Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dreams of Work

This morning, I woke up at 2 a.m.  Is it time to admit that during the month of January I've been waking up at 2 more often than sleeping until my regular wake up time of 4 a.m.?  Actually, I'm not sure if that's true.  It is true that once I rarely woke up at 2 a.m. and stayed awake until morning and through the next day.  This January, that's been happening with more frequency than I like.

I think of myself as not worried, not stressed about work, despite the lay-offs that have occurred this month.  Does my earlier wake-up time belie my beliefs?

I woke up at 2 a.m. thinking about the schedule for Spring quarter classes--and I woke up thinking about it because I had been dreaming about it.  I see the Facebook posts of my friends who are having interesting dreams full of rich symbolism.  I go to sleep and dream I am at work.  Sigh.

So, I got up.  In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit to falling asleep at 8 p.m. last night--so at least I got 6 hours of sleep, which is 1-2 hours less than I'd like, but I'm still functional with 6 hours.

I do notice that I'm quicker to irritability with less sleep.  One of my administrator tasks this week was untangling and fixing a giant room use mix-up.  It wasn't my fault, but it involved an instructor in my department, so I had to come up with a solution.  I was angry out of proportion with the instructor from the other department who so blithely moved into the room where my instructor was scheduled to teach.  Part of my anger came from the attitude of the encroaching instructor--no remorse at all, just a sense of entitlement.

Some days I can feel amused by it all.  Some days I am surprised by my movement towards explosive rage.  I am grateful that I can control that rage--some days through gritted teeth.

There are advantages to waking up early.   Before most of the people in this time zone have awakened, I have seen a gorgeous moon and watched it set.  I had a Facebook conversation in real time with poet Jeannine Hall Gailey--I so rarely have those conversations in real time that I forget what fun it is.

I usually get some writing done when I'm up early.  That's a plus.  And there's often work that can get done for my online classes.

I am lucky in that I like my colleagues.  Yesterday, I met with the directors of other departments.  We had to come up with a plan to divvy up the number of sections of classes that we'll be allowed to run for Spring quarter.  It was fairly civil. 

I know that some of my fellow directors are distressed by the implications.  I know because we have spent many hours discussing it.  That distress upsets some others.  It's been one of those weeks where I feel as much like a pastoral counselor as an administrator.

I came home yesterday, and my spouse said, "Are you still employed?"

I said, "As far as I know.  Why?  What do you know?  Was there a phone call?"

He was partly joking--it was the way he brought up that he wanted to go out and buy a fire pit--sort of an impulse buy, sort of not, because we've been thinking about it for years.  But that uneasiness is always there, especially in a month of lay-offs.  Perhaps my wrecked sleep schedule reflects that.

We did get the fire pit and spent the evening enjoying an outdoor fire as we ate our grilled salmon from a distant sea.  I slept easily for the first few hours--my typical pattern.

I'm grateful that I get some easy sleep, even if it's not the 8-10 hours that some people get.  And I'm grateful that my work is not impossible.  I'm not waking up in the middle of the night feeling paralyzed because I can't do the work.

And I'm grateful that it's Saturday, and I can take a nap later if I need to.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Preparing for Candlemas

A year ago, I'd have been on my way to Mepkin Abbey, and two years ago, I spent the same week-end at Mepkin Abbey. 

It was my first time celebrating Candlemas, the feast day which occurs Feb. 2, which celebrates the day 40 days after his birth when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple.  The priest Simeon holds the light of the world in his hands. 

The monks change their worship space, and often a piece of art helps commemorate the day.  Above you see the art for Candlemas 2013.  I was also struck the first year by a flowering branch. 

Through the four days that I was there, the flowers unfurled.

It's the time of year when we're all longing for light.  We get 30-60 more seconds of light each day, but in those tiny increments, it's hard to realize the small beginnings of spring.

It's a good week-end to think about the ways we can capture the light.  Maybe we will light candles--strike a match against the darkness.

Maybe we'll hang colored glass at our windows--let the light scatter into colored sparkles.

Maybe, as the full Christmas season comes to a close, we'll enjoy the flowers of the season.  Below, the amaryllis that was in the chapel last year.

And my poinsettia, which has lasted since Christmas 2013.

We all hold many kinds of light.  In these darker days of winter, we need to remember to let that light shine brightly.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Poetry Thursday: Angels before Sunrise

The liturgical time of Advent to Ash Wednesday always sets me to thinking about angels.  I am a good English major, and so I am well aware that more of our theories of angels come from Milton than from the Bible--or worse, from people's desperate desires, and the purveyors of sentimentality who prey on those people.

On the days when I believe in literal angels, I believe in them as a species separate from humans, living or dead.  When I die, I will not join the angel choirs.  Those choirs are for angels.  Humans do not die to become angels.  Angels were in existence long before humans.

I like the idea of angels moving amongst us, but not in the same way that most people do.  I don't believe in guardian angels who are there to step in and save me from myself.  But I do like the idea of angels who take an interest.  I do like the idea of angel messengers, although I suspect that most of us are deaf to the message.

Long ago, after the exhaustion that comes from explaining medieval ideas of angels and their place in the universe so that my Brit Lit students could understand Milton, I wrote the poem below.  For many decades, I've been writing poems that imagine Jesus moving through our modern world (see "Heaven on Earth", "New Kid," and "Strange Communions").  Occasionally I play with similar ideas with angels.

Here's my take on guardian angels.  I wrote it after hearing voices I couldn't identify outside my window in the wee, small hours of the morning.  Readers of Milton's "Paradise Lost" will notice some echoes.

Strategies Before Sunrise

The neighborhood angels congregate
outside my window. It’s very late,
3 a.m.—and they know their charges sleep
safely under the covers in darkened homes.

The angels make calls
on their interstellar cell phones to check
stock prices, check on family members. Sell,
buy, a career change, the futures
market, sleep, snack: their arguments
filter into my dreams.

These angels drink light beer
as they play checkers, strategizing
while waiting for sunrise. They’d prefer
a more challenging game, a better beer,
a darker blend, foamed with honey
and the yeasty blend which bespeaks bread.
But only rebel angels partake of chess, lagers
and all the forbidden conspiracies which tempt
the good citizens of the celestial spheres.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Our Books of the Dead

Last night I put the finishing polishes on a story that I wrote a year ago.  I sent it off to Glimmer Train.  I think it's one of the best stories I've ever written--but I know that Glimmer Train gets bushels of short stories every day.

This morning, I thought about how perfect it would be if Glimmer Train accepted this particular story out of all the ones I've sent to them.  I wouldn't have had this story without my friend Shannon telling me about her mother's mental decline, and I wouldn't know about Glimmer Train if Shannon hadn't brought a copy to work in 1996.

The story covers some of the emotional terrain I covered in a poem of the same title.  In the story, I flesh out the story with additional family members, with scenes from work, with a bit of hopefulness at the end.

I took the story to a writer's lunch when I first wrote it.  Here's the part that spoke to my friends who read the first draft:

"In the early stages of her mother’s disease, Kay thought of all the ways she hoped her mother would return to her. She missed her mother’s cooking, her needlepoint projects, her decorating for Christmas. She even missed her mother’s sharp tongue, all the ways she criticized."

