Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Honoring the Kennedy Center Honors

Last night, I fell asleep early, as I am prone to do.  When I woke up 2 hours later, my spouse was watching the Kennedy Center Honors show.  So I decided to watch the last half with him.  What a treat!

When I first started watching this show, decades ago, the honorees seemed ancient to me, with their best work behind them.  Ah, the hubris of the young, home from college for the Christmas break.

Now I feel like I'm seeing people from my former high school honored.  Of course, I'm not.  I went to high school in Charlottesville, VA and Knoxville, TN--if any of us is on a trajectory to be honored at this event, I'm not aware of it.

But it is sobering to reflect how many of last night's honorees got started when I was in high school.  If we could go back in a time machine and talk to my high school self, she would not believe that one of the co-stars of the TV show Bosom Buddies would have the deep and rich career that Tom Hanks has had.  And Sting?  I saw him as talented, but not as someone who would be honored in the way that he was last night.

I was so happy to be awake to see the Lily Tomlin segment.  I saw her one woman show, The Search for Intelligent Signs of Life in the Universe in college.  I was home when it came through D.C. on tour--we might have even seen it at the Kennedy Center in 1986 or so.  I am guessing that I got to go see it as a birthday or Christmas present.  I remember going with my parents and my grandmother--it wasn't exactly the kind of show my grandmother would have loved or perhaps even understood.  But off we all went.  I was enraptured by Tomlin's talent.

My first year of grad school I found the book in a Book Warehouse type place.  I still have it.  Here are the quotes I marked back in 1987:

"We all time-share the same atoms."  (p. 117)

"I am sick of being the victim
of trends I reflect
but don't even understand."  (p. 53)

And in a quote which may come to haunt me as I get even older:

"If I'd known this is what it would be like to
have it all,
I might have been willing to settle
for less."  (p. 184)

I love the annual broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors, even when they're honoring people I don't know, or barely know.  I love the celebration of the performing arts.  I love the narrative arcs of the stories told:  people keep on making the art that they want to make and then it's decades later, and they're looking a bit sheepish at an awards show.

I love that people pay big bucks to be there in person, but then the rest of us get to enjoy the show too.  I love the high production values.  I love that people show up to honor their peers; no one looks sour, the way they might on other awards shows.  Last night, the good will was palpable.

I love this show that has become a tradition--it's a good way to end the year and to start a new one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Epiphanies Approaching

I've had angels on the brain--it is Christmas, after all.  Week after week, we have heard texts of angels appearing:  first to Mary, then to Elizabeth and Zachariah, then to Joseph, then to the shepherds.  These are not angels which can be domesticated.

Having spent part of yesterday writing about angels and the ways that it must be tough for angels to get the attention of 21st century moderns (see this blog post), I'm perhaps more alert for the messages of angels than usual.

One of my favorite photos that I took at the Mepkin Abbey gift shop is this basket of angels.  Was I looking for angels that I can control?

The angels that might make modern appearances certainly would not be this obvious, hanging out together in a basket where they could be recognized.

Last night, I had the kind of dream that makes me wonder if God is speaking to me.  I dreamed that I was in a car with some church officials.  One of them asked, "Have you made any decisions yet?"  "About what?" I stammered.  "You were thinking about seminary," a woman replied.

Oh yeah, that.  I almost forgot.  I woke up thinking about roads not taken (yet?).  I thought of my day yesterday, a day which did not suggest that I overthrow my whole life and head off to seminary.

For example, I got an e-mail from my editor at the Living Lutheran site.  She requested all of the pieces that I pitched to her, even though I was sure that some of my ideas were too late.  Hurrah!

As I prepared my classes for the upcoming term, I thought about the students from past terms who have assured me that my online presence is different because I'm more involved.

If I was writing scenes in a novel, I'd use these kinds of encounters to substitute for angel choirs.

Again, I think of messages.  When I think about the angel messages of Christmas, I think about the clarity of the message.  Or is that just how it has been told to us through the ages?

Did Joseph wake up and find himself teasing out the meaning of the strange dreams for days afterwards?  Did some of the shepherds stay behind because even though they'd see angel choirs singing, they didn't necessarily agree that it meant that a journey was in order?

My thoughts turn to the angels themselves.  I also think of all the literature where angels do not look at all like the humans expect them to look, and thus, the message is compromised.  Or, as in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," is there even a message?

Maybe these Christmas stories set us up for disappointment.  We're waiting for clear signals, an angel who appears to say, "Do this and not that."

We're scanning the sky for angel choirs, and thus, we can't quite see all the other stars that point us in the direction we should travel.  We can't put all those stars into constellations that show us our life's true mission because we're looking for the message to come blazing forth from some other source.

We enter the time of year when many of us yearn for an insight, a blaze of light that tells us how to lose that weight or find the perfect job or redeem our relationships. The story of the Magi reminds us that epiphanies are often smaller things, born out of a daily practice, leading us to the unexpected.  The wise men see the star because they're studying the skies. 

We may wish for an angel choir to show us the way. But it may be something much simpler: a speck of light that’s travelled over a great distance from a faraway star. We may get an epiphany from something that seems so simple, so homely, so commonplace: a star. There are thousands of them that our unaided eyes can see! It’s only if we observe them on a regular basis that we may be granted our unique epiphanies.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sunday Snippets: Holiday Movies

--I watched Saving Mr. Banks yesterday afternoon.  For the most part, I liked it.  I got a bit weary with the flashbacks and watching P. L. Travers descend into melancholia while she worked on transforming her book into a movie started to get on my last nerve.   I mean really--here you have a chance to get your work out to a far wider audience (and get a lot more money for yourself), and you want to quibble about the color red?

--It's strange watching last year's movies this year.  I felt a bit of melancholy myself late in the afternoon--was it because of the movie?

--There aren't that many movies I want to see in this year's holiday batch.  The only one that is remotely tempting that I hadn't heard about months in advance is the Chris Rock movie--and yet, I can't remember the name of it, which might say something about the movie.  I will go see Into the Woods, and I expect to be delighted.  I might also go see Selma.  I want moviemakers to continue to make these kinds of movies, so I feel like I should go see them.

--Earlier this week, one of my friends said she wished it didn't feel so much like homework.  I know what she means.

--I want movies that remind me of the importance of making good art--would Mr. Turner fit that bill?  I had hoped that Saving Mr. Banks would do that.  It did dance at the edge of that idea.  Perhaps that's why I was so disappointed that the movie got bogged down in exploring the psychological drama in childhood aspect.

--I also want movies that remind me of the importance of working towards a more just society--that's the reason that I might go see Selma.

--I am likely to run out of time.  Sigh.  Never enough time for everything.  Which is why I'm watching last year's movies this year.

--To alleviate my late afternoon melancholy, we went out for a short ride to see Christmas lights in the neighborhood.  Luckily, some people still had their lights up and on.  That holiday brightness did the trick.  I will miss the lights when they are gone.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Political Refugees and the Slaughter of Innocents

Today I woke up with Herod on the brain--yes, that King Herod, of long ago Bible stories.  You might be saying, "Why Herod?  Why now?  Isn't he part of the Easter story?"

Yes, he is, but he's also part of the Christmas narrative.  The wise men arrive asking where they might find this new king; they assume that the old ruler would be the logical place to start.  Herod asks them to report back to him, so that he might pay tribute too.  But he actually means to kill the new king.

An angel warns the wise men not to go back to Herod, and so they don't.  But Herod knows they were headed to Bethlehem, and so he issues orders that all the male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem be killed.  Today is the day that we honor the lost lives of those innocent children.

For more on the theological implications of this day, go to this blog post that I wrote for my theology blog or to this post I wrote for the Living Lutheran site.  For the latter post, I wrote, "I have Facebook friends who angrily talk about how much they loathe religion with its manmade deities manufactured to bring us false comfort – and I wonder what kind of religious tradition they’re invoking. Many a Christian feast day reminds us that we may pay an ultimate price for our beliefs."  And then there are collateral casualties, like the Holy Innocents that we remember today.

Jesus gets away.  Herod's actions turn the family into refugees as they flee to Egypt.  The story picks up later, in Nazareth. 

A, a gap in information!  What a great opportunity for our modern imaginations.

Last year, I was reading T. S. Eliot and Coleridge and had some fun imagining what might have happened.  I wrote this poem, which I posted last year for Epiphany, but which makes sense to post today too.

