some ways, I am strong and fit--especially for a 49 year old woman when compared to others in my age group.

But in a gym, I'm always surrounded by people who seem more fit than I am.  Of course, I mean that they are thinner.  Can I really tell how long they can hold a plank position just by looking at them?  Of course not.  Do they take the stairs?  I doubt it.  Do I?  No, but I could.

I remember in one of our early sessions, my instructor said, "I hope you don't mind if I push you to go harder."

I said, "By all means, you should push me.  I tend to be a lazy exerciser."

She rolled her eyes and said, "You are hardly a lazy exerciser."  Wow.  That compliment made my day, the same way my day was made when the same instructor said, "That's a perfect plank position.  Hold it for 15 more seconds."

On Tuesday, which would be our last Tuesday, but I didn't know that then, my instructor said, "A perfect plank position, as usual."  Again, not words I thought I'd ever hear directed to me.

Some times, it's good to get a new instructor and a new perspective.  Now, most of the trainers and instructors at the gym think of me in good terms, I think.  But they've also seen me much heavier.  Perhaps my weight loss and exercise improvement has left them with a higher assessment of me.  But they've also seen me at times when I couldn't hold a plank position for 15 seconds at all, much less after holding it for 30 seconds.

It's also good to remember that I'm often harder on myself than anyone else can be.  Right now, I'm angry with myself for still not being done with my memoir project.  I forget to give myself credit for plugging along, for getting other projects done, for continuing to write at all.  I forget to give myself credit for persistence.

The good thing about the cancellation of the Tuesday Spin and Strength class is that I'll get some writing time back.  Time to finish the current draft of the memoir--I'm almost done--and then on to the final polishing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Moonrise, Moonset

Wednesday nights are usually my late night at work because once we employed many adjuncts, and most of them had a Wed. night class--I wanted to be available to them.  Now, it's a habit.  My spouse is usually at choir rehearsal, so it's a good night to stay late.

I drove home in the twilight.  I admired the clouds and the rosy colors.  I looked for the moon, last seen at the midpoint of the eclipse, but no luck.  The irrational brain of mine said, "What if the moon has been obscured forever?"

I decided to grade online materials, even though they weren't all submitted yet.  May as well work ahead. 

Although I could theoretically do computer work anywhere--I have a laptop, after all--I usually write in the front bedroom, the guest room, the library, the closet where I keep my clothes and boxes full of memorabilia and writing archives and Christmas decorations.  I write on the student desk left behind by my best friend from high school who later became a housemate.  The window above my desk faces east.

At one point last night, I saw a pearly glow from the east.  The irrational brain of mine said, "Did I work through the night?"

And then I realized that I was seeing the early hours of the moonrise.  Too late to get to the beach, where I bet it was spectacular.

It was still spectacular from my window.  The clouds came and went in huge feathers.  I got to the end of my grading.  I went to the front yard to get a better view.

I spent much of yesterday in love with the wonders of creation, from the moon in the early morning to the autumnal flowers in burgundy and butterscotch colors to the clouds that swirled through each hour to the moon at night.  I found myself with ample supplies of patience, as I helped students solve problems.  I usually enjoy being with colleagues and friends, but yesterday, they seemed even more special to me.

I suspect that much of my good mood came from being up early and having some solitary time to get some writing done. That good mood inspired an attentive air all day, which led to many moments of gratitude.  There's a lesson there.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wednesday Eclipse Watch and Gratitude List

Eclipse watch 5 a.m.:  so far, no signs of eclipse yet.  We had a much better vantage point in the Spring.  This year, the eclipse will coincide with sunrise.

But what a gorgeous moon!  My backyard neighbor needed coffee, and when I opened the door to take my offering to her, the sight of that moon left me breathless with gratitude for the chance to see it.

What else fills me with gratitude this morning?  Let me list the ways:

--Yesterday, I not only got an autumnal bouquet for the inside of the house, but 2 pots of mums for the outside.  The mums were striking:  burgundy on the outside of the petal, yellow towards the middle.  They were $8.99 a pot, which is about what I spent on flowers for last year's porch decorating project.  I decided to splurge.

--The pots that I got on Memorial Day week-end are flush with flowers too.  I suspect it's their last hurrah as annuals.  But I'll enjoy it now.  I have an arch of summer flowers and one of autumnal blooms.  It makes me happy all out of proportion.

--I got a few packets of poems in the mail yesterday.  Hurrah!

--I've been up several hours.  Some days this fact might have distressed me, but this morning, I've been grateful for solitude and writing time.