Or was it this part?:

"At some point, Kay hoped her children would move out and start families of their own. Kay hoped that she wouldn’t have to crash-land in her children’s later lives the way her mother had. But for now, she savored the evenings when they all gathered around the piano to sing together. She saw them as building a language that they might or might not need for the future."
And here's the ending, which tries to redeem the bleakness of parts of the story:

"At some point, they would all be names in the book of the dead. But for now, they had voices and they could end the day with singing and a bedtime prayer. At some point, they would be nothing more but bone and ash. But for now, they could be together."
And here's the original poem, which was published at the gorgeous online journal, Escape Into Life. My poems are paired with intriguing fabric art; go here to read it and the other poems chosen and to enjoy the art.

Book of the Dead

Even though her mother lives,
she writes her mother’s name
in the monks’ book of the dead.

She writes her mother’s name
in this giant book and steps
away before her tears
can blur the ink.

She walks to the bank
of the river and watches
the mist dance its last
movements. A runaway
slave or a Native American
soon to be slaughtered
would not be a surprise.

She drives back to the hospital
and slices the fruitcake
bought in the gift shop, baked
by monks in a far away monastery.

Her mother, who used to mock
fruitcake, who used to count
each calorie, this stranger gobbles
every last crumb. On the window sill,
seabirds eye the scene. She tries
to remember the smell of salt.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Once We Had a Fish Tank

I've been singing "Once We Had a Fish Tank" to the tune of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."  The original goes, "Once I had a railroad, I made it run, I made it race against time.  Once I had a railroad, now it's done, brother, can you spare a dime?" --at least, that's how I sing it in my head.

Let me see, "Once we had a fish tank, right in our wall, . . ." and then my song-making skills stop.

Yes, we had a fish tank.  It came with the house that we bought in the summer of 2013.  It was part of the wall that divided the hallway and the dining room.  We loved it when we first saw it.

My spouse has been keeping fish since he was young, but we haven't had a tank since we moved down here.  We had thought we'd set up the tank that came with the new house we bought.

But to get into it (like, to feed the fish), we'd have had to stand on a ladder.  And more worrisome, we couldn't be sure that it was watertight.  It's a big tank:  8 feet long.  That would be a lot of water spilling into the house if it wasn't able to hold water.  And because it's a narrow tank, my spouse decided that the fish that he wanted wouldn't really be happy.

We moved on to the next phase:  what to do with the tank?  I'll speed up this story.  My spouse put an ad for a free tank on Craig's List and watched the phone lines light up.  He was quite clear in explaining how heavy the tank is.

One guy showed up last night and sounded like he would take it.  His buddy showed up.  It was clear that he couldn't move it with 2 people.  They decided to wait until morning.

The next batch of people showed up:  four college guys--but not the burly variety of college guys.  They tried to move it, and then they called for reinforcements.

So, we waited and waited.  I got all my grading done for my online classes.  Finally, they showed up, along with our neighbor and his two adolescent sons.

So, how many guys did it take to move the tank?  Nine?  I confess to being unsure, because I just couldn't watch.  It took a lot to get it unwedged from the stand and the wood and the wall.  And then there was the turn onto the porch and then onto the yard.  Then my neighbor got some 2 x 6 pieces of wood to help lift it onto the trailer.

I'm still amazed that they did it.  I expected to be spending days sweeping up glass.  I wouldn't have been surprised to have an aquarium lodged in a doorway.  My morning has been very different from what I was afraid it would be.  I've had a peaceful morning of writing and making sure that my online classes are going smoothly.  Insert sigh of satisfaction here.

How will these college guys get the tank from the trailer into the house?  They were talking about a keg party where the keg didn't get tapped until everyone helped.  Ah youth.

My spouse overheard them talking about the tank becoming a "chick magnet."  I find it oddly heartwarming to think of them wooing women with a cool fish tank.  There are worse ways to woo a woman.

At one point last night, I got a glass of water for one of the college guys.  He said, "Thank you, ma'am."  I thought, I've gone from being one of the crazy college kids to being the middle-aged woman who brings water and sweeps up after the antics of the crazy college kids.

You know what?  That's fine with me.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Setting an Example for the Next Generation

--My sister sent me a picture of my 8 year old nephew flossing his teeth.  He chose the kind of floss that I use, so that he can be like me.

--It just goes to show that we set examples to the next generation in all kinds of ways.  While I hope he's also going to model my healthy behavior when it comes to other areas, I'm glad to be a model of good dental hygiene.

--I am not a careful flosser, so I floss each tooth multiple times in the hopes that I'll get the job done.  I zip through the top row, then the bottom row, then back to the top, then back to the bottom, at least 3-5 times for each row.  My brother-in-law once said that if ever they think that an imposter is in their midst pretending to be me, they'll be able to tell by the way she flosses her teeth.

--What else do I hope he emulates?  I hope he remembers how much fun it was to cook together and enjoy great meals.  I hope he remembers the times we made books together.  I hope he remembers all the other creative things we did.  I hope he remembers that we'd play a game or do an activity, even if we weren't necessarily good at it.

--I hope that he remembers us as people who say "please" and "thank you" and "good job." 

--I hope he remembers that we loved each other fiercely and never let go of that.

--My sister and nephew will be coming to visit at the end of February, if the weather permits.  We've been snowed out of February visits before.  I wonder what kinds of examples we'll set during that week-end?

--I also think of how much better behaved we'd all be if we remembered that someone is always watching and learning from the examples we set.  I shall move through the day with the thought that a youngster may be paying attention!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dreaming of Spring in the Garden Center

A bit of chill in the air--nothing like the rest of the country, but still, 50 degrees.  So I decided to ditch my plans to run and to stay put, working on online classes and writing projects and baking pumpkin bread.

One of my writing projects is a blog post for the Living Lutheran site, which I said I'd have ready be tomorrow.  It's about the feast day of Candlemas, celebrated on February 2.  Astute readers will recognize the collision of several different holidays from a variety of traditions:  Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc and Oimelc.  Many of them celebrate the turning of winter to spring.

I realize that major winter weather is forecast soon for much of the country.  Surely Spring is far behind?

Yesterday I got a taste of spring when we went to Home Depot.  We were buying shrubbery, but I was struck by all the flowers:  such variety and such vibrant colors.  What a treat.  I can't say that my eyes are starved for color:  I live in the tropics, after all.  But I don't usually see them all clustered together.  I see a palm tree here, a bougainvillea bush there, an occasional hibiscus flower, my poinsettia plant which is just now getting more red than green.

We bought our shrubbery, some podocarpus plants which took up the whole back of the car.  I felt like I was driving a forest mobile.  I had no vision out the rear window, which was oddly soothing.

I am tempted to buy masses of flowers and plant them in pots and move them all around the yard.  I think of myself as killing plants, but I don't.  They might not flourish the way they would if my spouse was taking care of them or my grandmother.  I'm the type who will remember to water, although it may take several days. I keep herbs going for years before a mysterious disease wipes them out.  I divide pots of mums and kill half of them, but half of them survive. I thought they were crowded.  I didn't realize they'd die of loneliness when I spread them out.