To read the Eliot poem that inspired it all, or better yet, to hear Eliot read it, go here.  Instead of talking in the voice of the magi, I'm channeling Mary here.  Or is it Christ's voice?  As I was writing it, I was thinking Mary.  If I was a literary scholar, I could make the case for Christ or for Joseph, or for any number of political refugees.  I never have Central American refugees too far from my brain, and I see some images from our current dramas in the poem too.

Here's my take on it all.

Flights of the Family

                                              “A cold coming we had of it,
                                                Just the worst time of the year
                                                For a journey, and such a long journey”

                                                                         “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
the desert floor like an abandoned
sea bed, the cactus hobbling
our efforts, a murderous dictator behind
us, uncertainty ahead, only vague
warnings by an angel to serve as a guide.

We moved by night with a foreign sky
stretched above us, all celestial navigation
useless.  We detoured around hostile
cities and dirty villages, angels singing
their songs to hurry us forward.
A hard time we had of it.

We stayed several summers amidst the alien
people clutching their gods.  We learned
new ways of foretelling the future
in that temperate valley smelling of vegetation.

But we had to return to the kingdom of Death,
that old dispensation.  I have seen birth
and death, so much death, the nails,
the pieces of silver, the thirty betrayals
that come before every daybreak.
I would be glad of another birth.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Cooking and Other Gratitudes

I have made a lot of stock during my lifetime--homemade stock made from the bones of previous meals.  But never has a pot of stock turned out to be quite as delicious as yesterday's stock.

My spouse thinks that the mushrooms in the soup added depth, and they did.  But the stock itself was a rich, deep color before I added a thing.

We've had a Christmas of cooking, so I started out with a good carcass.  We had a turkey which my spouse wanted to brine before we grilled it.  But it wouldn't fit in anything that would then fit in the refrigerator, so he cut it into pieces.  He brined the breast in an orange spice brine and the legs, wings, and thighs in an espresso-molasses brine.  After a 24 hour soak, we then grilled the pieces over a smoky fire.  Yum.

I wonder if brined bones make a tastier stock.  I'm fairly sure that grilled bones make a tastier stock--but I've made stock with chickens that we've grilled, and nothing has come close to matching yesterday's stock.

The rest of the soup was simple:  a pound and a half of sliced Portobello mushrooms and a pound of sliced carrots.  I usually put barley in the soup, but we didn't have barley, and I didn't feel like going out in the gloomy rain to get some.  So I made dumplings instead.

It was the perfect supper for the day after Christmas, a day where we ate too much and much of it was high fat.

For lunch yesterday, I ate a healthier version of the Christmas meal:  turkey, broccoli, sweet potato casserole (a lower-fat version with a brown sugar and pecan topping) and stuffing (healthy, except for the half stick of butter, made with whole grain bread, pecans, apples, and onions).  For a snack, I had some of the turkey that my spouse pulled off the bones when they were done being transformed to stock.

On Christmas Eve, we made an amazing espresso barbecue sauce, and I put some of that on the pulled turkey--yum.

I offer this report on yesterday's eating in part so that I will remember it.  But it's also interesting to me in terms of how differently I'm eating now.  Ten or twenty years ago, I'd have spent the day after Christmas eating a variety of sweets.

Also different from years past:  so far, no crushing sadness at the thought that the season is close to over.  There's a passing whiff of sadness, but nothing like past years.

Perhaps it's because I know that the 2015 holiday season will be here before we know it--how quickly time zooms by!  Perhaps it's because I've tried to savor the season as we've gone through it--but I always do that, and it doesn't always stave off depression.

This Christmas season has left me with a profound sense of gratitude.  I know that not everyone is having this kind of peaceful season, and I know that there will be years in the future, as there have been in the past, where I will not be enjoying this kind of Christmas season.  But for now, I'm trying to stay in the current moment, while praying for those who are not in a cheerful Christmas place.  I'm trying to stay rooted in gratitude while praying for more peace to visit the world that can so sorely use it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Makes an Artist of Us All

I've been enjoying a variety of Facebook and blog posts, and I've been thinking about how the Advent/Christmas seasons makes us all artists.  This time period brings out our creative sides like few others.  I've seen a variety of wreaths and ornaments.  I've seen houses decorated--no house decorated in quite the same way.  I've seen photos, both alone and in collages.  I've drooled over the recipes that people are cooking.  I've seen pictures of people who would claim that they're not creative--but their gingerbread people/house creations show that they are.

Yes this season brings out inner artists like no other.  I find myself intrigued the most by people who would not claim that title for themselves.  And yet, for several weeks a year, they claim their artist selves with little thought that they are not entitled to do the art forms that they love.

Part of it is that we may not think that we're creating art.  It's a fruitcake, after all, not an painting.  Yet some of us are creating fruitcakes from recipes that have been in the family for generations and centuries--it's a tradition as venerable as some of those in the field of painting.

I am biased, I will admit.  I don't often spend time thinking about the dichotomy between traditional "high art" and "low art" or "crafts."  I think that those labels have often been used to denigrate and to keep people in their place--and those people labeled "crafters" and not "artists" are often minorities and women.

What would happen if we claimed our creativity the other 11 months a year?

I predict that our individual worlds--and thus, the larger world--would be transformed.

I realize the impediments to my vision of ramped up creativity throughout the year and not just at Christmas.  I've just made the last full-butterfat baked good for awhile--I need to start being careful or I'll weigh 30 more pounds next year.

But what if I used the same creativity when it came to making salads?

I know that Christmas decorations are special because we only see them once a year.  I'd like something similar, though, for other holidays.  We've seen our creative neighbors adopt Halloween with a similar fierceness.  Could we do the same for other holidays?

I also wonder if our whir of creativity at Christmas comes at the expense of our other art forms.  Are we making ornaments when we'd rather be making shadowboxes of a different nature?  Do we make ornaments or tableaux out of our mangers and Christmas villages because we feel we're allowed to do that?

What would happen if we gave ourselves permission to explore other art forms in a similar way?  What would happen if we worried less about doing art correctly and just found the joy in doing art in any form that delights us?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Morning 2014

For those of you who came here looking for a more theological approach to Christmas, see this post on my theology blog.  One of the highlights of my Christmas Eve came at the end of the last Christmas Eve service.  The lights dimmed in the church, people holding beeswax candles while singing "Silent Night"--it was a beautiful sight.

We spent Christmas Eve going to church services and counting the money in between.  It felt somewhat strange, but someone needs to do it, and since we've already hosted our families, it made sense for us to do it.

We finished Christmas Eve, well, early Christmas morning actually, by taking a final deposit to the bank.  When we did it a few years ago, I expected it to feel dangerous--certainly thieves must know that many churches get their biggest donations on Christmas Eve.  But the streets seemed deserted, both then and last night.

As we drove home, we talked about how grateful we are for our quiet neighborhood.  We remembered an early Christmas morning when we returned to our old house to find ourselves bombarded by noise on both sides:  drunken neighbors celebrating early--or was it late?  In any case, I am profoundly grateful for our quiet street where we live now.

Today we will grill a turkey.  We've cut it into smaller pieces so that we could brine it.  In many ways, it will be like grilling a big chicken, I think.

We made an espresso barbecue sauce, just in case we decide we don't want the more traditional approach of Thanksgiving Redux that we have planned.  We will make a pumpkin pie with the pumpkin that I processed back in November.  We will have sides:  stuffing, cranberry relish, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole.

At some point I must get back to sane eating--but not today.  Today I will focus on the fact that the sides contain veggies, as well as starches.  And tomorrow we will make turkey soup.

Yesterday as I went back and forth to the grocery store, I noticed a handmade sign that said "Free Christmas trees.  Happy Holidays."  I looked at the 15 trees that remained outside the grocery store, and for a brief moment, I was tempted.  But instead, I took a deep whiff of evergreen air and kept walking.

Soon it is time to take the turkey out of the brine.  Soon it is time to begin the food prep.

But for now, let me remember the lesson of last night:  the darkness has not overcome the light.  Let me remember the message of the Advent/Christmas season:  "Be not afraid."  It is so very easy to let fear sink us.

This year has felt particularly dark, although this article explains why so many of us are actually much safer in 2014 than we have been throughout much of human history.  In this year of many cancers, none of them mine, and other diseases that seem so resistant to cures that plague my friends, I need that reminder that even in the darkest times, the light stubbornly breaks through.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve 2014

I have begun the day with a big glass of cold V8 juice, and I may drink another one.  It's a good day to front load veggies, and drinking them is easier than chewing.

I'll be going to all 3 church services:  the 5:00 service with the ukulele band leading the songs, the 7:30 service with children (and pre-teens and a stray teenager or two) leading much of it, and the 11:00 service where my husband will sing and play the violin.  Then we will stay to count the money and make a bank deposit.  I'm tired just thinking about it.

