Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ups and Downs in a Writer's Week

On Wednesday I reached out to the editor who has been in charge of assigning prayers for Bread for the Day, a devotion book.  I've been writing prayers for the project since 2011, and I've really liked that writing assignment.

Well, I won't be doing it this year, not for that project.  The editor has already assigned the prayers.  He wrote me a very nice e-mail saying that he tries to keep the roster of writers varied and thus adds 4-5 new people each year.  There are only 12 openings for writers.

I felt a sadness all out of proportion.  It's the writing job that pays least well--second to least, if we count contributor copies.  There's not a lot of exposure.  It won't lead to a great full-time possibility.

But I liked it.  And lurking in the background is that demon of self-loathing, always ready to speak up:  why did I write for the past several years only to be excluded this year?

My demon wanted to submerge me, but I dusted myself off and polished my Living Lutheran blog posts that were due by the end of this month. 

And yesterday's mail brought good news.  Back in November, I submitted a manuscript, Life in the Holocene Extinction, to the Concrete Wolf chapbook contest.  While I didn't win publication, I did win the First Runner Up title (go here to see the complete list).  Plus, I got a wonderfully supportive note.

It gives me encouragement to keep sending manuscripts out.  And so I will--there are some March contests which look interesting . . . stay tuned!

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Monastery Dog: A Brief PhotoEssay

Yesterday I wrote this post which was in part about a monastery dog. 

Here is a picture of the dog at the retreat center where visitors stay. 

And here's a picture of the dog at the labyrinth.  Does he walk the labyrinth when we're not around?

Notice that the monastic vow of hospitality extends to dogs.  Someone built this stray dog a house, complete with a welcome mat:

If it was a week ago, I'd have already been on the road for several hours on my way to the monastery. I am grateful for this place, which extends hospitality to stray dogs and wayfaring strangers and fellow monks and anyone who comes to them.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Monastery Dog and the Coffeemaker that Speaks to Satellites

This morning, I thought I'd write a poem about the monastery dog.  At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

Yet as my week-end at the monastery proceeded, I decided that the monastery dog was lucky.  She had a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks would take care of her.  Not every community has taken a vow of hospitality, after all. She could have been abandoned to a much worse fate.

And she had vast fields at her disposal.  No cooped up back yards for her.  Her joy at racing across the grounds made me happy too.

So, did I write that poem?  No, not yet. 

Instead, as I was catching up on old NPR shows, this line leapt out at me:  "My coffee maker is texting me again."  The rest of the show talked about technology and smart appliances (meaning wired and communicative) and smart houses. 

I thought, oh great, just what I need, inanimate objects announcing their needs.  Get in line, inanimate objects.  I thought about the coffee maker, who assumes its needs should take priority, and its bleating of its needs by way of text--a metaphor for modern life, to be sure.

I thought about Mepkin Abbey and the new retreat center:

The roof is made of copper.  The guestmaster monk said that an unexpected benefit of the roof is that copper blocks cell phone signals.

All of these items converged in my brain this morning.  The quote above starts my poem:  "My coffee maker is texting me again."

And I end this way:

I dream of draping every roof
in copper to block connectedness.
Once it seemed miraculous to speak to satellites.
Now I long for silence.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Distant Early Warning Signs: Too Busy

After reading two excellent blog posts about the ways that we find out that we're overextended (Jeannine wrote this blog post on busyness and borders and the trouble that freelancers have with saying no and Kelli wrote this blog post on crashing her van which was both a metaphorical and real life call to slow down) , I've been thinking about the distant early warning signs that tell us that we're getting too busy. 

In the last few weeks, what signs have I had that I might be getting a bit overextended?

--The week I went to lunch 3 times in one week.  There was likely also a happy hour or two.  What explains such extravagance?  After all, I had brought my lunch.  But I wanted to be with work friends, to digest the news and non-news that came out of big meetings.

--More than that, I wanted some kind of comfort that I traditionally seek in restaurants.  Some people seek that comfort in alcohol or the arms of lovers or in yoga or harder work-outs.  Some people get together with friends and no food is involved:  they watch a movie or they break out their instruments or they write a movie script.  I want someone to cook for me and to clean up afterwards, and if I pay for that, then I don't feel the guilt I would feel if I was at home with loved ones doing all of that with me not helping.

--I've also been fighting off a cold.  So far, it's fairly minor, but it's a reminder that I'm not at peak form.  Happily, I'm not so worn out that the microbes can take over.  But it's a little ping in the early warning system, a little ping saying, "Hey, you're not immortal!"

--My feelings of irritability are also a sign.  Often I can drive in a serene state:  I know the driver that wants to cut me off, and I slow down to allow for an easier merge.  But lately, I've been growling more.  Never a good sign.

--As recently gone theologian Marcus Borg says, "When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed" (The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith  page 154). We are called to have soft, open hearts. Often, I do.  When I feel more snarly about my fellow humans, it's a different kind of ping that's alerting me to my overstretched state.

--Yesterday I got a different kind of ping, as my computer system at work kept asking for a password and when I typed it in, asking me for it again.  I called the Corporate IT folks, and it was an easy problem to fix.  Still, it reduced me to tears.  An easy to fix IT problem should not make me weep in my office.

--I haven't been as diligent about paying attention to my writing, and I need to step up my efforts to send my writing into the world.

--Actually, that above statement isn't true.  I've been paying attention to the writing that pays.  I've been good at being in contact with the editor at Living Lutheran who likes my writing:  I've been pitching ideas, and she's been accepting them, and I've been writing them.

--As with online teaching, it's good to have alternate sources of income, and those activities (writing for Living Lutheran and teaching) do fill a void, and not just a monetary one.  But they also require time, and in the last few weeks, time has felt like an increasingly absent resource.

--Some day, I expect to be a little old lady, left all alone when my friends die earlier than expected.  Like my grandmother, I will have huge vistas of uninterrupted time, and I will look back on 2015 and wonder why I complained about all the activities which filled my day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mepkin Sojourn in Brief

I am back from Mepkin Abbey--let me capture some thoughts before I hurl myself back into the world of work:

--Some years, the drive doesn't seem too bad.  Not this year--the miles seemed long and endless.

--Some years, the landscape has more color.  This year, the winter has been tougher, leaving not much color to be found.  I only saw one patch of pansies at the Abbey.  One year, the azaleas were still blooming.  On my last day there, I did see a jonquil, which cheered me.

--The weather was very strange--it didn't get above 34 degrees on Friday, but by Sunday, it was in the 70's.  And as I drove south yesterday, the weather forecast included ice, snow, and freezing rain--it made me want to speed up, even though I was in no immediate danger.

--The liturgy is more austere, which one might expect at Lent.  But did the monks sing the hymns more slowly on purpose, or was the organist (who wasn't there last year) one of the less-sprightly types who would slow every hymn down?

--We wondered if the monks might have a more austere Lenten diet, but it seemed the same.  We had dessert twice on Sunday, for example.  And they have a non-vegetarian option to eat each day.