It's time to think about the front porch, but the pumpkins from fall still haven't rotted.  I have visions of pots of petunias, but have yet to find them.  But half of the transplanted mums survive.  For now, I'll just let it all be. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Snippets from a Writing Morning

--More than once, I've been revising an essay for my memoir/book of essays, and I've remembered a different version--only to find I've been revising an earlier version of an essay.  It happened again this morning.

--In a way, it's an interesting exercise, since I still also have the earliest rough draft.  Did I make consistent decisions?  Yes, I did.

--So, this morning, I said, "Kristin, this is just ridiculous.  Organize these files."  I obeyed that voice of reason.

--I also thought about this episode of the Diane Rehm show which talked about ransomware and the importance of backing up files.  So, I did that too.

--I also wrote another page of my short story prompted by a monthly word--my challenge for 2015.  This month's word:  spell.

--I thought of writing a poem based on something I found out about a friend:  she has just one knife, which she uses for everything:  cutting meat/cheeses/vegetables, spreading butter, and all the other things you'd use a knife for.  Seems it should be a metaphor for something.  But I don't know what.  I'll let that idea percolate.

--I wrote this blog post for my theology blog.  It's a photoessay (more photo than essay) that talks about how we perceive life's calling.  It's got theological language, since it's for my theology blog, but it could just as easily be talking about the call to be creative.

--All in all, it's been a good writing morning:  a nice way to start the week-end!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Poetry Friday: How We Think About the Muse

Thursday's post put me in mind of poems that I've written that address this subject of prodigals returning to practice.  Here's one of my favorite first lines of all the poems I've ever written:  "The muscles remember what the mind forgets."  It's from one of the few successful villanelles I've ever written, and you can read it here

That link will also take you to a poem that imagines the muse as Penelope, waiting faithfully for her artist who goes wandering off.  I've posted that poem several times already, so I won't post it again here.

I was thumbing through my old poems, thinking about how I think about the muse.  I don't really believe in writer's block, in the muse abandoning me.  No, it's me who doesn't make time for lunch with my muse.

In my old files, I found this poem which was never published.  I still like the images in it.  It intrigues me, this mix of fairy tales and modern science:  germ warfare and ancient archetypes!  I think I wrote it during the time when anthrax was being mailed to various people.  Still, I think it works.

The Call of the Crows

My muse leaves me a trail
of breadcrumbs. Just to be safe,
she mixes in all my favorite
kinds: the sourdough of experience, the sweet
cinnamon bread of memory, the rye
of humor, the hearty grained passions.

Alas, poor muse! She doesn’t know
of these crows that guard
me always, the caws of callous
criticism always in my ear.
They see what my muse plots
and they pluck away the crumbs
as quickly as she can scatter them.

But my muse is a crafty girl, well-schooled
in mazes and cunning escapes. She selects
cords in many colors, velvet ribbons
and festive silks to help me find my way.
The crows use these to line their nests.

Luckily, my muse is not so easily deterred.
She forgoes the subtle approach, the seductive
ways of getting my attention. She plants
landmines in my gardens of guilt,
mails bombs cleverly disguised
as friendly letters, which scatter infectious
agents of creativity throughout my day.
She infuses me with bacteria that will infect
each cell, viruses that will root in my very soul,
recombining my DNA, transforming me in fevered
fires into a woman who no longer comprehends
the call of the crows.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Prodigals Returning

This morning I ran to the beach and back.  In the interest of honesty, let me stress that although I like to think of myself running sleekly through the morning, I am a slow, slow runner.  A jogger.  At times, when I get unfocused, I suspect that I shuffle.

Still, it's a swifter pace than a walk, so I call it a run.  My goal was to run twice a week this year for at least half an hour.  This morning I ran for 45 minutes--hurrah!

I have running on the brain because I've written a post for the Living Lutheran site that considers what we can learn spiritually from our failed new year's resolutions.  The same lessons also work for our creative lives.

Here's the truth I return to again and again:  We need to start where we are, not where we think we should be. Far better to be the person who goes out for a gentle jog for 10 minutes, and then next week runs for 15 minutes, and throughout the year, adding five minutes each week. In horse training terms, we need to keep the jumps small and achievable. But we also need to keep challenging ourselves so that we grow.

In the spirit of full confession, let me also admit that I went a bit longer this morning than I thought I might because I'm going out with friends after work, and I wanted to get a head start at burning off some calories.  I figure whatever it takes to keep up my motivation is good.

Likewise, in my creative life, I use a variety of motivations.  Part of my motivation is the dream of a future where I achieve creative goals.  Part of what gets me to my desk is my desire to leave a record.  There's still an adolescent in me that wants literary and creative success so that everyone who ever rejected me will have regret--and if that gets me writing, that's wonderful.

But in the end, I write for the same reason I run:  I feel better when I do.  Long ago, when I started running in the 80's, I wanted to be Grete Waitz:  that thin, that fast.  I'm reconciled to the fact that barring some dreadful disease that strips me of my weight, I'm not going to be that kind of runner.  But that fact doesn't need to rob me of the delight of being a neighborhood runner.

Likewise, I'd like to be the Margaret Atwood of my generation.  There's still time, I guess.  But even if that doesn't happen, I've enriched my life immensely by making the attempt.

And if I get off track, I can always return.  Luckily, the muses of writing and exercise are always there waiting.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Revisiting "Selma"

I've been thinking I might go see Selma again, if it stays in the theatres for another few weeks.  I was struck by this post where the author is planning to see the movie for a third and fourth time.  I thought, right, I could see this movie again.

Why would I do that?  Let me list some reasons:

--I would go for the same reason I went the first time.  I want Hollywood to make more movies like this one, based on real heroes, not superheroes.  I want directors like Ava DuVernay to be able to make more movies.  For that to happen, the movie needs to make money.

--I need this story, this story of how regular people changed their society.  I need to be reminded that it can be done, even when the odds are long.

--I like seeing all the people in this film who look so normal--it makes me remember how rare that is in Hollywood, and how shaped we are by these film and TV depictions of regular bodies, which aren't normal at all.  But in Selma, we see actual old people.  We see heavy people.  In this interview, DuVernay talks about using extras in the movie, extras who were regular people who just happened to live in Alabama where she was filming.  She talked with such care about how much she loved the lines and creases in their faces.

--I love seeing the small towns of the U.S. South.  I love those back roads, although I realize that the rural roads represented something different to black citizens throughout much of U.S. history.

--I love the accents, although truth be told, the black actors do a better job than the white actors.  Most of the white actors get the Southern accent wrong, especially the Southern accent of the middle part of the 20th century, which was so thick as to be almost incomprehensible to modern ears.

--I miss that accent, although it drove me crazy when I was surrounded by it all the time.  Now there are days when I want to call the switchboard at the South Carolina schools were I went to college and grad school.  I want to hear that syrup.

--Now I am laughing at myself because of the idea that my schools still pay someone to work the switchboard.  But there are times when those student workers call to ask me to donate to this scholarship fund or that one, and I say yes, partly because scholarships helped me, partly because I was once that student making some money by staffing the phones--and partly because the accent makes me susceptible.