Luckily there will be time for a nap, and tomorrow will be low-key and revolve around cooking.  I am glad from a weariness perspective that we don't have small children in our lives right now.

Of course, from a magic and wonder aspect, it's always fun to have children around.  I'd likely go to the 7:30 service, even if I wasn't playing the hand chimes.  I remember one year as we stood in line for Communion, one of the toddlers caught sight of the manger, which had been empty for Advent, but now had a Baby Jesus in the manger. The toddler squirmed with excitement in his mother's arms and screamed, "Mommy, Mommy, look. It's the BABY JESUS!" Then he sighed in contentment and said, "I love that baby."

Last night we took my spouse to one last choir practice, and my friend and I drove around neighborhoods looking at lights--it's one of my favorite things to do as the holidays approach.  I'd been watching one display go up slowly:  a fringe of plastic on the fence and a heap of Styrofoam jaggedness.  Then there was an abominable snow man.

We'd only see him during the day.  Last night, we saw what happens after dark:

I don't have any pictures of the understated houses that we saw.  This one won the prize for over-the-topness:

Note the reindeer parking area in the foreground, complete with names for each reindeer.

I should note that my friend took these shots with her iPhone.  My camera doesn't take such good pictures once the sun sets.

So far, it's been a great holiday--we've had several visits with family that went well, and yesterday we had a great lunch with friends from church and the drive with a different friend to look at lights.  We've done a pretty good job at identifying what's important to keep in our Christmas season and what we can set aside for a year, and thus, it's not as high-stress a time as it is for many people.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why I Am Glad It's 2014, Not 2004

I woke up thinking about what we'd have been doing 10 years ago, and then I looked back through my journal from 2004 to be sure.

I was off by a day:  I thought that tonight 10 years ago, my mother-in-law fell and broke her hip.  But it would have been last night in 2004 that my mother-in-law fell.  My cold/flu was just clearing up, and I was just sinking into the second hour of sound sleep when the call came.  I struggled to consciousness and to the phone.  It was almost incomprehensible, but I managed to get the details from her boyfriend.  I put on my clothes and headed to the hospital.

I feel like I didn't sleep again for a year.  Her fall and hip break catapulted us into 2005, so far the worst year we've ever had, either as a couple or as individuals.  My mother-in-law had a variety of complications and finally died in April of 2005.  We had not one but two destructive hurricanes to close the last half of that year.

Looking back through the paper journals I was keeping then is a trip through a nightmare world.  I'm still not sure how we managed to muddle through--sheer stubbornness is part of it.  And what alternatives did we have?

We kept our eyes averted from some of them.  Other people who suffered through that year got divorced or moved away.  We did not.  We were lucky in that we had our tragedies spaced out a bit.  We had some resources--the insurance came through when we needed it to do so to get the repairs on the house done.  I had a tenacity when it came to dealing with settling my mother-in-law's affairs, and my spouse had a different kind of tenacity before she died as he dealt with the medical-industrial complex.  We were also lucky in that we had a network of family and friends who helped keep us sane.  And I was always aware that it could have been worse.  It could have been better, but it could have been worse.

It's sobering to realize how many deaths begin in a fall and a hip break.  One of my mother-in-law's doctors said, "We come into the world through the birth canal, and we often leave it through the femoral neck."  It's those hips that hold us when we're in the womb, but it's those same hips that leave us vulnerable as older people.  Half the people who have a hip break will be dead a year later--and those who survive don't face good odds for survival in the next 5 years.

Psychologists tell us that most people aren't motivated to do what will pay off years in the future--which is why we have trouble quitting smoking until we're facing a dire diagnosis, why we can't really change our eating, why we aren't motivated to go to the gym by the thought of being agile in old age.

Once again, I find I am not the norm.  Once I worked out because I wanted to lose 10-50 pounds.  I wanted that fleeting chance at fleeting beauty.

Since watching my mother-in-law's struggle, I know that I want to age well, and that aging well means exercising.  There's always more that I could do--more agility training comes to mind.  I'm stronger than many women my age, but I could do better on that front too.  But my heart is in great shape, as is my endurance level.

It was interesting to read my journal from 10 years ago.  Even then, I wanted to write a book of memoir/essays that followed a liturgical year.  And now I have.  I wanted to write a book of devotions.  I haven't exactly done that, but I've been part of those projects.  I would not have anticipated blogging or how it changed my life by opening up all sorts of opportunities.  The memoir manuscript that I have is a result of that blogging.

Interesting to think about how the manuscript would be different if I had written it the traditional way, from blank pages and memories.  To be honest, it likely would not have happened at all, at least not at this time of my life.

I'm trying not to feel despair at the projects I envisioned 10 years ago, the projects that I'm only just completing now.  I want to believe that the work will take the amount of time it takes--I want to believe that I haven't missed opportunities.  I want to believe that even if I have missed opportunities, that there will be others.  It's not like I'll be punished by having no more opportunities ever.

Most days, I'm good at believing that the opportunities will come, the work that needs to emerge will emerge, that if I show up and keep doing the work, then I have done what must be done.  That optimism and faith in the future are the same traits that got me through the horrible events of 2005, and I expect them to see me through old age.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Poetry Monday: "Homemade Eggnog"

Long ago, when I was in undergraduate school, I spent a lot of time yearning for a kitchen.  I missed baking bread.  When the holidays approached, I missed baking cookies.

Luckily, I had a friend, an older guy, who had had his college career interrupted by the war in Vietnam.  He returned to school to finish up, and our paths crossed in 1984.

He had a small house that he inherited when his mother died.  So a group of us would go over periodically.  We'd play Trivial Pursuit and watch old movies on TV.  At Christmas, he offered his kitchen.  We made cookies and homemade eggnog.  We helped decorate his tree.

I've lost touch with him.  I've lost touch with so many people.

I try to remember that I've stayed in touch or recovered connections with lots of people too.  And there are new people to walk beside.  Tomorrow, I'll have some of them over in the middle of the day.  And in the evening, I'll go out to look at lights with another friend.

Thirty years from now, will I be missing those people too?  Or will we still be getting together on Dec. 23, a tradition started long ago?

Twelve or thirteen years ago, I was thinking about lost friends and homemade eggnog, and I wrote the poem below. 

Now I'm tempted to write a different version.  When I wrote the poem below, I had yet to rediscover so many friends through Facebook.  The ways we might have betrayed each other seem much less dramatic than the ways we are betrayed now.  I might write a poem about how we should cherish the homemade eggnog while we still can, since we're not sure of when our last Christmas might be.

Or maybe I grow tired of these melodramatic endings.  Maybe I could just write a simple poem that proclaims the joys of butterfat.

But I won't revise right now.  Below is the poem as I wrote it, years before Facebook, years before anyone had cancer.

Homemade Eggnog

Back before we knew the fat grams of every food,
back before we worried about salmonella and other exotic
sounding creatures lurking in food, waiting to poison
us, back when eggs were the perfect food, not
cholesterol time bombs. Back in those innocent
days, we make homemade eggnog.

We do not cook the eggs. We separate
yolk from white, just as we are apart
from our families. We beat sugar into yolks
the color of sunshine, some sweetness
into the darkness of solstice days.

We whip air into the whites, we beat
them into a frenzy, the way that exams have stirred
us up, the way that school plots of our own devising
pump us full of the air of our own self-importance.

I pour cream into the mixture, cream clotted
with the richness of butterfat. In later years, I will create
cooked eggnog with skim milk, a pitiful
affair, thin and runny, not worth remembering.

We blend the fluffed whites into the sugary concoction.
Carefully, we fold until the separate ingredients
cannot be teased apart again. We dip out cups
for everyone and toast our eternal friendship.
I feel nourishment seep into every cell
as I fix the faces of my friends into my brain.

I cannot imagine a time when I will forsake
eggnog as too fatty, when I will be too busy
to create from scratch. I cannot dream
that I will lose touch with these friends, cannot fathom
the many ways in which we will betray each other.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Solstice Satisfactions

This morning, in the pre-dawn dark of the day of the Winter Solstice, my father-in-law and stepmom-in-law drove away.

What a dramatic sentence!  But the story that precedes it does not justify that sentence--a classic creative writing mistake. 

No, the story that precedes it is that they came and we had a lovely visit and they decided that Sunday is a better day to travel than Monday.  They had thought they might the whole trip from South Florida to Memphis in one day, but yesterday, they began to reconsider.  It's a long trip to make in one day.