--I've been working on a piece for the Living Lutheran site.  It explores the pumpkin and the pumpkin patch as metaphor for God and God's work and God's community.  I've felt delighted by this writing, which I don't always feel these days.  It's good to get that feeling back.

--I woke up feeling slightly guilty about my not-so-nutritious eating yesterday.  But I'm grateful that it's not worse.   Instead of fast food, I ate 2 commercial granola bars.  Instead of a regular meal, I ate more cheese and crackers than advisable.  And bacon, leftover bacon from what my spouse fried up for himself.  It could have been worse.  I did not eat the big Cadbury bar that I bought yesterday.

--And I had 2 very good workouts yesterday, which will mitigate the extra calories somewhat.  I'm feeling grateful for my middle-aged body which can still do so much.  I am stronger than I think.  I had that moment of realization yesterday as two different instructors complimented me on my ability to power through a tough work out.

Eclipse Watch 5:35 a.m.:  the clouds feather across the surface of the moon, obscuring it and beautifying it.  I'm fairly sure there's no signs of the eclipse yet.  It's a great metaphor, but one I've played with before, in this post, which also has a poem.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Wishing I Had Time to Woo My Muse

Often when I wake up, I'm making choices about which blog post idea I'll follow.  This morning, I feel a bit blah.  Nothing calls out to me.  I wonder why that is.

I do have to go to the dentist today, so I don't have my usual writing feeling that I have on a Tuesday or a Thursday, of time stretched out before me.  And in 45 minutes, I leave for an exercise class, so my Tuesday wouldn't have been like a Thursday anyway.

I also have some deadlines, which make it difficult for me to feel like my writing time is really mine.  One online class is coming to an end.  I've got some blog posts to deliver.  These responsibilities don't take much time, but when I don't have much time to begin with . . .

I feel a bit of despair.  How can it already be October, and I've submitted no poems to any journals?  Some years, I've had poetry packets ready to go for the Sept. 1 opening date of so many submission seasons.  Not this year.

My despair is a larger despair too.  How can I have spent so many years trying to get my book-length poetry manuscript published and still no luck?

I am sure that part of my blah-ness comes from 6 +  weeks of intense work weeks, and not the kind of work that feeds my creativity.

I have been here before, and I'm sure I'll come to this point in the cycle again.  Here's a poem that I wrote over 10 years ago that captures my feelings--except I'm not at the point where I have the time for wooing just yet.  Insert a sigh here.

I've decided to leave the poem as I wrote it, even though some of the gendered imagery makes me feel strange, especially the idea of a pouting, flouncing, female muse.

Wooing My Muse

It has been so long since I touched
her word soaked skin.
I used to glide so easily along her surface.
Now I worry that my fingers will fumble,
catch on any roughness, ruin the mood
I long to create.

I used to do this dance without even thinking.
Now I can’t take my eyes off my feet.
I count out the beats, trip over my phrasing.
Clumsy, clumsy, clumsy. My cursing inner critic
keeps time far better than I can.
Now I must woo my muse again.
She pouts and flounces, unable to trust
that I’ve really returned. She can’t forgive
me for my betrayals. I have made a mistress
of television, lingered too long
with the words of others, leaving my beloved alone
and abandoned. I leave little gifts,
necklaces made of words strung together,
flowers of phrases,
a candy box of symbols and metaphors,
until I win her heart again.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Poetry Monday: "Fixed Hour Prayers"

I don't have much writing time today.  So let me post a poem.  It's from the group of poems published at the wonderfully cool, online journal Escape Into Life.  Since it's an online journal, they can do neat things with images, and my poems are paired with wonderful fabric art.  Go here to see the feature.

Those of you who follow my poetry and/or my blogs know that monasticism often informs my writing and that I often find The Liturgy of the Hours seeping into my writing as image and symbol and unifying theme--and often in ways that surprise me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the idea of the Liturgy of the Hours and fixed hour prayers, an explanation might help.  In monastic life, the cloistered members gather at the chapel at specific hours for a service which mostly consists of chanting the Psalms.  In non-monastic life, a spiritual discipline of praying at specific times can mimic that monastic practice, or it can be less formal.

How did I come to think of a monastic chapel in conjunction with a hospital?  I don't really remember.  But I do remember that the poem came out fairly easily once it percolated in my subconscious for awhile.

Fixed Hour Prayers

Her father’s inner life, closed
to her, and now, to him, a distant
monastery, a vow of silence
required for visitation.

Still, she makes her pilgrimage. She brings
baskets of goodies: the pistachio nuts
he loves, the puzzle books,
some warm socks. She leaves
her offering on his dresser.