--I took my laptop, but never plugged it in. 

--That's not to say I did no work.  I did read through my memoir.  It holds together well.  I was worried it might repeat the same ideas over and over, but it did not.  And I had worried that even the longest essays would seem too short, but they didn't.

--I devoured two books:  Gail Godwin's Publishing:  A Writer's Memoir and Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable, perhaps not the best book to be reading as I'm working on my own nonfiction.  Daum is an amazing writer.  Godwin is too, but her book didn't tell me a lot I didn't already know.  Still, it was pleasant, like visiting an old friend.

--I'd have been much more interested in Godwin's memoir if it had included more about her religious life.

--We walked the grounds a lot.  I saw a beautiful sunset over the river.  In all the years I've been going to Mepkin, I've never made it to the river to see the sun set.

--The moon was also breathtaking.  A tiny sliver of waxing moon.  And the first night, the stars were brilliant--the rest of the time, clouds obscured the view.

--The monastery has a dog!  She wandered in as a puppy, and apparently, it was obvious that she didn't have owners who would miss her.  So, she gets to stay.  I shall write a poem about how the joys of being the monastery dog are abundant recompense for all that she won't experience in suburbia.

--Every time I saw her running across the grounds, I smiled.  And she always seemed happy to see us.  We left the last service at the end of the day, Compline, where the Abbot sprinkles us each with water from the baptismal font.  I feel so complete.  But this year, the dog waited outside with a wagging tail--twice blessed!

--Two friends from my community college days make the retreat with me.  It's great to catch up. 

--One friend had just finished organizing a dissertation retreat for the Writing Center at the university where she works.  Perhaps hearing about the retreat explains my dream that I found out I was pregnant and my first reaction was to say, "I better get my dissertation done by the end of summer."

--My friend has said the project I need to work on getting to publication is a collection of photo essays that I've been creating since last year's trip (here's an example).  I think I still need some additional material, but her passion for this project is something I want to remember.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: Thinking about Habits

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems!

Tomorrow it will be time to reenter the world, to wear the less comfortable clothes of the workplace.  Long ago, I wrote this poem which reflects on the differences between the life of monks, particularly in the area of clothing, and the life of women in the weekly world.  I originally titled it "Monk's Habits," but I think I like "Monastic Habits" better.

Monastic Habits

To put on a robe that would forgive
her for a heavy meal, so unlike
her tailored suits. A robe made of rough
material, no need of special laundering.
Goodbye to astronomical dry cleaning bills.
No worrying about matching accessories.
Always a drab color, day after day.

That robe could buy her anonymity,
invisibility in the world,
no eyes disrobing her, no leers.
That robe declaring her off limits.

And housework, those boring tasks, always renewing
themselves, would confer spiritual
discipline, instead of complaints about her ineptitude.

Even silence, that vow which mystified
her teenage self, more so even than chastity,
now calls to her. She sees herself enshrouded in silence,
no carping, complaining, or criticizing.
She sees herself surrounded by like-minded companions,
rising early in common pursuit, breathing
air perfumed by incense and rising bread dough,
as prayers rise to the heavens.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: the Autumn Poems

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems!

For the past few years, I've gone to Mepkin Abbey in February.  Before that, I went in the fall.  Below, you'll see two poems that came from the same week-end.

One year, my annual trip to Mepkin Abbey coincided with Veteran's Day, which was first Armistice Day.  It also happened to be near All Saints Day, the first All Saints Day after Abbot Francis Kline had been cruelly taken early by leukemia.  Part of one of the services was out in the monks' cemetery, and all the retreatents were invited out with the monks. I was struck by the juxtapositions, and I wrote this poem:

Armistice Day at the Abbey The monks bury their dead on this slight
rise that overlooks the river
that flows to the Atlantic, that site
where Africans first set foot on slavery’s soil.

These monks are bound
to a different master, enslaved
in a different system.
They chant the same Psalms, the same tones
used for centuries. Modern minds scoff,
but the monks, yoked together
into a process both mystical and practical,
do as they’ve been commanded.

Their graves, as unadorned as their robes,
stretch out in rows of white crosses, reminiscent
of a distant French field. We might ponder
the futility of belief in a new covenant,
when all around us old enemies clash,
or we might show up for prayer, light
a candle, and simply submit.
I was also struck by other images, and I wrote the poem below.  Some years, I like it, particularly as I tried not to explain too much, to just collect images.  Some years, it feels unfinished to me.

Autumn at the Abbey

I drove seven hundred miles from the tip
of Spanish speaking Florida to the Gullah drenched
lowcountry marsh.

I arose in the wee small hours of the morning
to drive up the spine of the state
with truckers and other insomniacs.

I saw the flaming
orange fields, the flickers
of light across the river.

I have eaten eggs from the chickens
raised by monks and been sprinkled
with holy water before bed.

I saw the baby Jesus
created from a
cornucopia of materials.

I harmonized with monks
and chanted my way through a quarter
of the Psalms.

I watched the monks at sunset
walking under Spanish moss draped
trees, ghosts from a different century.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: "Liturgy of the Hours" and "Horarium"

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems! 

I have come back several times to the way the monks worship, the liturgy of the hours, a liturgy of chanted Psalms, that weaves through each day.  Below, you can see two poems that explore similar territory.  To me, they're different enough that "Horarium," which came later, doesn't feel like a revision of the early "Liturgy of the Hours."  What do you think?

Liturgy of the Hours
The monks rise while the rest of the world sleeps.
In the darkness, they pray.

The single mother stares at the clock and calculates
costs. The newspaper carriers start
their rounds. Truckers cross
state lines, and a woman writes poetry by candlelight.

The farmer feeds the animals as sunrise
stains the horizon. Early morning exercisers lace
their shoes and retrace their steps. Parents prepare
breakfast, and the monks pray again.

Students rush from class to class.
The housekeeper starts another load of wash.
Frazzled workers everywhere break
for coffee while the monks celebrate the Eucharist.

At noon the world eats lunch.
The monks pray, and then they eat, and then they pray again.

No one leaves work early these days.
As the dark grows close, everyone sits alone
in their cars watching the pavement
and concrete barriers. The monks pray.

The world watches bad television chosen from a host
of options—hundreds of stations beamed
from satellites, and not one satisfies.
Children chat on phones and stare
at screens. Adults wonder
how they got so far behind. The pets settle
into their sleeping spaces.

The monks gather again in darkness pierced
with candle light. Watched by statues
of Mary and the Crucified Christ, they chant Compline.
The Abbott sprinkles each man with holy water
and sends them to sleep in their cells.


The monks get their morning
news from the Psalms. We brew
coffee and scan the TV stations
for news we can use:
diet tips, a weather report,
the quickest way around the traffic jams.

We sit in our coffin
like cars and watch the sun rise
across sluggish traffic. The monks chant
to each other across the chancel
as the morning light shifts
across the sanctuary.