--Selma reminds me of so much of my kin, although it's the black version of my kin.  I think of the elders who spent much of their free time in church.  I think of the older generations in this movie who were so patient with the younger generations.  I think of the women who cook and cook and cook some more and get no help with the dishes--the men have important work to do, after all!

--Yes, it's not a time I'd want to travel back to or to live in.  But I might want to revisit it by seeing Selma again.  It makes me appreciate what I have and the opportunities that are mine, simply because I was born in 1965, not 1925.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A History Not Too Distant: "Selma"

I spent part of yesterday at the movie Selma.  It's not the national day of service that many see as the appropriate way to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, but it seemed fitting.  I liked the movie more than I thought I would, and I expected to like it.

What I liked most about the movie is how it showed the Movement leaders as regular people, people who didn't always know what they were doing.  And I saw the depiction of Lyndon Johnson as fair.  He wasn't shown as evil, but he was conflicted, and he was a man who had lots of issues competing for his attention.

Even George Wallace wasn't entirely unsympathetic--we see him roll his eyes in disgust at how the local Selma white leaders let the situation go off the rails.  And in an earlier sign, we see King talk about what hasn't happened in a different Alabama town, that the sheriff is always polite and makes no mistakes and that situation isn't letting the Movement go forward.

I thought the movie handled the violence well.  There's enough to make me wince, but not so much that I had to leave.  The explosion of the Birmingham church was especially shocking--a surprise, because I could see it coming.

I spent my elementary school years in Montgomery, Alabama:  1971-1977 and a brief time from 78-79.  During that time, George Wallace was governor.  It's interesting to think about how this movie is not that far removed from my own lifespan.  Like many elementary school children across Alabama, like George Wallace, I stood on that gold star at the statehouse where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy.  Cotton still surrounded the major cities in Alabama, and the major cities were quite small.  In one of my classrooms, we pulled apart cotton as we learned about the importance of the cotton gin.

Oh, Eli Whitney, what a difference your invention made!

As a child growing up in the cradle of the Confederacy and then, the Civil Rights Movement, I don't feel like we spent an inordinate amount of time on that history.  Later, when I went to college in South Carolina, I met people who were still enraged over various Civil War issues; I remember writing to someone, "It's like it's still 1860 here in these peoples' minds."

In my first class that I taught at the University of Miami, I stood there amazed as my students got into a heated argument about the greatness of Kennedy.  The student from Massachusetts was dumbfounded as the children of Cuban immigrants flew into a rage about the Bay of Pigs.

I was astonished at their ability to argue about events that happened before they were born, to argue with a passion as if the events had just happened last week.

But I digress.  Back to Selma.  I am amazed, again and again, at how young King was.  I kept thinking, how did he know what to do?  But the movie shows that of course, he didn't always know what to do.  But we see what keeps him grounded is his strong faith--at key moments in the movie, he prays.  The scene at the second march on the bridge where he drops to his knees was very powerful for me.  For more on the spiritual aspects of the movie, see this post on my theology blog.

It was also powerful to see the hatred depicted--those days not too long ago when it was perfectly acceptable to spew such hatred publically. 

I want to believe that those times are behind us.  I know that younger generations are likely to respond to racial issues differently, but I also know that we are still judged by all sorts of items--skin color, gender tone of voice--that are out of our control and are a very small part of our talents and abilities.

I want to believe that those times are behind us, but I also know that without vigilance, hatred makes a comeback.   And I also know that many people are born without the privileges that I have.  I want to make the world a place with better chances for all.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Marching from Selma to Montgomery

I'm always amazed at how much people don't know. I'm not fabulous at remembering dates myself, but I can get decades straight. I assume that people coming out of high school will know basic facts, and that might be my first mistake.

I've had more than one student say, "Back when you marched with Martin Luther King . . ."

I always interrupt to say, "I was born in 1965." Often I get a blank look. I explain, "I was born in 1965, and King was killed in 1968--that would have made me three when he died. I could hardly walk, much less march."

Don't get me wrong. I'm flattered that they think I'm an old Civil Rights veteran. I'm just a bit aghast that they don't understand the history. Perhaps they're really telling me how old I look, but I don't think that's the case. My students just don't know their decades.

Well, that's what teachers do, right? They teach. They make up for the gaps left by teachers who have come before. So, I give a mini-lesson about the Civil Rights movement, and on we go.

Once I played with a poem idea:

I'd like to think I'd have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King,
but he'd have made us wear our Sunday best,
and I can hardly get from the car to the church
in these high heels,
much less from Selma to Montgomery.

There's more, but I can't remember it. It's buried in a rough draft file. Perhaps I'll dig it out and spend some of this holiday revising it.

This day has always felt almost sacred to me. I've always been impressed with the Civil Rights movement, with how they stayed civilized, even when the agents of civilization (the police, the sheriff, the white establishment) seemed mad and crazed with rage. I've always been impressed with how they held fast to their beliefs, even when they flew in the face of what society might teach us. I've always been impressed with the changes that they wrought.

My younger self, that impatient nineteen year old, was impatient with how long social change took. My older self looks back at how far we've come and how quickly, and I suck in my breath and pray for continued success. A black president: my nineteen year old self would not have believed it would have happened in her lifetime. But it has.

Today is a day to dream big and bold visions. We could change our society. We could make it better. What would that society look like?

We have to dream that dream before we can achieve it. We have to find the courage to hold tightly to our visions. We have to face down all the fire hoses, both those of our minds which inform us of the impossibility of our dreams and those of our society, that tells us to move more slowly.

But first we have to dream. Dream boldly, today of all days.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Joy of an Unstructured Day

Yesterday was one of those perfect days that reminded me of the value of having an unstructured day.  I woke up with only one commitment on my schedule:  morning spin class, which was a good class. 

My spouse had gotten up at 5 a.m., which is odd for him, which may explain why he eventually went back to sleep.  But before he did, I checked the weather, and he had decided to make some progress on the privacy fence he's been restoring.  It's a process that requires taking out invasive ficus bushes that were allowed to grow into trees, taking out rotting fence posts and the concrete posts that embed them, and then, the putting in of the new.

I was on hand if he needed help, but for the most part, he made progress without me.  I stayed at the computer and made progress on projects of my own.  I revised an essay for my memoir/essay collection.  I caught up on grading for my online class.  I sent poems to an editor who requested them.  I sent an e-mail with blog post possibilities to my editor at the Living Lutheran site.

I was productive in other ways.  I made another quick trip to the grocery store to pick up some vegetables.  I made a simple tomato sauce for our eventual supper.  We went to Home Depot to get supplies.  I did some laundry.  I sorted through my closet.

At the end of the day, we enjoyed a glass of wine by the pool while we admired the new stretch of fence.  We ate our simple supper and watched reruns of comedies we hadn't seen the first time they aired (Mike and Molly and Big Bang Theory).

I wouldn't want every week-end day to be this way.  I need to have some outings and some fun get-togethers with friends.  But if I'm not careful, those kinds of social encounters can swallow up every scrap of free time that I have.

