Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Poetry Tuesday: "Good News Comes to the Sewers"

Often I write poems on Tuesdays, but today is a strange day.  We are in between quarters, a brief pause.  My regular hours are somewhat suspended.  I go into the office earlier.  I don't stay as late.  But my regular writing time is disrupted.

I am still thinking about cancer cells and the angel Gabriel.  I am almost ready to write that poem.  But I am not sure that I will be writing it this morning.  I have some tasks I need to do for my online classes before I go into the office.  And I'm going into the office earlier than usual.  Sigh.

Perhaps I'll write the poem tomorrow, during the day of many meetings, meetings which will cover information that is not new to me.  I've had good luck with that approach before.

Today, let me remember to read a poem or two.  Today, let me post an older poem here.  Today, let me remember the wisdom of children, their enthusiasm for mystical tasks.

After our Worship Together service*, small children wait for a chance to drink the leftover grape juice and to dump the leftover wine into the plants in the butterfly garden.  The wine has been consecrated for the sacrament of communion, and thus, we don't dump it down the drain.

One of the children asked why we didn't, and I found myself hesitating.  She's eight years old and very smart, so we could probably talk about issues of transubstantiation, if I wanted to get deep into theology.  But I didn't.

We talked about waste in our society and how much we throw away.  We talked about how much better it is to dump liquids on our plants than to throw them down the drains.  We talked about how much the plants like the communion wine.

I wish I had said more.  I could have talked about sharing the gifts of Jesus, both with each other and with the plants.  I wish I had reminded the children that not all liquid is safe to put on plants.

I was reminded of a poem I wrote years ago, when I did the clean up tasks after worship and dumped the leftover wine outside.  A parishioner walking past asked me why I did it.

In that situation, too, I hesitated:  go deep theologically or not?  I said, "Consecrated wine should be handled differently."  I was willing to go into the theology of the reason why, but she smiled and moved on.

I thought about consecrated wine going down the drain, and how silly our ministrations must seem to outsiders.  And thus, this poem was born:

Good News Comes to the Sewers

The consecrated wine runs down the drain
and into the local sewer system.
It brings the good news of God’s grace
to the lowliest of fluids flushed
away. It heals the corrosion
in the pipes. In its steady
progress to the ocean, the consecrated
wine tells parables of God’s Kingdom.
The consecrated wine abandons
the form it once held, only to be resurrected
in a sea of salt.

*This service is our interactive, family friendly, much more innovative service.  See this post for more details.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Short Ride Through Big Sugar

If you're using sugar with your breakfast this morning, I'm pretty sure I saw its homeplace yesterday.

My spouse's brother came over wanting to ride to Lake Okeechobee, so off we went, after putting gas in the motorcycles.  It was a little chilly and a little windy for a ride, but we didn't let that deter us.

Once we got on U.S. 27, we drove up through the nation's sugar cane fields.  It's a river of grass, but a different river of grass than the Everglades, which were drained for a variety of purposes, one of them being agriculture.

Once we got to one of the southernmost parts of the lake, we pulled over to a park by a campground.  I thought it might have a map or a ranger of some kind, but it was really a community center, where people were having a party but smiled at us anyway.  There was also an old railroad workers' cottage which had recently been restored.

We thought about riding all the way around the lake, but my brother-in-law said, "It is 117 miles.  What time is it?"

I said, "4:18."  We decided we really didn't have enough time.

We rode up to Clewiston, which was 12 miles away, just to see if we could find an interesting place to eat.  We did, but it wasn't interesting in the way I'd hoped.

It was a Chinese buffet, and the people running the place did look authentically Asian.  We were the only ones of North European descent.  The majority of people eating there spoke Spanish, and I know that the area around the lake has plenty of migrant workers.  A few African-Americans came through too.  The food was O.K.

We got back on the bikes and headed south towards home.  I thought about all of those people who say that manufacturing has left our country, but I saw plenty of factories at work, belching smoke and producing sugar.  There was also a quarry.

I thought about the black dirt--how much richer than our sandy soil!  How strange to be jealous of the dirt of neighboring counties.  I have a sense that we could spend the rest of our lives composting and still not have good soil.

I remembered the ride up to the lake as being more scenic, but in many ways, it was not nearly as interesting as our last 2 weeks of rides.  But I guess that monoculture never is.