So, here I am, with my holiday visitors come and gone (my mom and dad last week-end, in-laws this past week-end) and the holiday still to come.  We celebrated Christmas yesterday--and we get to celebrate it again on Thursday.

I go to work tomorrow, and then it's time to use the rest of my Paid Time Off before the year ends and the days off vanish.  I will not return to work until Jan. 2.  We will not be traveling, which is odd for us.

I plan to get some writing done, of course.  I hope to make the final decisions that need to be made with the memoir/essay project--perhaps the draft that's ready for the final edits will be done by 2015 after all. 

We will have friends over here and there.  And of course, there will be church, more church than usual.  And I need to get my online classes ready.

I am so looking forward to this holiday time.  Even better, I feel like I'm getting a bonus time, since I've already had such a wonderful holiday time with my family.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Of Time and the Creative Process

The first time I ever wrote a research paper was in the eleventh grade, back in 1982.  Let us take a moment to think about how different it was then.  I typed the paper on a typewriter.  I had to leave space for the footnotes, which means I typed the same page multiple times.

When I was done with that laborious process and turned the paper in, I felt such a lightness and freedom.

I haven't ever felt that feeling in the same way again, but that doesn't keep me from expecting it.  With this past week, which meant that I turned in grades for 3 online classes and finished up my administrator duties for Fall quarter, I expected that feeling too.  But the finishing of each task just seems to bring more tasks--no time for euphoria. 

Still I want to capture some of the highlights from this week while I still remember them:

--First, a funny moment.  On Thursday morning, my spouse told me that he dreamed that I was pregnant.  I said, "That would be a Christmas miracle indeed."  I'm 49.5 years old, after all. 

My spouse did an imitation of Abraham/Zachariah, those men in the Bible with wives who conceive long after the time it's possible:  "What do you mean?  My wife is old . . ."  (imagine this said in a Yiddish accent).

I had spent the morning writing about Joseph and the Virgin Mary, so I was startled when he channeled Zachariah, not Joseph.  A bit sobered, I said, "So, we're different characters in the Advent story now?  Are we that old?"  Yes.  Yes we are.

--The graduation speeches Thursday night seemed more meaningful to me.  The speakers focused on failure and on trying again.  In some ways, not traditional speeches, but I appreciated the message.  I feel like I'm surrounded by people with positive publication news, while I barely find time to write a bit here and there, much less send proposals out.  I needed that message that just because I'm not successful now, it doesn't mean I'll never be successful.

--But I did untangle and reweave a part of my memoir/essay project that I had been dreading.  It's the end of the book, where I talk about dead dictators and King Herod and inspirational leaders like Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela.  The reweaving was not as hard as I thought it would be.

--Before graduation, I was talking to one of the artists at school.  I had brought in some of my canvases to fill up the broad expanse of wall in my new office.  I painted them in 1998, and part of me wondered if they're too old, if I should be hanging more recent work.  Then I felt the despair of realizing that I'm not doing much in the way of visual arts these days--despair and a bit of self-castigation.  So easy to slip into evil guidance counselor mode:  "You're not living up to your full potential."

Anyway, later in the day, when the artist was in my office, she asked about the canvases.  She said, "That one is quite striking.  You've really got something there."  Here's a bit of what it looks like:

She didn't have to say something positive.  Now I didn't expect her to tell me how awful a painter I am; she's not that kind of person. But the fact that she gave me some praise--well, that gave me hope that maybe all is not lost for me.

--I also had a colleague who told me that she assumed that I would be a dean some day, and then a higher position.  That, too, cheered me.  She looked in the direction of my bookcases and said, "I'm assuming that's what you want."  I thought about talking about how I yearn for my poems to be showcased in a book with a spine.  I thought about talking about my memoir/essay project and how I want to be my generation's Kathleen Norris--but then I'd have to explain who Kathleen Norris is.  Instead I simply smiled and nodded.

--Most weeks I am very good at saying the time that it takes is the time that it takes in terms of my creative work.  Will my work ever be known far and wide?  Will I be seen as an important voice?  I also think of doors that have opened that I couldn't have anticipated, like my blogging for Living Lutheran.  So, I will keep my focus on the work and hope for the best.

--I am also aware that there are many people out there who would be envious of my other jobs:  an administrator, an online teacher.  I also take time to feel gratitude for those aspects of my life.  After all, if I didn't have those, I'd likely be running myself ragged to pay the bills and have no time to write or paint or have much of a creative life at all.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Zen Kristin Attempts to Stay in the Christmas Moment

I find myself fighting back the blues this time of year.  It should be the happiest time of the year, as the Christmas season is my favorite time.  But already, I'm thinking of all I will be missing in January.  And I'm haunted by Christmases Yet to Come, when loved ones won't be here.

I summon my best Zen Kristin, trying to live in the present moment and not get swamped by the past or sunk by the future.  I am not talented at being Zen Kristin.

This year, when I feel pangs ("Oh no, by this time two weeks from now, all the Christmas lights will be gone!"), I use those feelings as a reminder to appreciate Christmas elements now, while they're here.

So, I've been making a concentrated effort to go out on a walk every night.  We choose a different street and go out to enjoy the lights. 

Instead of trying to bake every Christmas treat I've ever loved, I've relished the Christmas cookies I made for the cookie exchange and the bet I lost.  Will I make more before the season is over?  Maybe.  But if I don't, that's OK.  I can always make them in March, for an out-of-season treat.

I've accepted that I won't play every Christmas CD that we own.  That's OK.  It will be a future Christmas season before we know it, and I'll play them then.

We don't really have space for a big tree, so this year, I bought several smaller trees.  Wherever I turn, a tree twinkles at me.  The lights are what I like best.

However, last year I really missed seeing our collection of ornaments.  So this year, they're displayed in a different way.  I have a big bowl of glass ornaments.  I have some ornaments that my grandmother made out of yarn and plastic canvas--I put them on the ledge of the non-functioning aquarium that's built into a wall.  For a time, I tried to buy a Christmas ornament during every trip.  Now I've hung them over knobs and put them on shelves.  Every time I turn around, I see evidence of a good life, both mine and others.

When it's time to put these things away, I'll miss them--but part of what makes them so special is that they're not on display year round. 

Should I work on having revolving seasonal displays?  Or just enjoy more flowers year round?

These are questions for another day.  For today, there are groceries to buy and some straightening to do in advance of the next wave of visitors.  And at work, some training on English placement tests and graduation. 

And of course, pausing occasionally to stay rooted in the Christmas moment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Writing in the Small Scraps of Spare Time

So much grading, so little time for anything else.  In these dark (literally, not so much figuratively for me personally) days of December, let me hold fast to the idea that even little actions move my life-as-writer trajectory in the direction I want to go.

And let me also remember the wonderful e-mails I've gotten from students.  In the online environment, it's so hard to tell how one is doing in terms of teaching.  I had an abundant number of students write to tell me that I was one of the most engaged online teachers they've ever had.  In a way, I'm happy.  In a way, I'm sad--I have ways that I intend to try to be even more engaged--and most teachers do less???

One of my all-time favorite e-mails of this term asked what other literature classes I'd be teaching and what classes (taught by me or others) did I think would be of the most use to him in his goal to write work worthy of being taught in a class.  Yet a different student wrote to ask me if I'd consider teaching the Shakespeare course, because he'd love to take it, but only if I taught it.

Why do I take such delight in that vote of confidence?  I suspect we all know why--it's a variation of that old song--if I could teach Shakespeare, I could teach any aspect of literature!

Even though yesterday was primarily grading and bill paying and shopping of the we-must-get-this-done variety, I still managed to do some writing:

--I finished the Gabriel in Miami poem.  You, like Gabriel, may scoff at the idea of a virgin in Miami.  Can the one who is pure of heart really be in such a place?  Where does Gabriel find the virgin?  In a real estate developer's office, of course.  It's in accordance with the Advent/Bible message that you are likely to find God in the places where you least expect to find anything holy.

--I am slowly returning to my memoir.  My goal for the holiday break is to finish the rough draft that I've been toiling over so long.  I had thought I would include a monthly gratitude post throughout the book.  Then I thought I really didn't have enough material for once a month, so maybe a gratitude post for each of the four sections of the book.  Yesterday I decided to scrap the whole idea.  The rough drafts that I had seemed to have very little to do with the rest of the book.