It's good to have a three day week-end, where I can have a good mix.  It's good to have a day like yesterday.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Good Omen for 2015

I have been feeling that funk that I sometimes feel when the people around me and my Facebook friends are enjoying book publication success.  It's not an envy--on the contrary, for every story of the good news of book-length publishing to people I know as real humans, not just names, I find some comfort.  This good news does come to regular people, not just the already established authors whose names are known across the country.

But that good feeling is soon followed by the whine:  "When will it be my turn?"

I hear the voice of a good writer friend in my ear:  "What have you sent out?  Have you written to that agent yet?"

She is right.  I have to get back to making more submissions:  individual poems to journals, book-length manuscripts to publishers.

I am following through with my New Year's resolution to write a poem two days a week.  Now I need to be more intentional about getting poems, short stories, and my memoir/essay collection out into the world.

As if to reinforce these ideas, I've gotten some nods from the universe this week.  Yesterday morning, I got an e-mail from a journal.  I almost didn't open it, as I assumed it would be a rejection.  But rejections don't usually begin this way:  "How wonderful to see your name in our in box again!"

My poem, "Cassandra Considers the Dust" will be published soon, and I'll post the link.  Hurrah!

I spent the middle part of the week having a wonderful Facebook conversation about the possibilities for Angel Gabriel poems.  I'm feeling like I'm seeing good harbingers for 2015.

May this week be a sign of things to come.  I want 2015 to be a year of good changes, unlike 2014, which was a year of loss and premonitions of losses to come.

So, let me visualize this.  It is New Year's Eve, the waning hours of 2015.  I drink a glass of champagne and reflect.  I think back to January, that first acceptance of the year.  I think about my book-length collection of poems that just came out, the contract for my memoir/book of essays signed in the fall, the book advance in my bank account, the schedule for revisions ambitious but manageable.

It is New Year's Eve, 2015.  I raise my glass to all the changes that are in process.  I say a prayer of gratitude for my good fortune.  I say a prayer for others who are still waiting for their good fortune.  I say a prayer for transformation, a society that turns away from madness and anger and towards art that revives and revitalizes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Joy of a Simple, Nourishing Soup

Last Saturday, I had a group of friends coming over for quilting/knitting/catching up and lunch.  I told everyone I would make a big pot of soup.  But as I thought about what kind of soup to make, I couldn't remember which of my friends had which dietary restrictions.  I knew that my Hindu friend would not eat beef, and one of us is vegetarian.  One of us won't eat anything with alcohol in it.  Were any of us vegans this month?  Anyone avoiding gluten?  I couldn't remember.

So, I played it completely safe.  I went with a simple vegetable soup.  I was surprised by how delicious it was, given that it was so easy to make.  It was easy, because I make sure to have these kinds of ingredients in my pantry and freezer.  That's good, since we didn't have many fresh veggies in the house.

I started with a 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes:  into the pot which was heating.  I had a package of frozen mixed veggies:  peas, corn, chopped carrots, and green beans.  I used a can of kidney beans so we'd have some protein, but any bean would do.  I used a can of pumpkin which thickens the soup and significantly raises the vitamin A content, and since it was so thick, I put in a can of water.  I gave it a swirl of olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar, plus basil and oregano, my favorite herbs.  I also used some onion powder and garlic powder, since I didn't have any fresh onion or garlic.

Then I let it simmer.  It was delicious when I served it, and even more delicious later, and I'll tell you why:  I accidently let it simmer all afternoon.

When it was time for lunch, I heated up the soup and turned down the heat in case anyone wanted seconds.  At some point, I thought I had turned off the stovetop, but I hadn't.  So the soup simmered and thickened all afternoon.

Happily, it never got to the scorching point.  And I've enjoyed it all week long.

One of my plans for this holiday week-end will be to make more soup.  Or maybe I'll make a casserole.  Maybe both.

I know people who hate having leftovers.  Those people must have plenty of time to cook.  Or the money and metabolism to eat out every day.  That's not me.

I know people who claim that cooking is too complicated.  But a good pot of simple soup shows how simple it can be.  I didn't even have to puree part of the soup to have a thicker soup.  I didn't have to pay attention to it at all.

If I wrote a book of spiritual and artistic exercises or any sort of self-help book, it would include a chapter on having nourishing food in the house.  How can we nourish our spiritual and artistic selves if our physical selves are starving?

We must make time to do this.  Happily my experience on Saturday reminds me that it can be a simple and easy thing to do.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Poetry Thursday: Experimenting with Poems and Photographs

A different approach to Mepkin Abbey photos and the meditation they inspire--I try to write one of these a week for my theology blog.  Today, a poem with a Mepkin photo between each stanza.  I'm in awe of people who create short films and animations for their poems, but I find still photos charming too--especially since these photos were taken without the poem in mind.  I like how it came together.

If you want to know about the writing process that led to this poem, see this blog post.  This poem, without the photos, was published in Adanna.

Restoring the Seams

She used to count every rib,
a loom around her heart,
like the Appalachian tool
that spools honey into her tea.

 But years of good food and wine
now hide her ribcage.
She lets the seams
out of the side of her favorite
dress, a dress bought long ago,
a dress stitched by a distant
woman in Afghanistan in a different decade.

She thinks of that country
come undone, torn and shredded.
She slides the seam ripper
under threads made softer
by the humidity of many Southern summers.

 She thinks of distant graveyards,
young men buried in alien
landscapes. She thinks of English ivy,
that invasive immigrant, clinging
to the marble markers,
obscuring the names beneath.

 Hours later, half blind from restoring
seams, she walks the woods
of a neighboring monastery.

 The monks have reclaimed
an old slave cemetery, but a toppled
angel lies face down in the rich dirt.
She sets the angel upright
and brushes soil off her half-eroded features.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Angel Gabriel Haunts My Tuesday

Yesterday morning, on Facebook, I saw this image of the Annunciation--what a neat woodcut (linoleum cut, I would find out later):

I went to Beth's site for a fascinating post--with more pictures of the process!--of how she came to create this image.  It was a good reminder that even though a creative project may not come together right away, it doesn't mean we're done with it or it with us.

Later in the morning, a different Facebook friend posted this image, to which she credits L Wallnau:

I thought of the angel Gabriel yet again.  I thought of invitations because my friend wrote this:

Some called to dress the bride
Others to prepare her
while a small company sent out with invitations

I thought of Gabriel as an engraved invitation.  I thought of what it would take to get our attention these days.  Angel choirs might get our attention, if we could hear them.  I think of students on Monday who walked right past me while I asked, "Do you have your schedule?  Check in here please"--their ear buds prevented awareness of all sorts.

Would we follow a star?  Would we study the skies long enough to realize that a new star had appeared?

Yes, I've tilled this ground before--and last night, when I tried to write a poem inspired by these images, I wrote a passable poem, but nothing special.  Still, it's a poem.

I wrote it as I waited in the Registrar's office for students to come pick up schedules or hold sheets.  One of my colleagues saw me in yet a different place and asked, "How many hats are you wearing these days?"  Lots of hats.  Would I rather be wearing a beautiful gown?