Chained to our computers,
we undo the work of past days
and create documents to be dismantled
tomorrow. The monks tend
the chickens and mulch
the seedlings. We shred
documents while the monks
welcome visitors to a meal.

At night, we click through cable
channels, our glazed eyes focusing on nothing.
The monks light candles
in a darkened chapel and wait
for the final blessing
of the day, a splash
of holy water and a benediction.

(published in Poetry East)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: "Lectio"

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems!

My life at work is so often noisy, and it makes me yearn for a vow of silence for us all--or some phone-free zones.  It also reminds me of a poem I wrote, "Lectio."  It first appeared in The Innisfree Poetry Journal, an online journal. 

I got the idea for this poem when I was at Mepkin Abbey. I read a brochure that asked us to consider turning our cell phones off--not just to vibrate, but completely off. The word cell leapt off the page, and I immediately thought of the biological definition. Since I was at an abbey, I also thought of the definition associated with monasteries and abbeys. This poem was one of those that came easily to me. Enjoy!

Some monk once said that we should return
to our cells, that our cells
would teach us everything we need to know. 
She thinks of that monk
every time a cell phone interrupts
her class, that jarring, reproduction
of a ring tone, the student's rush
to return to the hall to take a call,
leaving the class behind to try to gather
the fragments of their scattered attention
to return to the task at hand. 
She thinks of that monk
as she tries to declutter.
She chooses a different closet
each month.  She tries to be ruthless
as she sorts, but she lapses
into sentimentality and maudlin tears.  
She thinks of that monk
each month as she returns
to the doctor to do battle
against her own traitorous cells.
The doctor shows her scans of her invisible
insides.  She sees the clumps that will kill
her.  She thinks of terrorists plotting
their dark revenge, of a coven practicing
dark arts, of all the ways a cell
can go bad and destroy all it touches.  
She returns to the church lit by candles.
The smell of wax and chant
of Psalms sends her back to childhood,
that original cell, still so much to learn.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday Threads

An Ash Wednesday thread ran through my day yesterday--you are not surprised by this sentence, if you read this blog regularly.  Some pieces of my day:

--I found bits of T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" popping up here and there.  Here are the lines that kept coming back to me:

"Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance."

--Later in the day, I wrote lines of my own:

"I have seen the bones of a billion citizens
baking in a dry seabed."

--Then I wrote some pairs of rhyming words:  ash/flesh, bones/stones, rust/dust, ash/smash

--But I thought of Ash Wednesday poems I've already written and got discouraged.  Plus, there's the T.S. Eliot poem that makes me feel the "Why should I even bother?" blues.

--Later in the day, I went to church for our Ash Wednesday soup supper.  What a comfort to eat a ladle of soup, a bowl at a time, trying each pot of deliciousness.

--Each pot was delicious in its own way--a lesson for creativity.  We can't all be T.S. Eliot.

--One of the elderly snowbirds talked about her grandmother's cup and how she had misplaced it.  At first, we thought she had misplaced it in the church's mug cabinet.  We have the kind of mug cabinet where everyone stashes mugs that they don't want anymore but can't bear to throw away.

--About the same time, a critical mass of us realized that she's was talking about a more profound loss.

--Was she?  Or was she disoriented and not knowing where she was?

--But she seemed safe and with friends/family members who didn't seem concerned.  So we gave her another mug and settled down to eat the beignets that our pastor makes just before Lent each year.

At some point, maybe I'll weave all these threads together.  Or maybe they'll remain here, a collage in words of Ash Wednesday 2015.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Season of Penitence Begins

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Many Christians will have ashes smudged on their foreheads today. Here's my forehead at the end of Ash Wednesday 2014:

Why would we do such a thing?  Behold, the words of ancient wisdom:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  We walk this planet for such a short time.  This high, holy day reminds us of that fact--viscerally.  We are a marked people.

I once met a Hindu priest who smears ash across his forehead as part of his morning ablutions.  He does it for the same reason we will get smudged today:  it reminds him of his mortality.

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

I hated this holiday as a child and a teen.  It seemed so morbid!  But now I am older and the words of Marvell ring in my ears: 

"But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near"

It's a poetic way of saying that we're getting older, and time is running out.  Those wings beat more loudly every day.

Many of us are dealing not with ash, but with snow.  But snow can be a stunning reminder of our mortality too.  For proof of that claim, I give you the ending of James Joyce's "The Dead":

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

If you are in the mood for a literary Lent, check out this list, which I found by way of this blog post by Paul Elie.

Looking back over my writing life, I'm surprised at how often I see the themes of ash and penitence in my writing. I keep returning to that well--or should I say ash pit?

Here's my all-time favorite of my Ash Wednesday poems.  Some day, there will be a book length collection of poems, and this title continues to be my favorite, as it encapsulates the theme of much of my work that explores all the places where we place our faith:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

(first published in The Ledge)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mardi Gras Creativity

Today is Mardi Gras, and it's also Shrove Tuesday. It's the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins. The holidays of Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras have their roots in the self-denial of the Lenten season. My students are always amazed when I tell them about the fasting traditions of Lent and the need to get rid of all the ingredients that you'd be giving up during Lent: alcohol, sugar, eggs, and in some traditions, even dairy foods. They see Mardi Gras and Carnival as convenient reasons to drink and have ill-considered sex. They've never made the connections between these holidays and Lent--and frankly, most of them don't even know what Lent is.

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.

In the churches of my childhood, we had pancake suppers on Shrove Tuesday.  I wonder if churches still do that in other parts of the country.

One year I made the wonderful festive bread pictured above.  It's easy, relatively healthy, and doesn't require kneading.  If you want some festivity that doesn't involve drinking (because like me, you've got to go to work tomorrow morning), this post gives you a great bread recipe, along with photographs.

I will bake no bread today; I will make no pancakes.  But I did write a poem.  In an old blog post, I came across this line:  "I could write a poem about our Mardi Gras masks, the ways we have to compose our faces while at work.  Hmmm."

I wrote that bit in 2013; today, two years later, I've written the poem.  Here are my favorite lines:

"We stare at bland walls and dream
of embellishments and bright colors."

I am continuing to write poems two days a week.  My goal is Tuesday and Thursday, with the week-end as a back-up plan.  It's mornings like this one that remind me of the value of my approach.  If I didn't have my writing goal, I might have let the thought of a poem flit across my brain without writing it down.  But today, even though I sighed in tiredness, I did it--and I ended up with a poem I wouldn't have otherwise.

Late in the work day yesterday, I sorted through fat files of poetry handouts.  One of my colleague friends is resurrecting the poetry class I used to teach, and I was making copies of poems from more recent years.  I am in awe of what I collected.  For a brief moment, I thought, I should put together an anthology.

No, that will be a project for someone else.  I will continue to focus on finding an agent for my memoir and getting my book-length collection of poems out into the world.