Interesting to have driven through the Everglades last Sunday, and yesterday to ride through the area that early industrialists vanquished the swamp to create.  The original is much more interesting--and much more important than any of those early colonizers of the Florida inland could have imagined.

And of course, I imagine that in 100-200 years it will all be part of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Lessons of Palm/Passion Sunday for Modern Creatives/All of Us

Today churches across Christendom will celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.  Of course, the same crowd that cheers for Jesus will just a few days later be screaming for his death.  Many churches will cover the whole Holy Week story today:  Palm Sunday has become Passion Sunday. 

 This morning I woke up thinking about what the Palm/Passion Sunday story has to say to us as poets and writers.  As humans, we are susceptible to the desire for praise.  We don't feel like our work is important unless someone else says it is.  In some ways, this tendency is good.  We need the checks and balances of brains that aren't our own.  I've written many a harsh things in my younger years, much to my later regret.  How I wish I had listened to other voices that encouraged me to temper my tone.

But taken to its extreme, this need for praise can be damaging.  We stop believing in ourselves and our worth and the worth of our work unless someone important tells us that we're great.  And quickly, we start to determine which praise counts and which doesn't:  this journal is worth our time, that one isn't.  If we can't be published by the top 10 presses, we won't bother.  If my book doesn't sell x amount of copies, it's not worth it.  The danger is that we'll become paralyzed by all of this.  I'm all for shooting for the top.  I'll send my manuscript to W.W. Norton or Knopf.  But if they say no, I don't want to stop there.

The Palm/Passion story also reminds us of the fleeting nature of fame.  Don't get me wrong:  if I'm chosen to be Poet Laureate, I'll do as good a job as I'm capable of doing.  But I'll start every day by reminding myself that the fame is likely temporary.  The important thing remains:  the work.

The Palm/Passion story reminds us that we're characters in a larger narrative (as does the Passover story, which people across the world will be hearing this week too, both in Jewish traditions and some Christian traditions).  We will find ourselves in great danger if we start to believe it's all about us, personally. 

No, there are larger forces at work.  To put it in poetry and Scouting terms:  I'm put here to do my best writing, but also, to leave the poetry campsite better than I found it. 

How do I do that?  I work to promote not only myself, but other worthy poets, I work to make sure that the next generations know about the rewards of poetry, I envision the kind of world we would have if poetry was valued, and I work/play to make that possible.  I also work to have a balanced, integrated life:  my work in poetry cannot be allowed to eclipse other important work:  the social justice work, the care of my family and friends, my relationship with the Divine, the other creative work I do, the self-care that must be the foundation of it all.

I find many values to being part of a religious tradition, but the constant reminder of the larger vision, the larger mission, is one of the most valuable to me.  The world tells me that many things are important:  fame, money, famous/rich people, a big house, a swell car, loads of stuff.  My religious tradition reminds me of the moth-eaten nature of these things that the world would have me believe is important.  My religious tradition reminds me of the importance of the larger vision.  And happily, my religious tradition is expansive enough that my creative work can be part of that larger vision.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Spring Has Sprung

On Facebook, people are posting pictures of dogwoods and azaleas in full bloom.  I am feeling that surge of envy and longing that I feel when people post pictures of autumn leaves.

I miss dogwoods--and hydrangeas. People travel to see autumn leaves, but I would travel to catch the blooming of the dogwoods and the blaze of azaleas. My hydrangea tour would be later in the summer, I guess.

It's a shame I'm not more entrepreneurial. I could see flower tours as a business plan!  Some people plan tours of Paris, and I dream of gardens.

Once I would have sneered at people who visit gardens--oh, the hubris of youth!  And now, living in the land of concrete covering everything, I'm happy to go to any space that holds growing things.  It can be a planned space, a formal garden, a patch of weeds.

We have been growing tomatoes in pots, and we're getting our first tomatoes.  Down here in South Florida, tomatoes are a spring harvest.  Since we're growing them in pots, the tomatoes are small.  My spouse eats half in one large bite and hands me the rest.  Then we both weep a bit at the luscious taste we thought we might never have again.  We think of our gardening grandmothers who would not understand how hard it can be to grow a tomato.