Ah, but I am a sturdy sort, running up and down the stairs, trying to help solve a wide variety of problems:  sort of like this image, but not really:

I would need a sturdy gown.  Can one have sturdiness along with swirls?

Yesterday, I also read January Gill O'Neil's Misery Islands, a book of poems which celebrates sturdiness of all sorts.  I read it straight through, during a quiet time as I staffed the Registrar's desk after evening classes had started.  What a great book!

What's neat is that I read about some of the poems as they were being written. January's blog is one that I follow regularly.  I was interested to see the poem cycle about the islands, and I wasn't disappointed.

In the quiet of the evening, I was able to blaze through some of the work tasks I can't get to in the hubbub of the day; I don't really mind being the evening administrator one day each week.  In the quiet of the evening, I thought about the angel Gabriel again. 

Suddenly this morning, I have an idea for a poem that might be different:  the angel Gabriel roams a college campus.  But it's not a bucolic campus--no it's a commuter school, people cramming in classes after work, or before working the graveyard shift.  The annunciation, but the Mary figure isn't the traditional beauty--no, she's tired beyond belief, and she can't believe that God would choose her.  Why not go to Harvard to choose a better mother candidate?  Go haunt the halls of privilege!

Of course, my favorite Bible stories show us time and time again that God appears in the midst of the poor and powerless, far from the halls of power and privilege.  But will we have ears and eyes to hear?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Week One Aches and Pains

This morning, I lay in bed and thought about my spouse's back surgery 2 years ago--and not just to feel gratitude.  I was trying to remember how they instructed him to get out of bed.

Yes, my back is very sore today.  Yesterday, I spent much of my work day on my feet.  We have been trying to both be more efficient and more welcoming.  We set up a table in the lobby where students could check in to get either their schedules or their hold sheets.  Hold sheets meant problems to be taken care of, more lines upstairs.  A schedule meant that all was in order:  free to go to class.  Teachers are supposed to check to make sure that schedules are official and printed on the right color paper.

Why hand out paper schedules?  Why have every student get a piece of paper during the first week of class?  What year is it anyway?

At some point, hopefully we can become more electronic so that most of our students can simply print their schedules online.  May it please be soon!

To let you know how cumbersome the process used to be:  a student came to the table at 5, and I handed him his schedule and said, "Have a good quarter!"  He said, "That's it?  I came an hour early because it usually takes that long."

So, we made the process easier for some students and eliminated some aches and pains.  I had one faculty member tell me that he thought more students got to class on time because we had eliminated some of the standing in line part of day 1.  But my back is certainly sore today.

It's the kind of sore that tells me, "You will not be running today.  It might not be a good idea to take a leisurely walk.  Take your ibuprofen and hope for the best."

I'm not sure I can even take a swim, although the very cold water (72 degrees) of my pool might be helpful.

Luckily, I am still in good enough shape that my body tends to bounce back from injury and insult fairly quickly.  On New Year's Day, I was taking out the garbage, which requires walking down three very small steps.  One step made me feel sharp pain in my knee, and I limped back to the house.  I spent some hours with an ice pack on my knee, and for the next few days, it felt twingey but I could exercise gently and move through the day.

Hopefully, the same will be true of my back.

Monday, January 12, 2015

When the Work Is Mostly Invisible

--The house across the street has been vacant for several years, and now, after being bought, work has been going on in fits and spurts.  I assumed that sentence to be true, but my spouse said, "That's because a lot of the work happens inside the house where it can't be seen or during the day when you're not here to see it.

--I've been chewing on his comment and thinking about how much other work happens in the invisible realm.

--I've been thinking about the director of the new film Selma, who says she usually makes her movies for "two dollars and a paper clip."  In this interview, Ava DuVernay says she can always keep writing because she always has two dollars and a paper clip.  Thus, she never has to ask permission to make/tell the stories that she wants to tell.

--That idea of how to be an artist is so very vital.  I get so very, very tired of the idea that artists are crazy.  I used to call it the Edgar Allen Poe theory of creativity, an idea I got out of Julia Cameron's books.  But even calling it the Edgar Allen Poe theory is unfair to Poe.  If Poe had been as crazy as he gets credit for being, he wouldn't have been as productive as he was.

--Suddenly I have an urge to go back to Julia Cameron's books.  I have an urge to write those kinds of books.  When I had a friend suggest that I create a blog with my recipes and photos, I said,
"Interesting--I tend to post recipes when I can't think of anything else to write about."  I said, "I have thought that a book of spiritual exercises, including cooking/baking, would be good for me to write."  My friend wrote back, "Ok I would buy that book Yes pls new self help books needed that r spiritual n abt creative n fun n such meditative"
--As you can tell, it was a Facebook conversation.  She was writing from a phone, thus the textspeak.
--At some point, I plan to go back through my blogs to see if I have already, in effect, written such a book--but since blogging, is, in effect, an invisible way to write a book, I may not know it.
--Alas, I will not be able to do that work today.  Today is the first day of Winter quarter at my full-time school job.  I will be staffing the welcome table where students will either pick up their schedules or hold sheets.  In a way, it's very visible work, but it's also invisible.
--Last week someone told me that I'm the only person at school who ever says please or thank you--another type of invisible work.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

De-Christmased and Working toward De-Cluttering

Yesterday, after a delightful time with my quilting group, my spouse and I put the Christmas decorations away.  He had already de-Christmased the house a few days earlier by collecting everything together on the guest room bed.  We still needed to wrap the breakable ornaments and put the various objects in boxes and then put them on the top shelf of a closet.

The guest room has really been bothering my spouse, and I am willing to admit that in recent months, it had become a catch-all/overflow room--even though we had guests in and out during mid-December.  I wanted it to be more inviting, but I had grades due and graduation and all sorts of other duties.

So, yesterday afternoon, we did some sorting and reboxing and moving stuff around.  Other couples have trouble talking about money or sex; I found myself feeling weepy as we discussed whether or not it makes sense to keep the bulky wooden easel.  To get rid of it makes me sad for several reasons.

I'm admitting that I'm not likely to paint anytime soon.  I know that.  But if I give away the easel, I feel like I'm committing to that reality.

I also feel sad because that easel reminds me of a happy time in the 90's when I was painting like a mad fiend.  I was deliriously happy then.  Sure I could take a picture and not keep the object--but there's just something about the object.

And then there's the money that we've spent on certain objects and tools and supplies.  To give them away means I have to forgive myself for spending money on stuff that I might not have used optimally.

We had a variety of these types of conversations.  Then we put the room back together and watched some TV and called it a day.

It's interesting that I can identify and understand the psychological stuff that's making it hard for me to go further in decluttering--and yet, I can't seem to subvert it or ignore it.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Once, I had boxes of fabric, fabric I bought, fabric I inherited from other people's projects, fabric that people gave me.  I realized that I had more fabric than I would ever use, and some of it I would never use because it was ugly.  I gave it to some friends in the Carolinas to take to their churches who had social justice programs that revolved around quilting.  That way, I was able to feel good about the fabric finally going to good use without that spiral of self-reproach for time and money wasted.  I could let go.