It's not a typical Lenten discipline, but it's mine.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Museums of Civilization: "Station Eleven"

I have just finished reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  For an apocalyptic novel, it was surprisingly sweet and funny.  The book is filled with quotes, like this one:  "The Wendy's was a low square building with the look of having been slapped together from a kit in an architecturally careless era, but it had a beautiful front door."  (p. 50).   Or this one:  "Jeevan's understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he'd seen a lot of action movies" (p. 21).  Indeed, he knows exactly what to do:  stock up on groceries.  But that will only last so long.

I liked how the book skillfully cuts back and forth through time.  Somewhere a grad student is writing a dissertation that explores how our blogs and tweets and Facebook feeds and all the other social media lets us live both in the present tense and never far from the past--and this novel captures that aspect with breathtaking skill.

I love the idea of a travelling Symphony that plays music and performs Shakespeare.  I love the scene where a character asks another character if she's ever thought of giving up on the travelling life, and she says, "But in what other life would I get to play Shakespeare?"

That seems a valid metaphor for so much of our life choices.

I also enjoyed this interview with the author where she says, "We live and work in rooms lit up by electricity, we cross continents and oceans in hours instead of days or months, our trash is taken away when we leave it at the curb, speaking to someone on the far side of the world is as simple as entering a sequence of numbers into a handheld device. These are remarkable things that we too easily take for granted. One way to write about the modern world was to consider its absence, which is why I set parts of Station Eleven in a post-apocalyptic landscape. I thought of the book as a love letter written in the form of a requiem."

This quote shows that requiem style best of all of them:  "He'd known for a long time by then that the world's changes wouldn't be reversed, but still, the realization cast his memories in a sharper light.  The last time I ate an ice-cream cone in a park in the sunlight.  The last time I danced in a club.  The last time I saw a moving bus.  The last time I boarded an airplane that hadn't been repurposed as living quarters, an airplane that actually took off.  The last time I ate an orange." (p. 231)

The character who was speaking in the above quote goes on to collect all the items that have meant something to people but which no longer have use.  But they still have value.  I found myself wondering if they would still have value when the last generation who remembered using them passed away.

It seems to me that most artists are involved in this process of casting our memories in a sharper light.  For many of us, it's a process tinged with nostalgia and sadness.  We're capturing people, places, and things that either have passed away or are quickly passing away.

Heck, I do this even when I'm not writing.  A wave of sadness passed through me the other day when I sat by my friend's pool.  I remembered all the times we'd all swum together.  I thought of all the reasons why we're not swimming together now when the weather turns warmer.  Some of them are happy reasons:  I have a pool of my own.  But many of them are not happy reasons.

But as many an apocalyptic novel shows us, what can we do?  We must simply go on.  We all have our coping techniques:  making our art, collecting our objects, continuing to play classical music and recite Shakespeare in the face of apocalypse, reading a good book . . . the list could go on and on. 

If reading is your coping mechanism, I highly recommend Station Eleven.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Artistic Inspirations from an All-School Meeting

On Friday, we had an all morning all-school meeting.  It turned out to be like many an all-school meeting.  I thought there might be some big revelation, but there was nothing revealed that was as earth-shattering as I was expecting.  For that, my spouse and I offered a prayer of thanks as part of our evening grace before dinner.

It was an interesting morning, and I was intrigued by how many of us turned to art throughout the meeting.  One friend snapped many a picture, but I was struck this shot of a chandelier:

One friend posted this sketch by another friend, the artist Gary Tepper:

And part of our communication building exercise involved art.  We talked about our communication styles and drew a logo of our predominant style.  I was part of the friendly and unassuming communication group, and here was one of our logos, drawn mostly by artist-librarian Pam Reagan:

As for me?  I came away with the idea of a little book.  Our interim president read us a story of how geese pull together as a group and how they take care of each other.  Our past president, too, brought us stories of animals as metaphors for how we should be behaving at work:  penguins were his favorite.

I said to a friend, "If I'm ever president of an organization, I'm not using animal metaphors.  Nothing but gemstones for me!"

And then, I thought, I could write such a book in a long week-end.  I bet someone out there is producing these kinds of books.  Why not me?

It reminds me of twenty years ago when I finally read Who Moved My Cheese?  I thought, really?  Someone got paid money to write this?  And then, I thought, I could write this.

Don't get me wrong--I'm a poet, so I fully appreciate the idea that an extended metaphor can teach us a lesson in a way that nothing else can.  But I'm also an English teacher, so I'm wondering if we could reach for more dazzling metaphors.  I heard the word "goose," and I knew exactly what to expect.  Nothing turned my world upside down and showed me a new way to think about the issue.

I want to write the inspirational stories that will make people in organizations say, "Wow!  I never thought about it this way.  Let's try living like  __________ ."

This idea may go into my folder of great ideas, never to be seen again.  Or perhaps I'll return to it, after it has some time to percolate.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Living Valentines

Here's one of those strange feast days, a feast day that's more popular in the general culture than it is in the church culture that pays attention to saints and their days.

To me, this feast day is essentially a manufactured holiday, yet another one, designed to make us feel like we must spend gobs and gobs of money to demonstrate our love.

Or worse, it's a day designed to remind us that others are loved more than we are--and those feelings of insecurity are designed to make us spend more money, a self-medication of a sort.  Or maybe my feelings are just rooted in my childhood experiences in elementary school.  I went to elementary school in the 1970's, before we worried about children's self esteem. If you wanted to bring Valentines for only your favorite five fellow students, you were allowed to do that. So, some people wound up with a shoebox/mailbox full of greetings and treats, and some of us wound up with very little.

I remember longing for a secret admirer, someone who would reveal their tender feelings on a Valentine left in my mailbox; we spent the week before Valentine's Day making those mailboxes out of shoeboxes.

I never had a Valentine from a secret admirer, but I had cards in my handmade mailbox.  Still, there was always a child--or two or three or ten--who would whoop with joy at the unexpected declaration of love.  It was clear that there were others who got more love.

From an early age, it was apparent that I need to spend time focusing on my good luck, instead of comparing my luck to everyone else's. I'm still working on remembering the wisdom a yoga teacher told me once:  "Don't compare yourself to others.  It won't help your balance."  I expect to spend this lifetime always working on this lesson.

People have asked me how I plan to spend Valentine's Day, and I say, "Every day is Valentine's Day at my house."  I say it in a snarky way, so as not to inspire the jealousy of others.  But it does express my philosophy.

Every day, ideally, should be Valentine's Day, a day in which we try to remind our loved ones how much we care--and not by buying flowers, dinners out, candy, and jewelry.  We show that we love by our actions:  our care, our putting our own needs in the backseat, our concern, our gentle touch, our loving remarks, our forgiveness over and over again.

And I'm not just talking about our significant others and family members.  Our friends deserve the same level of care.  And since we often spend more time with our co-workers than with our family and friends, I wonder how we would transform the workplace if we focused on radiating non-sexual love there too.

And then there is the task of caring for the world.  Every week, we are reminded of the darkness that exists in the world, and some weeks it intrudes more than others.  We must be the light that beats back the darkness.