As I look ahead to 2015, my goal is to write more poetry.  On Tuesday and Thursday morning, I want to write a poem--and if I don't, then I'll expect that I will write a poem on Saturday or Sunday morning.  Two poems a week--my goal is usually one poem a week.  But it's too easy to go into a steep slide if I miss one week.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Main Dish Recipe for Busy December Days

Perhaps you are like me, a tad exhausted from all the grading you've been doing at the same time you've been fighting off a cold at the same time you've had an uptick in delightful activities.

Perhaps you have an event to attend, a potluck, and you know that everyone will be bringing cookies and someone should bring something with nutritive value.  Maybe your household needs something for dinner with nutritive value, something that will provide sturdy leftovers to take with you for lunch the next day.

But maybe you don't feel like cooking--yet you also don't feel like having one more restaurant meal or one more assemblage of take out food or one more chicken from the deli.  You need a recipe that doesn't involve much more effort than opening jars and packages and dumping them together.

I have just the recipe.  I first discovered it in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu Cookbook, which my mom and dad gave me for Christmas in 1988 or 1989.  It's infinitely adaptable:   if you have a different size jar, that will work; if you don't have an ingredient, no problem; if you only have 12 oz. of pasta or if you don't have time to marinate, that's cool.

Pasta with Marinated Vegetables

Feel free to adapt the following list to your own tastes and what you can find/afford.  Combine the following in a bowl and marinate several hours or overnight or not at all:

1-2 jars or cans of artichoke hearts
1 pound of sliced mushrooms
1-2 packages of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced if large
1-2 jars of roasted red peppers (or roast your own, if you have time)
1 C. (or more or less) sliced black olives (any type works, from gourmet to regular)
1 tsp. (or more or less) of the following:  oregano, basil,
several cloves minced garlic or a sprinkle of garlic powder/salt
1/3 C. olive oil
2-4 T. balsamic or red wine vinegar

When you're ready to assemble, boil a pound of pasta, something smallish, like shells or penne.  Drain when done and mix with the veggies.  You can top with grated parmesan cheese if you wish and if you're serving hot.

Tastes great at room temperature and straight out of the refrigerator.  In terms of food safety, it's perfectly safe to leave it on a buffet table for hours at a time or to take it for lunch and to leave it at room temperature for the day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent Calendars

We had a great 24 hours with my mom and dad--literally 24 hours.  What can one do with 24 hours?  A lot, as it turns out:

--The plane arrived at 2 on Saturday, and we hung out at the house for a few hours.  We listened to Christmas CDs.  We relaxed.

--We had a perfect early dinner:  steaks grilled, jacketed potatoes with the perfect amount of coarse salt, and steamed broccoli.

--Mom and I went to a cookie swap.  It's the 3rd year that my friend has had a this cookie swap, and it's one of my favorite holiday events.

--We left that event early to get to the Broward Symphony.  True confession:  I much preferred the Broward Chorale concert the night before.  I wanted holiday music! Call me bourgeois, but if you put on a concert two weeks before Christmas, there should be holiday music.

--Still I'm glad we went.  My parents, who are classical music fans of the first order, enjoyed the concert, and my spouse really wanted to go.  We heard a fairly new symphony that was rooted in The Lord of the Rings.  It was interesting music with fascinating effects done by instruments that usually don't get to shine in symphonies.

--We came home and ate some Christmas cookies.  We turned on our pool toy, the disco ball with colored lights that gives a fascinating light show in the water.  Then we went to bed.

--On Sunday, I had Christmas cookies for breakfast. 

--We went to a wonderful interactive church service and then we had brunch.  The food was perfect.

--Then it was time to get my parents to the ship.  We had no trouble at the entrance to the port.

--And then it was all over.  There was that deflated feeling, that "Wait, why can't we have more time?" feeling.  There was the happy feeling that I wished we had had more time, that we all get along well.  There was the usual week-end feeling, that Sunday sadness that the week-end is coming to an end.  I put myself to work, catching up on e-mails and packing my gym bag and thinking about lunches and getting some grading done.  We took a walk in the evening and enjoyed the abundance of holiday lights.

--I wrote a poem once based on just this very type of week-end.  I'll paste it below.

Advent Calendar

Orion, that winter visitor, reminds us of our frosty
obligations. Now is the time to prepare.
We dig in the cupboards for the cookie cutters,
creatures enough to create a healthy genetic
mix for the holiday planet we will create.

We remember anew the joy of the well-seasoned
skillet, so versatile as we fry the meat
and cook a well-crusted cornbread.
We strive for abundance, to be prepared
for the unexpected visitor, the waylaid
traveler who might arrive without gifts.

We rediscover the joy of bread baked
fresh in the morning. We afford
the extra splurges that festivity demands:
exotic nuts, dense pastes, sweet icings,
breads heavy with butter and spices.

We could not maintain this pace
all year, but for a month, we pretend
we can handle the additional load.
We try to ignore the yearnings from the stomach’s
pit, the one that wonders why every day
can’t be filled with goodies cooling on the hearth,
a household bathed in the fragrance of baking bread,
the comfort of cake.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Santa Lucia Saturday Snippets

--Today is Santa Lucia day.  For more on that festival, see this post on my theology blog.

--In 8 hours, my parents arrive for a whirlwind 24 hours before I deliver them to a cruise ship.  I should be deep cleaning my house, like the good girl that I am.  But I'm fighting off a cold, so I just don't have that kind of energy.  Maybe later.  Or maybe a surface clean will have to do.

--Likewise, I thought I would bake Santa Lucia bread this morning.  That, too, is looking unlikely.

--I also have grading for my online classes that I thought I might be doing.  But again, I'll postpone.  I have a few days, and it's the kind of grading that won't take as long, since we're at the end of the term, and copious comments for what to work on in the next essay aren't necessary.

--I've been putting books on hold at my public library, and they'll be delivered from distant branches to my local branch soon--Saturday gratitude for the public library and for Facebook posts that recommend books I'd likely otherwise never discover.

--I'm also feeling Facebook gratitude for all the cool pictures that people posted of yesterday's skies over Ft. Lauderdale, pictures like this one:

--It's a mackerel sky--ever hear of that?  Me neither.  Here's the mariner's rhyme:

"Mare's tails and mackerel scales
Make tall ships carry low sails."

--And here's the science, from a Wikipedia entry:  "However, the most common reason for the occurrence of a mackerel sky is an old, disintegrating frontal system. The cloud was probably originally altostratus and has been broken up into altocumulus as the weather front disintegrates (usually as a result of encountering an area of high atmospheric pressure). Little, if any rain most often follows a mackerel sky. Another common place that it is found is in the warm sector of a depression preceding the cold front and associated showery weather, however usually here it is obscured by lower stratus clouds."

--I know that people make fun of Facebook for all sorts of reasons, many of them legitimate.  But I love this aspect of Facebook, this discovery of snippets I'd have never thought to explore otherwise.  I love people's photos.  I love knowing what my far-flung friends and family are up to, whether it's a once in a lifetime event or what they're having for dinner.

--I am still feeling happy from my week of many arts outings.  Last night it was time for music:  the Broward Chorale's holiday concert.  If you read my blog faithfully, you know that my spouse sings with the group. 

--It was a wonderful concert, full of holiday music, just the right thing for a Friday night in mid-December.  Unlike some concerts, it was a presentation of much shorter pieces--which perfectly fit my attention span which is a bit fractured this time of year.

--I went with my friend and colleague who stays in our backyard cottage.  On the way home, we stopped to do a quick grocery shopping.  At least we have toilet paper and orange juice for my parents' quick stay.

--This will be a jam-packed week:  a cookie swap, grades due on Wed., graduation on Thursday, and my spouse's dad and step-mom arriving mid-week.  But so far this holiday season, I've managed not to double-book or triple-book myself.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Beautifully Dark: The Art of Pam Reagan

Last night I went to Pam Reagan's show at the Vargas Gallery.  I had already seen all of the pieces before, but it was interesting to see them together and to see them in a new setting.

Her MFA show, which we helped set up (see this post for more details), was in an art house cinema, which meant that the pieces were here and there throughout the multi-room venue.  Last night's show was in one square of a room with white walls and industrial carpeting.  Having all of the pieces in one room helps us see how they inform each other.

I have always loved her masks, especially the ones with broken glass:

Now with all the jaggedness, with the lack of holes for eyes and nose, most of us wouldn't wear these masks.  Lately, she's gotten requests for more wearable art, so she's been experimenting in that direction.  Her capes are beautiful, but it's hard for me to imagine wearing them.

Of course, people who know me know that I'm not a high-art gal when it comes to my clothes.  If I love a piece of clothing, I will wear it threadbare.  And I'm not one to spend a lot of money on clothes, since I love so few of them. 