She listens to the Gregorian chant
of her father’s wheezing lungs,
a language at once both familiar
and strange. The nurses, with their Psalmody
of medications, appear throughout the day,
a liturgy of the hours.

Before she leaves, she reads
the books of her childhood
out loud to him: the otter
making his journey home, the children
finding their way through a dark forest,
families forging a life on a prairie.

She reads these bedtime stories,
a compline of comfort
that asserts the possibility
of safe passage through the night.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Creative Impulses for a Sunday

We were forecast to have the first front of the season move through this week-end, but I didn't believe it.  It's early in the season for a cold front to swoop this far south.  But indeed, it's cooler this morning! 

Of course, that means it's 72 degrees, not 85.  Still, I'm happy.  I'm ready for changes of all sorts.  I'm ready to follow some creative impulses.  Some possibilities:

--At some point, I want some fall flowers for the porch, some mums or marigolds.  But I may wait a few weeks, until after the pumpkin offload at my church.  That way, I can create an autumnal tableaux.

--In the meantime, I'll buy myself an autumnal bouquet after my dentist's appointment on Tuesday. 

--Ordinarily, I might make pumpkin bread when the weather changes.  But this morning, I need to make the communion bread for the 9:45 church service.

--My poetry juices seem to be flowing again!  Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted this:  "Camping in October: waking cold on the stony ground, I know the day will be perfect."  I thought about the fact that some of us deprive ourselves on purpose, and then I thought of refugees who often have little choice but to sleep on a stony ground--but their day won't be perfect.

--Maybe I'll just spend the day reading, which is sort of a creative impulse.  The coverage of Ebola has led me back to the bubonic plague.  I just finished rereading Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders.  Next up:  Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book, about a modern researcher who time travels back to the worst year of the medieval plague.

--Speaking of reading, I'm delighted by this interview with Billy Collins on poetry and leadership and the purpose of poetry.  He says, "Poetry can do a lot of things to people. I mean it can improve your imagination. It can take you to new places. It can give you this incredible form of verbal pleasure. But leadership to me suggests that there’s a place to lead the person to, that there’s a mission or a goal involved. I don’t think poets are that purpose driven. A poem actually can have either no point or a very nuanced point."

--If the weather is cooling off, it's time to start thinking about quilting again.  I need to think about another charity quilting event at church--perhaps for All Saints Sunday.  I need to finish a project that celebrates my parents' 50th anniversary.  I need to add a panel to this:

One heart for every year of marriage.  I made the first creation for their 25th anniversary when I was poor and in grad school.  The quilting gets better closer to the bottom.  It seems a fitting metaphor.

--Ah what joys !  A Sunday stretches ahead with all sorts of creative possibilities!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Inspirations on the Feast Day of Saint Francis

Today is the Feast Day of St. Francis.  These days, we might be more familiar with this saint, since our current pope chose the name Francis.  Many of us think of Francis as being kind to animals, but he was so much more.  For more on that, see this post on my theology blog.

But today, my mind comes back to modern people and our pets.

When I was in elementary school, one of the most pressing theological questions concerned pets.  Would they go to Heaven?  I remember that it seemed like a pressing question.

Of course, I also worried about the unforgivable sin and the fact that various adults answered the question differently when I asked, "What is the unforgivable sin?"  So, I will grant you that I was an unusual child.

When I asked about pets and Heaven, some adults brushed off my question by saying, "Of course not.  Animals don't have souls."

I suspect that few adults today would go for that simple answer, at least the ones who share their lives with pets.  We live in a time where people spend enormous amounts of money on their pets.  Gone are the days when you'd spend a chunk of money for shots and that would be the extent of your vet bills for the life of the pet. 

Lately, I've been thinking about the care we offer our pets and contrasting that care with the amount of care we give ourselves.  I've known more than one person who cooked better meals for their dogs than they do for themselves.  You can probably offer similar examples:  humans who make sure that their pets see dentists, even when the human members of the family don't take care of their teeth, dogs who see therapists, pets who get wonderful treats that humans deny themselves--the list could go on and on.

I wonder how Francis came to be so associated with pets.  I think of him as someone who looked out for the outcast of society as he cared for lepers.  We don't think about the implications of that aspect of his life in the pet blessing services that many churches will have to celebrate the life of this saint.

But there's more.   He gave up everything he owned--and he was rich--in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded two religious orders that still thrive.  I can't decide which impresses me more, the insistence on an authentic life, even if it cost him everything or his fierce commitment to community.

As we celebrate the life of St. Francis, will we hear these parts of the story? I doubt it. Those are the parts of the story that are threatening to the social order. We can't have young people behaving in the way that St. Francis did. What on earth would happen then?