It's strange to live down here where our seasonal indicators are a bit off much of the year.  Yesterday we had summer temperatures and steamy humidity.  This morning it's windy and cooler, a bit of autumn.  The yellow tab trees are amazing this year, but now with this wind, I imagine much of the blooms will be swept down the street.

I've been making lemon curd, and my hands smell of lemons.  It seems less a seasonal marker than an occasional treat.  Once I made lemon curd and scones on a regular basis.  Those days seem very far away.

I leave you with a rhyme from even further away.  In childhood, when we saw the first blooms of spring, my mother would recite an old Burma Shave sign:

Spring has sprung
The grass has riz
Where last year's
Careless drivers is.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Taxes and the Modern Writer

I don't usually wait so late to do my taxes.  I realize that I could have another few weeks, but usually, I'm done by early March.  Some years, I've been done by mid-February.

My taxes are not complicated--at least, in some ways they aren't complicated.  I don't deduct any part of my house or utility bills as part of my writer's expenses.  My writing is done in the corner of the front bedroom on a desk that's 2 feet by 4 feet--and the desk chair takes a smidge more space--that's not much square footage to deduct.  Plus the space is also used for online teaching.  It just seems like too much of a risk of an audit that would find me wanting in proof.

I do keep track of mileage.  I keep every receipt for every expense--and every meal.  That requires some calculating when it comes to tax time.  Sort the receipts, do the tally of each category--that's the bulk of my tax work as a writer.

I've thought about our taxes as a snapshot of modern life.  If I had been itemizing these expenses a decade or two ago, I'd have more postage expenses to deduct.  Now I do most of my submitting online--and thus, my office supply tally is less than it would have been in previous decades too.

I've thought about our taxes as milestones in other ways too.  This is one of the first years that I don't have several properties to think about.  That makes me sound wealthy, doesn't it?  No, just one of many who had properties they couldn't unload during the downturn. 

We have school expenses for the first time in years.  I hadn't thought about my spouse's tuition and books as deductible, and yet, they are.  They aren't huge expenses, as we pay them throughout the years.  But they add up.

Tax time is a good time to do this kind of assessment.  I go out with writers for a variety of lunches and coffees.  I find it wonderfully supportive.  But when I total all the receipts?  I still think it's worth it, but every year, I'm surprised that I've spent as much as I have.

I think about self-care in all sorts of ways, but I'm not sure I'm protecting future Kristin enough.  I could save more for retirement.  When I'm a little old lady, will I wish that I had spent a bit less on lunches out and wine at the end of the day?

I often talk about what I can and can't afford, and tax time spells it out starkly.  For all of us who think we can't afford a new laptop or a trip to a conference--well, perhaps we could, if we tracked our expenses a bit more carefully.

Or maybe we really cannot.  That's good to know too.  We can ask ourselves about our priorities.  Maybe it's time to think about prioritizing work that pays.  Maybe it's time to think about our career trajectories.  Maybe it's time for some changes.

"April is the cruelest month"--I'm thinking of the T.S. Eliot quote differently today!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Random Inspirations

--I am always on the lookout for inspirations for future poetry writing and this morning, I came across this blog post with this poem:

DUSK by Lisa Russ Spaar

Blue, I love your lapis palace,
your stair of melancholy that burns,
but does not consume my heart.

I love the heaven-shot and glinting stares
of all your tall and far-flung windows,
your shadowed sills, your roofless picnic of stars.

I climb your fabled tense of once
and upon a time, your fractured prayer:
that restless hinge: your voice, thick with thorns.

Molly Spencer, the writer of the larger blog post, gives this writing suggestion:  What color (or colors) could you write a direct-address poem to? Something to try, perhaps.

--I thought about all the colors I love:  blue and purple and green.  I thought about jewels and peacock feathers.  But I did not write a poem to a color.

--I read these lines written by Luisa Igloria in this blog post/poem:

The sales clerk said, helpfully: Sometimes
the size is different depending on the maker.

--I thought of factory workers and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  I thought of all the ways that workers rebel, the daily resistance, and how it can end in a blaze.  Or maybe it just ends in shirts of slightly different sizes.  I had a vision of factory workers cutting slightly off the pattern, but of course, that process must be mechanized.

--Maybe the machines rebel against the mechanized work, the relentless quest for conformity, the soul-stripping nature of their existence.