And I don't see the recent pieces as particularly wearable either, but perhaps that's because I'm not going to wear capes or masks.  However if I needed to make interesting costumes for a movie, I'd look no further.

I liked the way that the broken glass from one piece reflected the colors of other pieces.  She has a mask that's all black which glinted red in places--but it was the red from a piece across the gallery.  Intriguing! 

I have used beads and glittery threads in my own fabric art, so I understand the appeal of elements that glint at each other.  But I am not a hard edges and jaggedness artist--well, not yet.  I have a vision for a piece of fabric art of mine that invokes the crucifixion of Christ, and I have a vision of little nails around the edges.  Or three nails to hold the fabric piece to a piece of wood.

These shoes might be my favorite piece from the show:

I start thinking about all the art I could make, but then where would I store these pieces?  I have the same issue with buying pieces like these--where would I put them?  I can't keep up with the dusting of my more durable possessions.  How would I care for the art?

No, I won't be that kind of collector.  Still, I'm glad to have the chance to see the art.

You can see it too.  Pam Reagan's show will be up for several weeks at the Vargas Gallery.  Many of the pieces have a Christmas/winter theme, so it's a perfect activity for the holidays--which tells you more about my approach to holidays than I may want you to know. 

The gallery is located at 10131 Pines Blvd. Pembroke Pines, Florida.  It's in a strip mall, that kind of suburban strip mall where it's hard to see signage.  Look for the Applebees, and turn into that shopping center.  The gallery is part of Jose Vargas University, which is in that strip mall.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fashion Shows

Last week, I went to the Portfolio class for the Fashion Design graduating students.  I helped them proofread, but I also took note of the drawings of the clothes.

Last night I got to see those clothes on real humans.  What a treat!

I went expecting the Fashion Show to be very different from what we usually think about when we think about fashion shows.  There was no runway.  There was not much of that catwalk prancing.  Occasionally people took pictures, but it was mainly with their phones.

The Fashion Show was held at Stache, a bar in downtown Ft. Lauderdale that billed itself as a 1920's drinking den.  I thought about secret knocks and bathtub gin, but it wasn't that kind of bar.  It felt like we were on an abandoned stage for some college play.  Throughout the cavernous 2 story bar, we saw threadbare sofas and some hardback chairs.  Upstairs was a well-lit library, and along with the old books were typewriters and an old sewing machine.  Downstairs was a fake fireplace.  There were dark corners and places where I dared not intrude.

Throughout the bar, the student models wearing the Fashion Design graduating class's clothes had arranged themselves into a variety of tableaux.  Every so often, they rearranged themselves.  As far as I could tell, they didn't change clothes.

The audience circulated and talked to the designers.  I felt strange staring at the models, even though we were supposed to do so.  It seemed so rude, somehow, especially for the groups that weren't on the two stage-like areas.

My inner fabric artist loved being able to be close to all the fabrics.  I saw tweeds with sparkles and clothes with all sorts of embellishments.  I talked to one designer about the cloth that she used, cloth that's actually two pieces hand sewn by women in India.  We talked about her own clothes, which she said she had sewn by hand, but she actually meant she had sewn the embellishments on with her hands.  The garment itself she had sewn by machine.

It was one of those days when I felt like a character in a movie.  After coffee at a friend's house, we grabbed a burger at ROK:BRGR, a place around the corner from Stache.  The streets are strung with lights year round, which led to the "I'm in a movie!"  feel.  We had some trouble finding the place, which made me feel like some interesting encounter might be about to happen.  And then there was the show itself, which felt so out of the ordinary.

But like Cinderellas everywhere, I had to return home.  I was grateful for flannel p.j.s, so cozy and different from the clothes I'd been seeing.  It was one of the rare South Florida nights where I was happy to have a heater connected to my central air unit.  I said a quick prayer for those who aren't so lucky as I drifted off to sleep.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More Intimations of Mortality

Long ago, I worked at a community college in South Carolina.  A group of us was hired across the same time period, and as the new kids, we spent a lot of time together.  Later, when our office space was being remodeled, we had to relocate, and I shared space with two of them; we speculated that since we had louder voices, we got the office space in the library that was further away from the books and the students.  The remodel took longer than expected, so we were office mates for more than half a year.

Yesterday I found out that the husband of one of them died suddenly over Thanksgiving.  He wasn't sick; I'm still not sure exactly what happened.

I didn't know him well, but I'm still feeling shock and sadness.  He was 62.  I have many friends and colleagues who are in that age range.  At age 49, I am not too far away from that age myself.  These days, 62 seems a rather young age to die.

My best friend from high school who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in March had been doing better.  But over Thanksgiving, she found out that she had brain tumors.

Last night I responded to the news of my friend's husband's death by coming home and making Christmas cookies.  I was planning to do this anyway.  I made a bet with a colleague back in the waning days of summer, and I lost the bet.

It's a bet I was happy to lose.  I was expecting that more full-time faculty would be made part-time by Christmas.  I was expecting more classes to migrate online with no onground component.  So far, however, we're all safe.  Safe-ish.

My spouse ate one of the broken cookies and pointed out that it's not Christmas yet.  Still, I'll be happy to give my colleague cookies this week.  It needs to be this week because we're scheduling the cookie delivery for ultimate enjoyment, in between his bouts of chemo and his scheduled surgery.


In these days, when the darkness seems to be closing in from all sides, I try to hold fast to the Advent texts of light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  This week, the Advent texts return us to the story of John the Baptist, the one famous for standing up to the forces of empire and lost his head for it.  He also announced the coming of Christ.

And he cautioned everyone who came to him by saying "I am not the Messiah."  And yet, his actions show that just because we cannot save everyone (anyone?), we still have work to do.

So we make the Christmas cookies.  We comfort those who mourn.  We send cards to those who struggle.  We look out for those alone in an alien land.  We beat back the darkness in any way we can.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Looking Like an English Teacher

Yesterday a student stopped me on the landing to ask me what I teach.  When I told her that I was an English teacher, she said, "I knew it!  You look like an English teacher."

I said, "I'm not sure that's a good thing."

She assured me that it was.  She said that she had planned to be an English major and that being an English teacher was her dream job.

So what does she plan to do?  Something with fashion.  Why did she change her direction?  She didn't go into much detail, but I got the sense that a mean-spirited English teacher along the way redirected her.

I decided to take her at her word and to believe that it was OK that I looked like an English teacher.  I also asked myself who I'd rather look like. A painter, perhaps.  A biologist who works in the wild, that Jane Goodall look--although I don't think I have the body to pull off that look.

But perhaps I'm wrong.  Earlier yesterday, a spin class buddy and I were comparing notes on different teacher.  I talked about our Friday teacher who loves sprints.  I hate sprints, which makes me think I should do more of them.

My spin class buddy said that there was no one in our class that he would rely on more than me.  He said, "Like if we were biking in the Grand Canyon, and I broke my leg, you're the one I would most depend on to get me out of there."  I assumed he meant my relentless cheer and can-do spirit.

But then he said, "You're a machine!"

Again, for a brief instant, I wondered whether to be insulted or complimented.  But he meant it as a compliment.

I don't see myself as a machine when it comes to working out.  Maybe I'd be a machine at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  I'm a machine when it comes to how much I can read in a given day--I can plow through a lot in a little time.

But I don't think of myself as an exercise machine--which is strange, when you consider how much exercise I do.

I thought of this again driving home last night after a church council meeting.  The classic rock radio station played several songs in a row that were popular during the autumn of my senior year of high school (like Rush's "Tom Sawyer" and U2's "New Year's Day").  The timeless Christmas decorations twinkled.  For a strange minute, I felt like I'd fallen through a hole in time.  Would I get out of the car to find out that it was 1982?

I thought of my dad who often enlisted my help as if I was a big, burley guy:  "Hey, Kris, come help me move this sleep sofa."  I've never been treated as a frail female, at least not by people who know me well.  Where did I get this idea of myself as a non-machine?

Part of it is my inner critic, that unrelenting voice that reminds me of all the ways I'm not good enough.  I'm grateful for the other voices who chime in to remind me otherwise.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Different Social Justice Project for the Holidays

When I was younger, a Lutheran going to church in the 70's and 80's, we did all sorts of social justice and charity projects throughout the year:  collecting food, going on walks to raise money, donating our old clothes, singing at nursing homes.  I remember December as a time when we really ramped up our efforts. 

And it wasn't just my church group.  We did all sorts of good deeds as Girl Scouts and through the schools too.