Well, at this point, I'll start with a smaller jump.  We also have several shelves of office supplies which we don't really need to keep.  I'll take them to the office.  Let someone else get use out of those 100 file folders and sticky notes of all sizes.  I'll start using the fancy paper envelopes to send out poetry packets to journals.  I'll throw away the blank labels for floppy disks.

Maybe after I do that, I'll be able to face bigger questions.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rollercoaster Week: A Look Back

What a tumultuous week.  Let me take a look back, so that I have a record at some point.

--Monday seems so long ago, so quiet.  I got so much work done at the office, while also considering the possibility of more online teaching work.  I ordered textbooks, one for the class for which I'm considering finishing the curriculum, one for an instructor who hadn't had any luck in getting a desk copy.

--Those books came yesterday.  How much has changed!  How much stays the same . . .

--On Tuesday, we had layoffs at work.  Two years ago, my department was split in two:  Humanities/Communication and Math/Science with two people in charge.  Now my department is reunited again. 

--Suddenly, I find myself in charge of double the amount of people.  I keep myself grounded by reminding myself that our newly reunified department is still smaller than our department was back before the first round of layoffs back in 2012.  I'm also being realistic in what I can accomplish.  I had thought of doing more classroom observations of each teacher, back when I was only overseeing Humanities and Communications classes.  Those plans may be on hold.

--The way we do Math classes has changed dramatically since I oversaw those classes in 2012.  Now we use a Pearson product, MyMathLab--or is it MyFoundationsLab?  Our outgoing coordinator left the process in fine shape.  Still, there are many aspects of the week-to-week running of it that I don't know yet.

--I should have bought stock in Pearson--they seem to be moving from being a textbook company to taking over much of the first year college education world. This, despite having all sorts of software glitches that don't seem to make schools forsake them.  My online class at a different school is having all sorts of problems with MyEnglishLab.

--I looked at the folder of information that our now-former Coordinator of Math and Science kept.  I immediately felt overwhelmed, like I might collapse in tears and wailing.  My sturdy self spoke up:  "Just put the folder back on the shelf."  I did.

--The outside news cycle intruded on my week of rollercoaster emotions.  Like the rest of the free world, I was shocked by the murders in France.  One of the careers I considered was newspaper journalist, and the editor of that journal was just 2 years younger than I was.  If I had stayed on the journalism path, I doubt I would have taken the kind of stand he did.  I would likely be unemployed by now, in a different field, after having written ho-hum articles about a variety of subjects.

--Later in the week, as the terrorists made their last stand in the industrial building, I thought about the worker taken hostage.  I want more news coverage about that person--was he working late or early?  He just happened to be in the building--that's the extent of the coverage.  I think of the randomness of it all--he just happens to be at work in a rural village when terrorists on the run end up there.

--It was a week of late nights and early mornings at work, although not extremely late, since the building closes at 8 when classes aren't in session.  Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were days of hecticity, as we tried to get students admitted and registered for classes with all the paperwork in order, as we tried to get everything ready for Monday.  I spent lots of time with people brimming with stress and sometimes anger.  For the most part, I was able to assist with problems and get them sorted out.

--At least when I worked late, there wasn't traffic on the way home.

--Home wasn't always peaceful either.  I came home on Monday to find the bedroom ceiling fan perched on a ladder.  My spouse reports that he was working on the computer and heard strange noises and discovered the fan working its way out of the ceiling.  Various parts were stripped and it took him a few days to figure out how to get all the parts out of the ceiling.  The bedroom was almost unusable for a few days.

--But along the way, there were wonderful moments too.  Let me not forget my haiku workshop--what fun!  I wrote some poems that made me happy.  I had coffee, lunches, happy hour with friends.  One night we went to the house of friends in the neighborhood--we had a great meal and a family games night.

--Last night, we ate our supper by the pool.  And then our neighbor needed help lifting a tire into her car, and we waited for her on the front porch.  It was great to be reminded of how much I love this house in this neighborhood.  It was great to have some time to watch the light fade from the sky and the streetlights come on--our streetlights were replaced about 5 years ago, and they have an antique gaslight look.

--Last night was the first night since Sunday that I was able to sleep longer than 4 hours.  That, too, gives me hope.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Poetry Friday: The Sky Spoke the Truth

Here we are a week into the new year.  I haven't been as good at my exercise goal of running twice a week along with spin class, but I've been partially successful.  This week has been surprisingly hectic at work, so it's not a shock that I haven't run.  There will be other weeks.

Happily I have been successful at my goal of writing a poem on each Tuesday and Thursday.  Yesterday I thought I would write a poem based on an idea I had when I almost let my grandmother's mixing bowl slip through my wet hands as I washed it.  I had a vision of God's mudslicked hands letting the goblet of the sky slip. 

But I had written the line down on a scrap of paper that I left at the office.  I couldn't quite recapture it, and it frustrated me to know that a better line was at school.  So, I shifted focus.

I reread T. S. Eliot's "Gerontion."  I took lines and images and spun my own poem.  It's not quite done, so I won't post it here. 

The week before, on a poet's Facebook post, I had read this quote from Eliot "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season."  I thought, why don't I know this poem?  And now I can't get these images out of my brain.

I see some of those images in the Epiphany poem that I wrote on Tuesday.  I had a painter colleague/friend drop by my office the other day.  He asked how my poetry was going.  I showed him the poem I wrote during Tuesday's afternoon meeting.  He read it and looked up.  He said, "You just created this out of nothing?"

Well, not nothing.  The first line is from my writer friend/colleague at who sat in front of me at the meeting.  I had been thinking about T.S. Eliot, both "Gerontion" and "Journey of the Magi."  I had Epiphany images in my head, and I wrote them down.  Then, off I went.  I wrote a bit about the writing process in this post, but I didn't post the poem, as the blog post was getting long.

Here's the poem, which has no title at this point.  Consider it a working draft.

The sky spoke the truth.
The full moon waxed and waned,
and the star continued to blaze,
outlasting the murderous dictators,
pathways made straight
for the march of rigid empires.

Wise men would come and go, wise women
too, those who said yes, those who asked
why.  The highborn made lowly,
the outposts uplifted.

You who have worn the bridal
gown now cloaked in sackcloth.
Ashes smudged on foreheads,
they persevere.  Some would forsake
these epiphanies, but we know:
the truth shall set you free. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Using Haiku to Assess Student Learning

Yesterday there was more hustle and bustle at work than I usually experience in the weeks before students are on campus--a wide variety of hustle and bustle.

I was not in my usual calm and collected place when I showed up at 2:00 to conduct a faculty development workshop on using haiku to assess student learning.  It didn't help that the computer that I needed was not connecting to the Internet.  Happily, my colleagues are a wonderful support network:  one of them texted our IT expert, who showed up and got us connected.

I asked my colleagues to pretend we were taking a class on the solar system and that today's lecture was on the moons of Saturn.  I asked them to turn off their devices.  I told them they could take notes on what seemed significant in the lecture, and I said, "Or you can just watch the video and let yourself be overcome by the awe and wonder that the universe can inspire."  I had not had a morning that left me full of awe and wonder.