--I think of my good friend and her co-existence of a new machine.  She lies awake at night watching it watch her.  I asked if it was noisy, and she said no.  It's just a new presence in the bedroom.

--I think of this machine, and factory machines, and all the tiny machines we keep in our pockets.  How in thrall we are to them!  Yesterday I walked up the stairs with a colleague who could walk up the stairs and text at the same time.   However I was halfway down the hallway before I realized that I had left her behind.  We may be able to text and walk, but few people can text and walk at a quick pace.

--When my parents taught me about resisting peer pressure, we all assumed that I'd be pressured to smoke or take drugs.  Lately, everyone's been telling me how I need to join this century and get a smartphone.  But I already find it hard to be present with humans when I'm surrounded by other machines.  Why would I want to add a little despot of a machine to the menagerie?

--I think of machines and how much music has been mechanized.  I think of how many elements of modern music annoy me:  the drum beat that never changes, the people who sing at full-throated warble, the people who don't sing but mutter, the sinister/thuggish undertones and overtones.  Some days I just want to avoid the gym altogether.

--But then I wouldn't overhear nuggets like this one:  "It should be against the rules to bring baked goods to the gym."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Incubating and Incarnation

Today is the feast day of the Annunciation.  What is that holiday?  Simply put, it celebrates the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, who would become famous as the mother of Jesus.  He gives her the vision that God has for her; she agrees.

For a more theological reflection, see this post of mine which is up at the Living Lutheran site.

This morning, I was lying in bed reflecting on earlier times when I knew more people who were pregnant, breastfeeding, or adapting to small children.  Twelve years ago, I wrote this line, "The world is awash in breast milk."

Thirteen months ago I was at a creativity retreat at Lutheridge, a church camp, at the same week-end where a camp counselor returned to get married.  All their friends came too.  They all looked so young.  All day on Saturday, I saw young people in their dress-up clothes, adjusting a tie here, a strap there.  I battled a rising sense of panic that once I went to weddings, and now I'll be going to funerals.

This past year has been a year of many types of cancers, none of them mine.  Now when I think of Mary and the period of waiting, of incubating.  I am resisting seeing the similarities to cancers.  Maybe an idea that I resist because it scares me and it feels sacrilegious--maybe I should explore that idea in tomorrow's poetry writing session.

I am far more comfortable with the idea of a long incubation of a creative work that isn't ready for the world yet.  I'm an older woman who has had visions for her creative work that haven't come to fruition yet.  No blockbuster novel that's been made into a hit movie--no, that hasn't happened yet.  I struggle to find time to create while also having time with friends and loved ones while also taking care of my day job responsibilities.

The waiting aspect of the annunciation story gives me the most hope.  God has a vision for the redemption of the world.  But that vision requires lots of waiting.  There's the waiting through the 9 months of pregnancy and then the waiting that it takes to bring a child to adulthood.

But I also know that one can get mired in the waiting.  I need to move into a place where I'm taking more action.

Like an expectant mother, I feel tired and overwhelmed at the thought of taking action.  How can I possibly get the nursery painted and the crib refinished and the baby clothes bought and the quilts made?  But stitch by stitch, the quilts will be made.  If I can't paint the nursery today, perhaps I can get some swatches and decide on colors.

In the next day or two, I will send a chapbook manuscript to Finishing Line press.  Everything is ready to go--now all I need to do is the uploading.

Perhaps in 9 months I will be welcoming a new chapbook into the world.

What would you like to see incarnate in 9 months?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Romero, Reagan, and Refugees

Today I have Archbishop Oscar Romero on my mind.  In part, it's because today is the 35th anniversary of his assassination.  In part it's because the economic injustice that he preached against seems ever more pervasive today.

When I was in college in the 1980's first learning about Central American politics, it seemed bizarre to me that so few members of a population could control so much of the country's wealth.  And now it seems that we've seen that situation take over the world.

I'm thinking about U.S. interventions throughout Latin America and the world.  I'm wondering if there's a way to intervene without making the situation worse. 

I'm thinking of all the Central American refugees of the 1980's, many of whom are still here in the U.S., some legally, some not.  I'm thinking of my first years teaching in South Florida and realizing how many of my students were here because of the Central American strife of my college years.  In my college years, I would not have been able to imagine how all our paths would cross.