Even when I came home as a college student, there was a project or two that needed help; the one I remember most is creating gift baskets for women in battered women's shelter, and I remember being amazed that such a place existed.

Yesterday I did a very different social justice project for the holidays.

Yesterday at my church, we wrote cards for women and children held at detention centers.  You might argue that we shouldn't do that; you might argue that they are in the country illegally.  You might argue that they don't deserve a card or any shred of kindness.

I would counter that just because we were born in a country that has a stable government and a decentish record when it comes to human rights, that doesn't mean that we achieved that status because of our worth.  No, we're lucky.  And history and literature show us that luck can change rather suddenly and drastically.

And so we wrote cards.

We wrote cards in the hopes that those cards will bring a bit of Christmas cheer.  We wrote the messages in Spanish.  I found myself wishing we could do more, but hopefully, it will be a bit of light in the darkness.

If you want to participate it's not too late--but you will need to mail the cards by Tuesday, Dec. 9.  You can send the cards to:

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Access to Justice
700 Light Street
Baltimore, MD 21230

If you need a greeting, here's my favorite:

Deseandole un ano lleno de paz, salud, y amor.  It means "Wishing you a year filled with peace, health, and love."

We had a number of children participating.  It gave us a chance to talk about the issue.  I wonder what they will remember when they are older and taking part in social justice projects of the future.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Jazz for a December Night

Last night we headed to Bailey Concert Hall.  We were unsure what to expect.  We knew it would be a holiday concert by the student jazz group.  But we needed to be on time, even early, because we'd be seated on the stage.  I thought that perhaps they couldn't sell enough tickets to pack the hall, so they wanted a more intimate venue.

How wrong I was!  We got there to find that people were standing by, hoping for no-shows so that they could have space.

We were ushered backstage only to find out that the backstage area had been transformed into a nightclub:  small tables, sofas, comfy chairs lit by all sorts of lamps and overhead lights.  Each seat had a plate of snacks:  carrot sticks with a dab of dip, a small cup of candied nuts, and a macaroon.  Each patron had a drink ticket, which got us a small plastic goblet of white or red wine.

We sat with some of my spouse's fellow chorale members.  We were at a table for 8, so people joined us, and we made small talk.

And then, the concert started.  The first part of the concert gave us a jazz combo (5 players), while the second half of the concert was the larger jazz ensemble.

It took me some time to get used to the venue.  I had some trouble seeing the musicians, and I felt like if I moved, I would be blocking someone else's view.

But by the second half of the concert, with a larger group taking the stage, I felt more engaged.  Was it the change of the music, the larger group?  I'm not sure.  The quality of the music was equally good during both halves, so it wasn't that.

I enjoyed the Christmas music, but I must confess that the Jazz Combo took such improvisational turns that it was hard to hear the original Christmas songs.  Each member of the Combo had a moment to shine with his instrument.  What amazing instruments!

I thought about the fact that all of the musicians were male.  If a talented female trumpeter came along, surely she'd be included. 

Is it that jazz is still male dominated?  Something about the unladylike aspect of the instruments that keeps parents from pushing their young, female musicians in that way?

I also thought about the youth of the musicians.  How remarkable that these guys are playing this music, which had its highpoint in popularity long before they were born.

It was also interesting to go hear jazz after I spent the afternoon grading discussion posts for my online class.  We had been writing about the Baldwin short story "Sonny's Blues."  The jazz in that short story seems so dangerous, the jazz clubs so threatening--and it's so different from jazz today.  If I wanted to go to a dark, smoky jazz club where musicians shot heroin between sets, does such a place exist?

If it does, we weren't there last night.  We were in a clean, well lighted place (a short story we did not read as a class).  It was almost too well lighted--the first part of the concert was quite warm, because of the lights.

I thought about these students playing jazz, these students who were not likely to get in trouble the way that jazz musicians of past generations did.  They seemed earnest, and as we talked to some of them after the concert, so pleased that we came.

It was a wonderful way to spend a December evening, a wonderful end to a day of not-onerous grading and cooking.  We returned home through the Christmas lights and tucked ourselves in for a peaceful rest at the end of a good day and a good week.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Time's Winged Chariot Inspires Friday Gratitude

I woke up Friday morning to the sad news that Claudia Emerson had died at age 57.  Some writers who are Facebook friends talked eloquently of her championing of students and the next generation of writers.  I read Figure Studies years ago and I remember loving it, but I can't remember exactly why.

Still, I was sad at news of her passing, as I always am when good writers leave us.  And the knowledge that she was 57--yikes!  I'm 49.  Again, I hear "time's winged chariot hurrying near," as Marvell would put it.

Does that flapping of wings account for the way I made the most of my day?  Or would it have happened anyway?  Let me count the ways that yesterday was supremely satisfying:

--I went to spin class, and I pushed myself, especially toward the end.  I thought we were on our last sprint, so I pumped my legs faster than I ever have before--only to find out we had another set to do.  The first sprint was a bit wobbly, but then I recovered by the second sprint of that unexpected series.  It was an excellent reminder that we are stronger than we think.

--As I finished my shower, I got an idea for how to create a poem.  I have lately felt abandoned by my poetry muse, so it was good to feel her promptings again.

--But I didn't write that poem.  Instead I got started on a short story that I've had in my head for awhile.  It was good to remember how fun it is to create a fictional world.

--I met a friend for lunch.  I had a big salad and a side of broccoli.  I need to get more veggies in my life.  I was nourished by both the veggies and the conversation.

--Throughout the day, I corresponded with my online students who are working on papers.  One student said I had helped her more than any other teacher she'd ever had.  I was both happy that I was helping, but sad that she hadn't ever experienced it before.  And it's an online environment, and I always wonder if I'm doing enough--good to be reminded that it does work for some students.

--My work day was the best kind:  I helped people solve a variety of problems, none of them excruciating, but not exactly easy issues either.

--I bought wine at Hollywood Vine.  A double treat:  I'm supporting local business, and I got some yummy wine.  I always feel so happy in that store, with its wooden shelves and a wide variety of good wines.  And it's less than a mile from my house--a true treasure of downtown Hollywood.

--We had a lovely dinner by the pool--such pleasant weather!  We have a new pool toy, a bobbing and blinking light with reflective surfaces.  It's a bit like having a disco ball in the water.  It was wonderful to watch the different colors and shapes as the light left the sky and the darkness deepened.

--And then the full moon rose.  What a breathtaking sight!

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Lessons of a Simple Dinner

I got home last night to the intoxicating smell of chicken and pastry:  my spouse had made an interesting mix of chicken pot pie and soup--by which I mean that the sauce was a bit watery and the crust of bread crumbs was savory but not crisp.

He mentioned that he'd seen our down the street neighbor shopping in the grocery store.  He wanted to invite them to dinner, but he wanted me to taste his experiment first.  I declared it good, and he picked up the phone.  Fifteen minutes later, we were dishing up bowls for us all.

They've been enduring a house renovation for several months.  Until recently, they could grill, but now their back yard has had to be dug up to get to the plumbing.  They were grateful for a hot meal and ice cubes for tea.  I was pleased that I could be spontaneous in this simple act of hospitality and grateful that my spouse had done the cooking.

A few months ago, in this post, I wrote about the concept of "scruffy hospitality":  "It put me in mind of this blog post on scruffy hospitality, which encourages us not only to come as we are, but to host as we are.  The writer, an Anglican priest, shares his sermon, which has this nugget of wisdom:  'Scruffy hospitality means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together.'"

I wish we had had another pan of pot pie soup, since we gobbled up the first pan.  But we had enough for everyone to have a hefty serving plus a bit more.  Had I had more lead time, we'd have had a better dessert than the animal crackers that I served. 

But the simple meal that we had was good enough--especially since our neighbors were going to eat a frozen pizza that they could heat in the toaster oven.  And it was good to share what we had and enjoy good conversation.

I worried briefly about the cleanliness issue.  I had vacuumed the night before, and the toilets are clean.  But it's been awhile since I dusted, and the bathroom sink did have a smudge of toothpaste, which I only noticed after they left.

My spouse laughed when I pointed it out.  He reminded me that our neighbors have been living in a construction zone, so they probably didn't notice our dust.

I want to be the person who invites people to come see how I really live.  I must confess to wishing that I really lived a more organized, dust-free life.  But I already have so little time to do what's important to me.  I will leave the dust be--and try to remember to invite people to dinner more often.

And more important, I will try to remember that dinner doesn't have to be a high-maintenance drama.  We can share what we have, and it will be more than enough.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Contemplative Advent/December

My blog post on slowing down for Advent is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

You might be saying, "Advent?  What's that?"  or "I'm not a churchgoer--what does your post say to me?"