On this Valentine's Day, let us go out into the world, living sacraments, to be Valentines to one another, to bring love into all the corners of the a weary world.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Monks and Valentine's Day

Yesterday's post linked to poems (mine and others) for Valentine's Day.  Today, a different sort of writing for Valentine's Day.

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the theology in the poem, "Is it my theology?  No.  I didn't intend it as theology--I save that writing for other outlets."  And today, you can see an example of that theology.  My post about monks and marriage is up at the Living Lutheran site.

The post admits the salacious sound of the idea:  “'All I need to know about marriage I learned from a monk!' It’s a bad movie, just waiting to be made. But in all seriousness, the monks have much to teach us about deep commitment. It’s a similar commitment to love that we see from our creator."

The post goes on to consider people in committed relationships and how that commitment is similar to the vow of stability (commitment to place) that monks make. 

I could make similar argument for the commitment that many creative people make to their art.  We need to keep creating, and if we're lucky, we're part of a larger community that keeps us anchored in our commitment.  We are more likely to stay in our committed relationships if we have more support in wider networks.

So, as we hurtle towards Valentine's Day, let us recommit to our art.  Let's send cards, flowers, and chocolate to our muses.  Let's remember the larger communities that keep us anchored in our creative practices and send our gratitude.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Poetry Thursday: Poems for Valentine's Day

I have many conflicted feelings when it comes to Valentine's Day.  I remember making mailboxes for Valentines out of shoeboxes.  I remember classroom parties in elementary school with candy and cupcakes and people delivering mass-produced cards.  I remember counting them afterwards and comparing the count to everyone else's count.

I am not proud to admit this, but I also remember feeling unloved when my count was lower.  I didn't focus on the 15 cards I did get, but on the 25 cards that my prettier best friend got.  It's a lesson I continue to learn again and again, that I would be happier if I didn't compare myself to others.

When I look at those long-ago class pictures, I can no longer pick out the pretty girls, the handsome boys.  They all look like kids to me, regular kids, each and every one. 

I have happier memories of making Valentines, both as a child and an adult.  A few years ago, my spouse and I made homemade Valentines for our nephew.  My sister reported that he was thrilled.

A few years ago, a group of us at work met to compare poems and art.  And now, one of those poems is up at Escape into Life:  go here to read it.  You'll need to scroll down to get to my poem.

It's part of a great feature, poems and art for Valentine's Day.  Last week's installment was wonderful too.

When I think about the writing process of that poem, I don't think about words.  I remember it as the time when our Pam Reagan, our visual artist friend, showed us a mask.  When she said mask, I thought Mardi Gras and two dimensions.  She told us that she had broken glass Christmas ornaments, but I thought she had laid them flat.

I was not prepared for this:

When I read the poem, I see the elements of the piece in the poem, particularly in these images:

"You envisioned the Mardi Gras mask"

"the glittered borders"

But I no longer remember how I came to use the idea of a rosary, of deconstructing sacred relics to repair a heart.  It feels somewhat sacrilegious to me, yet I know that it's sound theology of a sort. 

Is it my theology?  No.  I didn't intend it as theology--I save that writing for other outlets.  But I do love the imagery, and I don't feel that I've used it in a profane way.  It may not be sacred, but it's not intended as a desecration.

The poem does what I want for all my poems:  it makes me look at a subject differently.  In this case, it takes images that have a powerful potential for cliché and banality that comes from overuse and makes me think about them differently.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In Praise of Filters

Today one of my best South Florida friends goes in for a procedure that will eventually lead to dialysis--unless a donor kidney comes through sooner.  I will keep her in my thoughts and prayers.  I will teach one of her classes tomorrow.  I have made her a care package, but I can't give her what she really needs:  a new kidney.

Rather than beat myself up over that inability, let me shift my focus.  Let us today praise filters of all kinds.  It's amazing that a machine exists that will do the filtering that her kidneys can no longer do.  Once failed kidneys would have meant death within weeks or months.  Now she can live a long time while she waits for a donor kidney. 

I am grateful for my own kidneys, while feeling guilty about my good fortune.  I could have treated my kidneys better.  I think of all the water I haven't drunk.  I think of the extra calories my body has had to process.  I don't think I've pumped poisons into my body.  I'm lucky to have lived most of my life during a time period of tighter pollution controls.  Thank goodness for those filters that take the poisons out of our air, water, and food.

I'm grateful for technology of all sorts.  It's amazing to me that my friend will have dialysis and  hopefully a transplant.  What a miracle that we can recycle organs.

Vaccines are also on my brain, a much smaller miracle, but an amazing development nonetheless.  I've been listening to reports of parents who don't trust vaccines.  What stories are these parents reading that make them trust microbes rather than over a century of successful vaccines?  I am grateful for my years of education that makes it easier for me to filter stories to determine their validity.  I am grateful for my decades of reading that make me understand the horrors of these diseases that vaccines vanquished.

I'm grateful for even smaller miracles too.  When I came home last night, my spouse's skin was hot to the touch.  This morning, his forehead is cool.  I'm grateful for fevers that break overnight.  I'm grateful for the filters that are part of his immune system, the filters that can separate what cells should be there and what cells can't.

Today is one of my longer days at work.  It's a day of meetings, at least one meeting.  I'm praying for all of my filters to work, as I go through my day bombarded by all kinds of messages.  Let my inner filters work, as I think about what's worth saying and the best ways of harnessing the language.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Snapshots from a Week in the Life of an Administrator

--I spent much of yesterday revising an e-mail.  I wanted to get just the right tone, and I wanted to make sure that it would seem unremarkable, should anyone other than my department read it.  I decided to sleep on it one last night; I've been working on it since Thursday.  Sigh.

--I realized that I have spent more time on this e-mail than I've spent on any other writing project in the past week.  So, this morning, I wrote a poem.  Last week, I wrote poem fragments--better than no writing, but it was good to write something more complete this morning.

--I tore student names off of assessment artifacts so that I could put most of them into the recycling bin.  I'm happy to help the planet, but honestly, there are days when I can't believe my professional life has come to this.

--But yesterday also included lunch with one of my recently RIFed colleagues.  She's one of the ones who is doing well.  She had so many part-time endeavors that part of her is grateful to have the time to build her income streams into a real business.  She's inspiring!

--We talked about the variety of online classes that we've both taught.  I'm amazed at how my thoughts about online education have changed.  Now, not only am I intrigued by the opportunities that online classes give us, but the ways that we could use some of that technology in our onground classes.  Yes, I'm talking about blended classes--not much new in my thinking.  But I'm surprised by how many people still aren't convinced.

--My anxiety dreams usually involve me as a student or me as a teacher.  The other night I dreamed I was writing an e-mail to a teacher who decided that he didn't need to show up for work if our interim president was going to be absent.  In my dream, I was putting off the moment when I would need to be stern.