I've had many encounters with refugees on the run from repression, which makes it hard for me to demonize all the people who are here illegally.  When we discuss proposals to make it easier for people here illegally to come out of the shadows and gain citizenship, the actions of the U.S. government through the years are never far from my mind.

I'm also thinking about Liberation Theology, a movement that many see as closely linked with Romero. In the midst of the geo-political arguments of the 1980's, where Ronald Reagan warned of Communists coming across the Texas border, I also got my first hearing/reading of liberation theology, a pattern of thought that would change my life. Liberation Theology introduced me to a radical Jesus, a Jesus who demanded justice for the poor and the oppressed, a Jesus who was crucified not because of my individual sin but because he challenged the Roman power structure. This Jesus was not one I had met in the suburban, Southern churches of my youth.

Those of us who have a vision of social justice must remember that the world is not set up to reward those of us who call for a more just world. Sure, some of us may get acclaim, but the world tends to reward social justice visionaries with jail or martyrdom. But the vision is important, and it's vital that we demand it. Think of how different the world would be if people like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Romero, Martin Luther King, the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic--if these people had just sat idly by and said, "Well, I have my nice comfortable life. I'm not going to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Let them help themselves."

In later years, graduate students who want to write a dissertation about these influences in my work will have plenty of material from which to choose.  Here's a poem that came to me during the weeks following Ronald Reagan's death, those weeks where I found myself thinking, are we remembering the same president?  It was published in The South Carolina Review:

Lying in State

On the day that Ronald Reagan dies,
in the shadow of the Interstate, I offer
a homeless man a loaf of banana bread
which he grabs, as if afraid
I’ll rescind my offer.

Reagan’s body flies across the continent
to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda,
that branch of government which made policies
he tried to evade.
I report to work, teach English to the children
of families who fled Reagan’s foreign
policies, Cold War containment and interference.

On the day of Reagan’s funeral, I plant
a tree and remember his claim
that creatures of this leafy clan cause pollution.
I think of ICBMs fertilizing far away fields
and Adam dead of AIDS these twenty years,
his bones blending into the earth.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Rearranged Time and the Big Cyprus

Friday afternoon, I wrote this chunk as a Facebook status:

"I have just rearranged my dermatologist app't for a week later than the original Monday appointment, so that I could be in the sun this week-end and have time for my skin to return to a lighter, more dermatologist approved color for an appointment the last week of March. Yes, I will use sunscreen, but I will I reapply it religiously? Past behavior suggests that I will not."

But the week-end did not go exactly as planned. 

I thought that Sunday would be different.  I thought I'd need to spend time grading extra credit essays from my students, but very few of them elected to do it.  I thought I'd need to spend time submitting grades, but the portal was down all week-end.

My spouse had planned to take a motorcycle trip to Marco Island with his brother.  But his brother's bike was still in the shop, so he couldn't go.  My spouse tried to decide whether or not to go on his own.  I suggested that we take a smaller trip together.  We decided to go on the Tamiami Trail to the Big Cypress visitor's center that's halfway across the state.

The last time I went was on a school field trip in mid-September.  I remember the road as being deserted.  It was not deserted yesterday.

I didn't remember all the airboat ride places on the side of the road--hurrah for the Native Americans who have figured out how to give tourists what they want--but it made for a congested feel.

We never made it to the visitor's center, but we had a nice ride nonetheless.  I always love the vistas of the Everglades, that look of prairies.  We saw a lot of birds, but I didn't see any alligators like my spouse did.  Like last week, we saw a lot of motorcycles on the road.

We turned around because we didn't want to risk running out of gas and because I thought the portal would be up, and I would need to submit grades.  In retrospect, we could have gotten gas and kept going.  Oh well.

We stopped at a place that I thought might be Mexican or Japanese:  it was called Wajiro's, and it had a Mexican hat in neon.  No, it was a Cuban place.  We had great pork dishes, grilled plantains, some boring steamed veggies, some potatoes.  I had the best lemonaid ever, with crushed ice for a slushie-like approach, and the rim of the glass rolled in sugar.

When we filled up with gas before the restaurant, my spouse asked me if I had a credit card.  I said, "I have nothing but a chapstick and my good looks.  That won't get us very far."  But it did get me a lemonaid.

Did the restaurant mean to give us a free lemonaid?  Because of language barriers, we couldn't clarify.  We decided to just accept it for what it was--an unexpected treat, in a day of lots of unexpected treats.