Advent is the liturgical season that happens during the 4 Sundays before Christmas.  In an ideal world, we would slow down during the Advent season.  We would light the candles on our Advent wreaths (1 per Sunday) and open a window on the Advent calendar each day.  We would keep watch, as the Advent texts remind us to do.

We do not live in that perfect world.  Advent necessarily takes place during December, which for many of us is one of the busiest times of the year.

My post ponders the possibility of having a more contemplative Advent time.  It has suggestions for all of us who spend time in December feeling frazzled and wishing that our pre-holiday time could be different.

 Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"We give up things for Lent. Maybe that should be an Advent practice too."

"We need to build some times of stillness into our days, and Advent is a great time to start. If we just turn off the volume of our computers, we won't get pings whenever anyone sends us an e-mail; I know I'm not the only one who feels that I must drop everything and check my e-mail when I hear that ping. Maybe instead of having news on as our background noise, we could have some soothing or inspiring music. The world can spare us for the amount of time it takes to pray. We could find a yoga class – surely we can find an hour or two in our weeks for some kind of physical discipline that helps our minds calm down. We can look at our free time and make fierce decisions. We can vow to go to just one party per weekend."

"Before we get deep into December, we should contemplate which of our traditions bring richness to our lives and which ones we do out of hollow duty."

The complete essay is here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

In Praise of P. D. James

Yesterday I found out that P. D. James died on Nov. 27.  I wasn't completely cut off from all news over the Thanksgiving week-end; we watched both the local and national news shows each morning.  Yet there was no mention of her death.

I'm not really surprised.  Would I have ever heard of her if I hadn't gone to grad school?

I first read P. D. James because a grad school friend of mine loved her so much.  During one summer, I read some of her mystery novels and saw a link between her work and the work of other great twentieth century British female writers. I planned to explore that idea in one of the Comprehensive Exam questions, had I been called upon to do so. I can't remember what I had planned to write, only that it revolved around female detective novelists of the early twentieth century opening the door for later writers.

I've forgotten so much, and of course, I'll forget more before it's all over. The flip side, happily, is that I continue to learn.

This morning I'm thinking about Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and about P. D. James and Margaret Drabble.  I'm thinking about writers who are seen as genre writers and writers who are seen as canonical.  I'm also thinking about how wonderful it is that when I think of canonical British writers of the later 20th century, my brain immediately calls up the female writers.  I have to ponder a bit longer before coming up with names of important male writers of the last decades of the 20th century.

I had forgotten that P. D. James had a civil service career when she was writing.  I cling tightly to these stories of writers who have to manage day jobs while they are writing.

I wish I could manage as brilliantly as James did.  I continue to write, but my publication plans have fallen completely to pieces.

Wait--that's not entirely true.  As usual, I'm being too hard on myself.  I continue to have pieces published on the Living Lutheran site.  I left Thanksgiving leftover festivities on Friday to go to the post office to mail a packet for the Concrete Wolf chapbook contest.  I've sent queries out about my memoir/essay manuscript.

But it's not the same magnitude of what James was able to accomplish.  She published several series of detective novels, along with all sorts of shorter articles and essays.  She wrote a sci-fi novel and a novel which mashes her detective fiction skills with characters from Jane Austen.

Perhaps I shall read Death Comes to Pemberley over the Christmas break.  I'd been planning to read it anyway.  It's not exactly Christmas reading, but there will be time for all sorts of reading in just a few weeks.

In the meantime, my various jobs await.  I have some online classes that are in their final weeks--lots of guidance needed on papers and grading to do when those papers are turned in.  I need to catch up on some assessment work in my main job.  I have two blog posts due to Living Lutheran--hurrah for writing work!

And I'm meeting my writing colleague and friend for lunch on Monday.  I need to have a short story ready.  I have it in my head.  Now is the time to put it on paper.

I will call on the spirit of P. D. James as I calmly and methodically tend to these tasks.  I will remember what can be accomplished, even if one has public servant work to do, in addition to the creative work.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Office Moves

I've spent the last several work days in the midst of an office move.  Faithful readers of this blog might be saying, "Wait!  Didn't you just move to a different office back in February?"

Yes, I did, but the president and the dean who designed that move have themselves moved on.  The new dean has a different vision, so it was back to packing.

I thought I had pared down with the last office move, but as always, I was amazed at how much stuff I had to move.  And even though I was going only a few hundred yards, that still meant books to be boxed up and files to be moved and more boxes to be packed.

And now, those boxes need to be unpacked.  It's an amazing lack of productivity.  Happily, I have no pressing projects, so that lack of productivity isn't critical right now.  Still, it's rather sobering to think about it.  Will the new office locations be worth it in the end?  Time may or may not tell.

On the upside, I have a larger office--I can have more than one person sitting in the office, and they'll have room to stretch their legs.  In my old office, I had room for one chair.  Once, when a very tall student came to see me, he moved the chair into the door frame so that he could actually sit.

I have no windows.  But I have more bookcases.  Hurrah!

Once, I had a supervisor who moved from what I thought was a wonderful office to a decidedly lesser office.  We were friends, too, so I could ask her if it felt like a demotion.  She laughed and said that she'd been in so many offices that she didn't read too much into any office move.

I now laugh, because later I moved into that very same office that I once saw as a demotion.  And now, I miss that office the most.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Meditation for World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day.  In some ways, we've made enormous progress.  Not too long ago, I saw a documentary, and it took me back to the early days of the disease, when healthy men turned into skeletons and died within 6 months.

And now, it seems to be manageable.  I say "seems" because we assume that protease inhibitors tame the disease and can be taken for a whole lifetime.  That may be true.  We also forget that diseases mutate and develop resistance to the drugs that we create.  Protease inhibitors that work today may not work in 10 years.

This is a disease that should be easy to avoid, and yet we're not making much progress in dropping the rate of new cases.  AIDS is a bloodborne disease, not airborne.  It's easy to avoid the disease vector that transmits AIDS, and even if we're exposed, it's not as easily transmissible as the news media would have us believe.  And yet, we continue to see risky behavior, and thus, new cases.  I don't know what we could do to make people more aware.

We've had other diseases on the brain in this year of Ebola.  For me, I will remember 2014 as the year of many cancers.  None of them have been mine, but it's been agony watching friends and acquaintances struggle with this disease. I don't usually spend much time thinking of cancer, but this past year, a colleague has died of pancreatic cancer, a friend died because of a cancerous brain tumor that returned, a colleague has battled colon cancer that travelled to his liver, and my friend from high school has battled cancer of the esophagus.  The thought of cancer is never far from my consciousness.

These are cancers that are statistically unlikely in the people they've afflicted, and yet, here they are.  As with the early days of the AIDS scourge, when so many came down with Kaposi's Sarcoma that didn't usually afflict that population group, I wonder if these strange cancers in younger bodies are harbingers of some new doom.

I will confess to theological thoughts that seem almost heretical in this past year of many cancers.  I have found myself wondering about where cancer fits into God's plan.  I don't believe that our lives are set on a predetermined path, but I do believe that God has created everything with meticulous attention to detail.  How do I square that belief with a cancer cell?  The cancer cell undoes such a beautiful creation, the human body.  It looks like a design flaw to me. 

But here's the heretical thought:  maybe it looks like a design flaw, but it's not.  Maybe I think of it as a design flaw because I am human-centered.  Do we believe in a God who loves every element of creation equally?  I say that I do, but my belief falters in the face of cancer cells.

I think of those Bible verses that has God caring for a sparrow and knowing every hair on the human head.  Does God care equally for the cancer cell?  Does God love the AIDS virus, the Ebola virus?

If I was a good theologian, I'd have an answer.  I don't.  I don't even have a Bible reference that helps me make sense of my quandary.
My creative practices help me with my theological quandary about God and cancer cells.  My creative processes have helped me to be comfortable with long periods of not knowing a clear direction.  I begin to write a novel, for example, in a place of uncertainty.  Do I have characters who are worthy of a book?  What will happen to them?  What's the purpose of this novel?  I don't have to know for sure, but I have to keep going.

I don't know for sure how cancer fits into the plan for creation.  Is it evidence of a fallen aspect of creation?  Or perhaps the cancer cell fits a larger purpose that I can't even conceive of--because, after all, I'm not God.
But I have trust in the Easter message that death does not have the final answer.  I have trust in a Creator and a creation that commits to resurrection on a daily basis.  I, too, am a creator, and that practice also helps me have faith.  With that faith, I can continue.