--I finished off the day at a Church Council meeting over dinner at the parsonage.  I am reminded of a different administrator life that I shucked a year ago:  after being president of the Church Council for almost 5 years, I stepped down, but continued to serve as a Council member.  At the meetings, I realize how much has been going on for the past month that I knew nothing about, as much of the church stuff requiring immediate attention gets handled by the executive committee.  I'm so relieved not to be serving in that capacity, although at times, I do feel strangely left out.

--In many areas of life, I think about how the burden of work falls on the shoulders of the few, and I wonder if it really needs to be this way.  But that's a subject for another post.  Now I need to take a walk and get some of my online students' rough drafts read so that I can go in to the office to see what this day brings.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Life Lessons from Pamela Druckerman

I loved this opinion piece, "What You Learn in Your 40's," in The New York Times.  It ran almost a year ago, but I only just discovered it.

Of course, Pamela Druckerman, author of this piece, might tell me not to worry about what I'm missing.  We're all missing something.

This piece, in fact, is rooted in that idea:  "So far in my adult life, I’ve never managed to grasp a decade’s main point until long after it was over. It turns out that I wasn’t supposed to spend my 20s frantically looking for a husband; I should have been building my career and enjoying my last gasp of freedom. I then spent my 30s ruminating on grievances accumulated in my 20s."

She spends the rest of the essay trying to make sure that she doesn't miss the main point of her 40's.  Some of it is mundane:  "More about you is universal than not universal. My unscientific assessment is that we are 95 percent cohort, 5 percent unique. Knowing this is a bit of a disappointment, and a bit of a relief."

Some of it seems both mundane and important: 

"When you meet someone extremely charming, be cautious instead of dazzled. By your 40s, you’ve gotten better at spotting narcissists before they ruin your life. You know that “nice” isn’t a sufficient quality for friendship, but it’s a necessary one.

• People’s youthful quirks can harden into adult pathologies. What’s adorable at 20 can be worrisome at 30 and dangerous at 40. Also, at 40, you see the outlines of what your peers will look like when they’re 70."

Here's my favorite:  "You will miss out on some near soul mates. This goes for friendships, too. There will be unforgettable people with whom you have shared an excellent evening or a few days. Now they live in Hong Kong, and you will never see them again. That’s just how life is."

I've spent so much time regretting the people whom I feel I should have kept in touch with, which is everyone I'm not keeping in touch with.  I like this bit that gives me permission to let go of this belief that I should have done a better job at keeping track.

Of course, that's easier with people who come and go quickly.  There are others, old housemates, old college friends, true soul mates--I do wish that I could do a better job at keeping up with those.  And Druckerman is younger than I am, so I'm guessing that she has yet to deal with the sorrow at friends who leave us permanently before they should.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Saturday Fitness of all Sorts

I expected to be more sore today.  Yesterday, after a vigorous spin class, I popped by the house of friends.  They were getting 2 pallets of mulch and 2 pallets of river rock delivered.  As with many an item, the delivery stops at the driveway, so they planned to spend as much time on Saturday as it took to get the mulch and rock to the backyard, behind a fence with a lock.

I planned to help.  I thought I would stay for an hour.  But it was such a nice day, and the work went fairly quickly, and it was so strangely satisfying.  My spouse was out of town, so my day was completely my own.  After the week I had at work (shredding, sorting, 3 hour long HR meetings, sad/angry people), it was so WONDERFUL to feel like we were making progress and to feel like I was truly helping.

It was also wonderful to realize that my body works in this way.  We were 3 women age 49 and over, and we could move 4 pallets in less than 2 hours.  Each bag of rocks weighed 40 pounds, and I moved at least 20 of them.  We all work out, but we don't do a lot of manual labor. Although I wouldn't want to do it every day, and certainly not for a living, it was good to know that I can do it.

Afterwards we drank some white wine and ate cheese and crackers under the shade of the tikki hut.  We marveled at the wonder of strong arms and strong backs.  We speculated about how sore we'd be.  I came home, took some ibuprofen, read a bit and took a nap.

During the past week, I devoured Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven.  It's the kind of book with unanticipated twists and neat closures, and I wanted to reread it while I still remembered the twists and resolutions.  So, yesterday, I did.  By rereading, I really mean another quick zip through.

It's an interesting book, and I'll likely say more about it in a later blog post.  It's apocalyptic, but only slightly terrifying.  It's also elegiac about all the things we'd miss if civilization truly crashed.

Later in the day, I got my signed copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey's new collection of poems, The Robot Scientist's Daughter.  It was the perfect book of poems to read after reading Station Eleven.  It's an amazing book, and I'll post a full review later.  Meanwhile, if you want a signed copy for yourself, go here

My spouse's plane didn't land until 10:08 p.m., so I had the afternoon and evening to myself.  I spend so much time yearning for swaths of free time--and then, it took some time to get used to it.  I thought of generations of women like my grandmother.  I doubt that she yearned for alone time, the way I often do.  I thought of her stranded in her old age, suddenly alone once my grandfather died.  She was still able to fill her time, of course, the way so many women used to do, with volunteer work at church.

Throughout the day, I worked on some writing projects and tuned into Facebook.  I read.  I ate a lot of broccoli with some shredded cheddar cheese.  It's a glamorous life.  As I think about it, my Saturday demonstrated all sorts of fitness.  I have human connections, both in real life and online.  I have artistic projects.  I have ways to stay in touch.  I have ways to disconnect (reading, primarily).

I think of the Hollywood characters in Station Eleven, and then the characters living in the post-apocalyptic time.  The book is clear that it's our human connections that matter--and having artistic practices helps a lot too.  My Saturday was a great example of that.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Memoir Update

This morning, I finished the last tasks for the memoir/essay project that I want to have done before I go to Mepkin Abbey in 2 weeks.  I have a complete draft, complete but with a series of dream job essays to insert.  While at Mepkin Abbey, I will read the whole draft and decide where to put the essays.

While I'm reading I will look for repetition:  is it repetition that's annoying, or evidence of unifying themes?

And then I'll try to figure out what to do next.  My hope is that I'll discover that I'm holding a mostly finished draft in my hands.

I haven't heard from the first agent yet, the one who was Gretchen Rubin's agent, who brought us The Happiness Project.  On to the next one.  My writer Hindu friend tells me that it's time to move on.  She sees the book as incredibly marketable and is shocked that no one has snatched it up.

As she would say, "From her lips, to the gods' ears!"

Friday, February 6, 2015

Poets and College Curriculum, Online and Onground

Jeannine Hall Gailey has a great post about book sales; it's the kind of post that has links to other posts that discuss the same topic.  She then posted the link to her post on Facebook, which sparked more conversation.  One of the topics that came up was how book publishing has changed in the past 10 years.

One thing about book publishing that has changed in the past 10 years is the explosion of online classes. In 2004, when my chapbook came out, I thought about being a visiting poet in a classroom, which meant travelling to a campus. Now, with so many classes being online, what are the implications?