Our society would be transformed.

Friday, October 3, 2014

"Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw"*

I know so many people who say that they feel closest to God in nature.  I always assume that they mean the kind of nature that we find in places further away from human-made civilization:  mountain tops, deep woods, volcanoes--places like that.

I assume that they don't mean the kind of nature when a hurricane swirls or a tornado sweeps down.  They don't mean the kind of nature when one animal eats another.

 I have this on the brain because of a backyard drama that I witnessed the other day.  My spouse was at the back window.  He called for me to come quickly but quietly.

We spent the next 15 minutes watching an owl eat a creature.  From the picked-clean skeleton we found later, we think it was a smaller bird.  There was no struggle.  The owl had already made the kill.

 We watched as the owl picked and pulled with its beak.  It was both fascinating and slightly nauseating.

Later, we found the bones, which had been picked clean.  My spouse thinks that the owl's dinner was a smaller bird.  At one point, I thought he was eating a crab, but this skeleton doesn't look like a crab.

 We have at least 2 owls in our neighborhood.  We've spent several nights last week watching them swoop in the palm trees.

Yes, in the palm trees.  I think of owls as residents of distant woodlands.  My neighborhood is half a mile from the Atlantic ocean and half a mile away from one densely populated urban center, which is only one of many densely populated urban centers in South Florida.

In short, I don't think of it as owl habitat.

I asked my spouse why owls would live here, and he said, "Why not? There's plenty of food and little competition."  Plus, no one shoots at them, like might happen in a distant woodland.

It's easy to feel close to God in the twilight, as I watch the owls fly through the dark and call to each other.  When I watch one bird eat a smaller bird, my thoughts don't first go to the glory of God and the creation God has made.

 And it's even harder when I think about the cancer cell.  In my human-centric way, I want to see the cancer cell as an aberration.  What if it represents the future in terms of evolution?

My religious tradition tells me that God loves the sparrow, so therefore, I should rest assured that God loves me.  We've often interpreted those passages to mean that God loves us even more than the lowly sparrow, since we're obviously the more highly developed creatures.  Others read those passages as reassurance that God loves us all the same.  Both views are troubling.

My friend sees the presence of the owls as celestial message.  I worry about habitat loss.  My spouse sees the presence of the owls as evidence of their smart migration to an easier place to live.  Perhaps we are all correct.

*Tennyson's words, not mine.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

In a Week of Tech Tiredness, Happiness

So many things are making me happy this morning.  Let me make a list:

--I was able to get my computer back to operational.  Hurrah!  It really was as simple as it should have been.   I learned from the Spring Computer Crash of 2014 that you shouldn't hope that the computer will heal itself.  Those restore points vanish all too soon, and then you have to go to the more extreme Refresh, which wipes out some of the programs.  Yesterday afternoon, I went back to the only restore point available, and now the desk top loads just fine.

--Because I got the computer fixed, I did some writing this morning.  It's always a good morning when I write.

--Yesterday I saw the first house decorated for Halloween.  It's muggy and hot and not at all autumnal, but the sight of Halloween decorations makes me smile.

--Today I will wear the jewelry that my spouse gave me--he bought the pieces from SERVV, which supports third world artisans.  Social justice and pretty jewelry--hurrah!  Below you'll see the bracelet.

--I got all the syllabi for classes in my department not being taught in the Fall migrated to the new template.  The completion of this task makes me happiest of all.  Hopefully today I'll get all the syllabi from the faculty teaching the courses for Fall--please may they be perfect syllabi.

--I met with a variety of people from across my college yesterday to try to come up with a more efficient way of evaluating non-official transcripts, a way that won't keep us out of compliance.  Within 20 minutes of brainstorming, we had one.  I love being part of that kind of problem solving team!  I love that although we all might have different agendas, we're not hostile to each other.  We solved the problem and laughed some too--excellent!

--I've also been happy when I could solve issues students were having with transcripts and registration.  When students come to me with issues about grades, I can't often fix those cries for help.  It's much too late.  But when a student asks me if a class taken elsewhere could be reassigned so that it doesn't drop from the degree audit, and I go to the file to realize that I can do this, I'm happy to be able to make an easy fix.

--I've also been exchanging e-mails with my online students who are crafting essays.  It's wonderful to see them develop nebulous possibilities into real outlines.  Hurrah!

--It has been a long week full of various technology annoyances.  I'm glad it's Thursday.

--One student I helped this week turned as she left my office.  She said, "I really love your poems."   It was the kind of day where that compliment really buoyed my spirits.