I showed this TED video.  When it was done, I asked them to stay silent and then to write their impressions onto the paper.  Then I told them they could work alone or in groups. 

I stressed that we were not in a poetry class, so I used the term "haiku" very loosely and not at all like the classic Japanese form.  I asked them to write haiku to show what was most important about the video they just saw.  I said the first line should be 5 syllables, the second line 7 syllable, and the third line 5 syllables.

As I expected, some struggled, while others wrote a multitude of haikus.  I then had them write their haikus into a Word document that was projected onto the flat screen TVs.  We had a wonderful variety.

We talked about whether or not this activity would be better for assessing student learning than anything more typical, like a quiz.  We talked about how to assess it or assign points.  We talked about how to tweak the assignment:  perhaps adding visual images or having students do the activity across several class periods and then have them create a larger project.

I envisioned the activity as something done at the end of class to see what concepts the students thought to be most important--that way, if their view and my class objective for the day turned out to be radically different, I could correct.  I think it would also be interesting to do it at the following class, to see what they retained from the previous class.

I had a great time leading the workshop and my colleagues seemed to enjoy it.  I was surprised that very few of my colleagues seemed irritated or zoned out.  Some are required to go to these sessions, but I couldn't tell from their behavior if they were there under duress or not.  In short, although I didn't have an audience composed solely of people there because they truly wanted to be there, everyone acted like they were of their own free will.

I returned to my office restored and refreshed.  My afternoon productivity skyrocketed, as did my mood.  I do still love teaching, and yesterday was the best kind:  a class full of smart and interesting people, a good hour of engaging material, and no grading to do.

I'm hoping that the good feelings from yesterday's session lingers today.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Gumbo Limbo Tree Knows the Truth: Love in the Face of Loss

I've spent my whole life hearing that humans are the only creatures who have a knowledge of death, both ours and others, and who have to figure out how to live in the face of that reality.  We are the only creatures who know that everything and everyone we love will eventually be lost.  But is it true?

This morning, just before 5 a.m., I stood on my front porch, as I so often do.  It's both a centering practice and a way to gauge the weather, all sorts of weather.  I looked at the 4 Gumbo Limbo trees in my front yard.  They've had at least 4 different sets of residents of this house to observe.  Do they miss the family with the toddler that lived here once?  Do they think about the fact that the toddler would now be a teenager?  Do they observe me looking at them lovingly and hope that I'll stay around a long time?  The recent decade has been such a time of residents coming and going so quickly, both at my house and throughout the region.

Do the Gumbo Limbo trees look down the street towards the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic beyond?  Do they sense the sea creeping towards them?

I headed out yesterday expecting a work day of dull meetings.  Instead it was a tumultuous day, full of meetings within meetings, flipped schedules, no lunch ordered because of the more pressing priorities.  It was a day haunted by that line from The Wizard of Oz:  "People come and go so quickly here."  

I spent the day surrounded by people, many people, some of whom I see more frequently during a work day than I see my spouse.  Some of the faces were completely new.  Some of these faces I've been seeing for over a decade now.  I tried not to focus on the faces that are now absent.

I wrote a completely different poem than the one I anticipated in yesterday morning's post.  Suddenly, this first line made me queasy:  "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"

Luckily, my writer friend sat in front of me.  Our challenge for January is to write a short story inspired by the word "spell."  She told me that she had her first line:  "The sky tells the truth."  She said that she didn't like the way it sounded, but I played with it anyway.  I wanted an Epiphany poem, but something more.  I started with obvious words, like Wise Men and star.  In a corner was an interesting variation on a ball gown on display for reasons unknown to me, which made me think of wedding dresses.  I ended the poem with "The truth shall set you free."

I planned to post it this morning, but I left it at school--so it will be a treat for the future.

I passed the poem to my friend--some people pass notes, but I pass poems.  I've known her for a long time, so when I saw her delight, I decided to keep the poem, this poem which began as a doodle of sorts.

Bone weary at the end of the day, with a stunned discombobulation that no poem could cure, I drove home.  I found myself weeping as I heard the news coverage of all the gay couples who spent the day getting married on the very first day that gay marriage became legal in this state.  I found myself moved beyond belief at the tales of long-lasting love--and at the coverage of people who showed up to cheer on the people getting married.

I love the ways that we remain defiant in the face of losses that are surely coming.  Surely these practices help us stay rooted, like the 4 Gumbo Limbo trees in my front yard. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Poem Ponderings on the Feast Day of the Epiphany

Today is the last day of the Christmas season, unless you celebrate until Candlemas in early February.  Today on the Feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate the visit of the Magi, the Wise Men who come to visit the Baby Jesus.

Today is a good day to think about wisdom, about gifts, about the shadow side of this story, which is Herod, who stews over this vision that the wise men have given him. We might think about all the ways we turn good news into bad, of the ways that we stew over our thoughts and turn them into poisonous actions. We might make an Epiphany resolution to watch our thoughts carefully and to track our actions even more carefully.
I will have many opportunities to do that today, to watch my thoughts, to keep from spiraling into negativity.  It's a day of many meetings and many personalities.  I suspect that I will already know the information that's dispersed at these meetings, which makes it more of a trial for me.

Maybe I'll take my poetry legal pad with me.  It's Tuesday, after all.  My plan is to write a poem on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Epiphany makes us think of wise men following stars--but what an amazing full moon last night!  I was on the top floor of a Ft. Lauderdale parking garage, and I was delighted by the neon lights of the downtown buildings.  My friend said, "But look at the moon!"

It glowed palely in the shadow of the neon.  But later, I sat at my desk, trying to understand a new-to-me Learning Management System for a different college where I'm teaching online classes, and I could see the moon from my window.  How gorgeous it was, how distracting, as the clouds moved across it.  Much more Halloweenish than Epiphany Eve.

I think of Epiphany, all the ways I would prefer to celebrate. 

I'd rather be making 3 Kings Bread.  This blog post gives you an easy recipe, with photos, for a simple, no-knead 3 Kings Bread. if you're wishing you could do this today.  Many families have charms that are baked into the bread that signify what will come in the new year.  Even if you don't have special charms, you could use things you do have:  a nut, a foil wrapped coin, a dried cranberry, a piece of frozen fruit.

My spouse will be home trying to fix the ceiling fan which began making alarming noises yesterday afternoon.  I came home to find it partly out of the ceiling.  But part of it is attached to the ceiling in ways that aren't obvious.  I'm glad that he stopped to wait for daylight and fresh eyes.

Yes, I would like to make 3 Kings Bread, but if I was at home today, I'd be assisting with home repair.  Home repair and Epiphany?  There should be a poem there.

I'd like to be in an awe-inspiring cathedral, celebrating a high mass on this holy day, but I will be sitting under fluorescent lights on standardized office furniture.  Could a poem come from that statement?

I think of Wilfred Owen of all people.  "Anthem for Doomed Youth" was one of the first poems we explored in college that made me say, "I want to be able to do this!  This set of comparisons that makes me think about both war and church and funerals differently!"

Yes, I have found my poetry project for today, something to noodle on and doodle with during my day of many meetings!