I wonder how the explosion of online classes will impact the chances of getting one's book adopted for classes.  It would be easier for a poet/writer to visit an online class that adopts one's book.  I wonder if in future years, poets and writers will be expected to have resources for online teachers who adopt the book.  Writers could record mini lectures and/or readings of all sorts.  As an online teacher, I'd be more inclined to adopt a book if it came with resources.  Of course, at some schools, one doesn't get to create one's own content.

And then there's the question of charging for the extra content.  All teachers wrestle with how much content to create for free, and what happens to online content--who owns it?  As a poet, do I want to create readings or lectures for students for free?   Do I do it for love?  Do I do it in the hopes of increased book sales?  Do I only do it if the book has been adopted?

I've been thinking about creating curriculum, if one was allowed to do that.  In fact, I'll be spending some time creating curriculum for an online class called Critical Thinking.  Yesterday, as I was out on my morning run/walk, I came up with a great idea of how to shape the class.   There's a textbook that has sections on Thinking Critically about Movies, Thinking Critically about Music, and so on.  I had a vision of using Gailey's  Becoming the Villainess--most of the poems are based on fairy tales and video games and classic mythology--lots to appeal to student readers, very accessible and also very smart.   
I have this whole series of modules mapped out in my head--students interpreting a poem and discussing it as a class and then bringing the living poet in to the conversation--and from there, seeing how other artists have used the fairy tale--in song and film for example, or TV shows--and from there, having students create something with the fairy tale and/or write an analytical essay or something that involves mixed media, since it is an online class.  Happily, the textbook fits with these ideas, since the last part of the book has chapters on thinking critically about magazines, music, TV, etc.
I had this vision of having the students choose their favorite poem from the text and having to convince their classmates that their choice was the one we should talk to Gailey about, probably by way of e-mail.  It's not the kind of class that happens in "real time"--no online lecture time.
I thought it might be worth her time because there would be 15-25 students who would have bought the book.
But then I found out that we couldn't do that--the online curriculum has to mirror the onground curriculum, which makes sense.  But I might be allowed to go in a different direction if I could create a completely electronic curriculum which wouldn't require students to buy a book.
So, this morning my brain is still whirling.  Could I create a completely electronic curriculum out of my own head?  It would be different from what I've done in the past, which was to create a series of Powerpoint slides based on a textbook.  At some point I might teach an onground class again where I control the curriculum.  My ideas for Becoming the Villainess would make a great base for our onground Topics for Composition class.
And then there's the other set of questions:  if we say that the ideal would be to have students buy the book, but for a variety of reasons that can't happen, are there other ways to incorporate the poetry and make it worth the poet's time to be part of the class?  If one was a visiting poet at a traditional school, one would hope to sell a few books along the way.  In many an online class, I suspect that the students don't have extra funds to buy a book, no matter how much they love the poems discussed in class.
This post has become quite long, so I'll stop now.  I suspect it's a topic we'll all be revisiting again and again as we make our way through this brave new world.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Small Things, Good and Otherwise

Some weeks, I feel good about what I'm doing with my life:  good about what I can do as an administrator, good about my teaching, good about my writing.  During really good weeks, I also feel like I'm a good wife, a good friend, a good daughter/sister/aunt.

This week has not been one of those weeks.  This week has been a week where I think back to grad school days:  I had such promise then, and I didn't even realize it!

Of course, I can talk myself back from the precipice of despair, but honestly, going to an HR training does not lend itself to feeling like I'm fulfilling my life's purpose.

It was billed as a mandatory workshop about corrective action and creating better employees.  But I suspect that the real purpose was to let us all know the new procedure for writing up misbehaving employees and to give us templates.

Yes, it could have been done by e-mail.  But no, we gathered together for 3 hours and watched the HR person read the 60+ page Powerpoint.  We also looked at various scenarios to determine what course of action should be taken.  In many ways, those sessions were spirited and interesting.  My inner psychologist took notes.

I shall now encapsulate the wisdom of yesterday's training:  very few situations are black and white.  Most are gray.

It's very interesting to see what issues some of us see as very black, and to see those same issues elicit a shrug from others.  For example, I thought that an instructor taking a student out for a drink should result in instant dismissal.  And yes, there were gray areas:  they had been friends since high school.  I saw that issue as another reason to discipline the teacher.  I would not allow an old high school friend to take my English class.  Boundaries, people!

As the training session went on, I felt this sinking despair.  Surely my professional life has not come to this.  I tried to write a poem.  I wrote about being stranded in a leaky boat, trying to plug the leaks with shredded assessment documents and repetitive spreadsheets.  I wrote about seeing my poetry talents on a distant island, an island shrouded by mist, an island receding as my tiny boat begins to sink.

Happily, during the rest of the day, I was able to feel a bit more useful.  I helped a student who needed syllabi from 2008-2009 when she attended, plus credential information for the faculty.  Yes, I have those files on the computer!  I helped a student who needed transfer credit for classes she took in Germany.  I helped a student find where his class had moved.

It may not have been a day with all the promise I demonstrated in grad school, but many a writer and theologian has taught us that these small, good actions are important too.  My favorite Raymond Carver short story, "A Small, Good Thing," is worth rereading on days like yesterday.  I want to write like Raymond Carver--well, I want to write like Kristin Berkey-Abbott, but to reach the profound the way Carver does.  But if that's not possible, at least I want to be able to minister to the heartbroken the way the baker in the story does.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More than the Sum of My Shredding

When we moved buildings, I kept several boxes of old assessment papers.  We had accreditors coming at some point, and I didn't know if they'd want to see the materials.

I stashed the boxes on a bookcase, which doesn't bother me.  To my mind, all the paperwork is neat and tidy in a box that once held reams of paper.  I had 4 of these boxes.

The bookcases are in a common hallway/waiting area, and our person in charge of Interior Design has decided that it's time to clean up the bookcases.  Black binders can stay, but boxes cannot.

There was much discussion of what needed to be done.  Just throw them all in the dumpster!  Alas, no, the materials contain grades and student IDs, and I am not going to be fired because private information falls in the wrong hands.  Take it to a storage room!  Where would that be, exactly?

No, I decided that it was time to grit my teeth and do what would be done eventually.  So I spent part of yesterday sorting the materials into stuff to be shredded and stuff to be recycled.  Unfortunately, our shredder can only do so much, so I'll just shred a bit, day by day. 

Yes, I've done this before (see this post, which also has poems inspired by this process).  But yesterday was different because I had done so much of the original collecting of the materials.  It was also different because I knew so many of the people who had done the assessments that they turned in.

We've changed our assessment process many times since we first started on this path in 2008 or so.  We used to assess individual classes, and now we assess the larger programs.  My old boss used to be in charge of a lot of the process early on, and I still had those e-mails in a box--e-mails from people who are mostly no longer employed here.

I remember how much time we spent on all of these materials.  We gathered them, which meant lots of planning to gather them.  We assessed them, which also involved planning and writing reports.  And no one--not one person--has ever asked to see them.

I'm trying not to see it as a giant metaphor that sums up my work life.

And then, later in the day, it was time to update the current assessment document.  Now I don't collect materials.  I go to online course shells and find the numbers that I need.  I did that, I did the math, I entered numbers into yet another chart.  Later I will create some language about how we'll use the results to improve student learning.

We have shifted from collecting no data to collecting so much data that we never have time to actually try to figure out what it all means.  Or, we know what it means, but it's not clear how to fix it.  We've made the easy fixes.  The harder fixes involve students who stop coming to class or those who come with such minimal skills that it will take more than one class to bring them up to speed.

Today I will not be sorting.  Today I will be spending the morning at a mandatory training session on corrective action and creating better employees.

Perhaps I will take refuge in an old comfort.  My poem "Meeting Hell" (see this post) came from an endless meeting where I started writing rhyming lines and kept going--thus hell turned to delight.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ghosts of Creativity Past

Yesterday a student stopped at the door of my office with an awestruck look on his face.  He said, "Where'd those paintings come from?"

So many ways to answer that question.  I took the simple way.  I said, "I brought them from home."

He said, "You drew them?"

I said, "There's no drawing underneath.  I just started with paint."

He nodded his approval.  We talked a bit about the other pieces on the wall.

I moved into a new office in December.  It has more blank wall space than any office I've ever had (read no windows).  Unlike with other offices I've had, I've put more of my own art on the walls.

There's fabric art and then, 6 weeks ago, I brought in some paintings.  Here's a close-up of my favorite:

In some ways, I feel a bit of a fraud.  I no longer paint like I once did.  I don't do much in the way of fabric art--just a baby quilt here and there.

But I find it soothing to be surrounded by my art.  Yesterday I looked up from my morning of endless spreadsheets to think about the ways the colors of the paint merged and separated.  More than once I've looked at my neat stitches and felt calmer.

I like to be reminded that I am more than the sum of my spreadsheets.  How did I become a woman of many spreadsheets?  I want to enter lines of poetry into cells, not the name of this textbook and that class and this classroom.

And they are often variations of former spreadsheets.  Rare are the people who say, "If nothing's changed, no need to turn in a spreadsheet."  No, we enter the same information over and over again.  It's hard to see it as an art form.

If I worked in more interactive art forms, perhaps I would do more with the spreadsheet idea--but that's not me.  No, I will keep entering boring data into spreadsheet cells.  And I will keep dreaming of the art forms that haunt me, the ghosts of creativity past, the whispers of creativity yet to come.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Candlemas: Inviting Light into Our Lives

Today is Candlemas; in the Christian church, this day marks the true end of Christmastide, by celebrating the day forty days after the birth of Jesus, when Mary would have presented her baby at the temple, as all Jewish mothers of sons were required to do.  She would have presented a sacrifice to the priests so that she could be purified after childbirth.  For an essay that ponders the theological implications of this holiday, see my essay on the Living Lutheran site.

There are other holidays happening today too; Groundhog's Day is probably most famous.  The pagan festivals of Imbolc and Oimelc celebrate the stirring of seeds, the shifting of seasons, the time when the planet begins the tilt to spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

Yesterday I found myself humming the old hymn "In the Deep Midwinter" (lyrics by none other than Christina Rossetti).  It's often sung in churches at Christmas.  But truly, right now we're in the deep midwinter.  It's no wonder so many of us long for some spring rituals.  Or maybe we're just longing for light.  We get a smidge more each day, but it's not enough for most of us.

There are some Christian communities who will bless the whole year's supply of candles today.  It's a good day to light our own candles.  What light would we like to see blaze more brightly as we head towards a new season?  What light needs to be protected?

For those of us who celebrate spring by planting the garden, we could start with seeds inside this month.  What fun to see those seeds sprout!  It only takes a few days for most types of seeds, and it's a cheap thrill:  a little pot, some soil, some water, and a seed.  It can't cost much more than a coffee at your local coffee place, and it may be a treat that continues longer.

We could buy a plant.  I've been loving the little African violet that we bought at a church sale a few years ago.  It reminds me of my grandmother too, and the little pots of violets that she kept on top of the radio cabinet.  They bloomed brightly throughout the year.

We could get a simple bouquet of flowers, which won't require the same amount of care that a plant does.  A bouquet would brighten the room for at least a week, and I've had some bouquets last weeks--such hardy blooms, so brightly colored.

Maybe we want to care for creation in a different way.  We could scatter birdseed on the ground, particularly if we live in a wintery place.  I love this meditation by Rachel Barenblat on the joys of her birdfeeder and the birds who visit.

The wonders of creation are all around us; we just need to train ourselves to see it.  Here's one of my favorite quotes by writer Wendell Berry, which sums it up more eloquently than I have hope of doing:  "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation" from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, page 103). 

Spring will be here soon.  In the meantime, we can invite more light into our lives in a variety of ways. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Saint Brigid and Modern Life

Jeannine Hall Gailey has a great post about book sales; it's the kind of post that has links to other posts that discuss the same topic.  She then posted the link to her post on Facebook, which sparked more conversation.  I am working on several blog posts inspired by her thoughts.

Of course, I'm also battling feeling inadequate, as I reflect on how many people I know have book contracts or books coming out.  I think of all the poets who published a book last year.  Even as I know the answer, I lament, "And why not me?" 

The answer:  because I only sent out my poetry manuscript once in 2014 and queries about my memoir/collection of essays twice in 2014.

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland, another event that makes me feel like I am wasting my life.  She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism, and the other pagan religions of Ireland.  She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.  For  more exploration of this saint, see this post on my theology blog.

St. Brigid founded some of the first Christian monasteries in Ireland, most famously the legendary one in Kildare.  She also founded a school of art that focuses on metal working and illumination.  The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices.  Unfortunately, it's been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.

She's famous for miracles of abundance:  she’s associated with lakes of milk and abundant baskets of butter. Like Christ, she transformed water into nourishment: she’s legendary for transforming water into milk and water into beer.

As a 21st century woman, I'm amazed at what she was able to accomplish, during times that are much more difficult than mine.  Founding numerous religious orders, motivating artists, compassion to the poor, devotion to God--she seemed to have had no trouble leading an authentic, integrated life.  Why does it seem so hard to me?

Of course, I know Brigid across a space of centuries, through the gauze of hagiography and legend.  If Brigid could speak, what would she say?   Would she tell us of the sleepless nights where she wondered how she was going to find enough food, enough contributions, to keep her religious orders afloat?  Would she bemoan all her administrative duties, which sucked away so much energy, when all she really wanted to do was to illuminate manuscripts?

A few years ago, these thoughts led me to write a poem, "The True Miracle of St. Brigid."  Since I still hope to publish it elsewhere, I won't paste it all here.  But I will post my favorite stanza:

You don’t know about the weeks
we prayed for the miracle
of multiplication but instead received
the discipline of division.

I should learn from my own writing.  I should also remember that even though I might not have a book with a spine--or even a contract at this point--that there is time.  And here's the more sobering thought:  I could write the most amazing book, and like Brigid, have it lost across the centuries of time.