We got home with enough time to relax in the pool.  It's still chilly--78 degrees--but after a hot ride, it was great to unwind there. 

Today I'm taking the day off because some of my friends who are public school teachers have this week off for Spring Break, and we want to get together.  I thought they had Spring Break next week, so I originally took the wrong Monday off.  Luckily, it's easy enough to reverse.

But it's symptomatic of this whole week-end, where plans changed suddenly, and I found myself having to shift gears, which I think takes me longer than other people.  I get an idea fixed in my mind about how a time period will go, and it's hard for me to adapt to changes.

Some of the things I thought I would finish yesterday, I will need to finish today:  grades, posts to my Living Lutheran editor, poem prompts to the Create in Me folks.  Some of the things I thought I might do yesterday turned out to be overly ambitious, like our taxes.  But I did get all the paperwork organized, which is much of the battle.

And there will be time for lunch with friends today, a treat I thought I would have a week from today, but today is actually a better day to take off.  The knowledge of some unstructured time today gave me what I needed to suggest a shorter Sunday trip, a treat of a trip. 

I'm sorry that my spouse missed the longer trip, because he was looking for it, but I'm glad that we had a chance to go together.  I'm glad for rearranged time.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Highlights from a Low-Key Writer's Week

Yesterday I had lunch with a writer friend, who also was once a student of mine.  We met long ago, when I taught upper level British Lit for 2 heavenly years at Florida Atlantic University.  We've stayed in touch, done readings together, supported each other in all sorts of ways.

She's been writing her first novel, and six weeks ago, she sent me a rough draft.  I made some comments and suggestions, and this week, she sent me a revision.

I rarely see revisions that make me believe so much in the revision process.  Most of my students move from rough draft to finished draft without making significant changes.  I, too, am guilty of not pushing myself to see if a draft is really finished.

My friend, however, made significant and revelatory changes.  She got rid of all sorts of scenes that bogged down the forward progress of the plot.  She's writing a historical novel, and there were many scenes in the rough draft that seemed to be there so that the research that she did wouldn't be wasted.

In the revision, those scenes are gone.  In the revision, the plot no longer meanders.  Those characters have something to lose, and the stakes are high.

My week as a writer this week has been a bit more low-key because I've had a lot of other duties to take care of.  But it's important to remember that even in a low-key week, there are many moments of delight.

Even in a week of other duties, one can be thrilled by a friend's revision success.  I also got two manuscripts ready for contest entries.  I got two packets of poems in the mail.  I wrote 2 poems, one of which I didn't like too much but might have potential, and one about Zacchaeus, the tax collector who wants to see Jesus and climbs a tree.  Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus' house for dinner, and Z. is so changed by the encounter that he vows to repay everyone whom he has cheated 4 times over.  We assume this change is permanent, but my poem shows that he goes back to his old ways:  there are financial difficulties and an emergency, and he meant to reform forever, but he couldn't.  I continued to write blog posts, both for my two personal blogs and for the Living Lutheran site.

I'm reminded of this post that appeared on Leslie Pietrzyk's blog, a post which reminds us that doing just one thing to promote and advance our work each day will be fruitful: 

"In the past, I’ve handled Po-Biz randomly, working up a head of steam and then sending out queries or applications in spurts—with long fallow periods between times when I tried to build up the energy to focus on administrative matters once again. This past January, I made a resolution to try a new tactic.

For the entire month, I did one piece of Po-Biz per day. I never did more than one thing, so it was never overly burdensome, and even small things counted. So one day I might merely send an email to a person who organizes a reading series, and the next day I might take on the larger task of sending a new book manuscript to a competition or applying for a residency at an artists’ colony. By the end of the month, I’d done an extraordinary 31 things."

I do long for huge swaths of time where I can accomplish so much.  But it's good to remember how much I can do even with just a very tiny bit of time.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Poetry Composing Process: "Cassandra Considers the Dust"

Yesterday I wrote about my latest poem publication and a link to the current issue of Southern Women's Review, where my poem "Cassandra Considers the Dust" appears on page 43.  I've loved this poem since I composed it, and I've sent it a variety of places to be considered for publication. 

I've read more than one person who says if your poem gets rejected x amount of times, you should revise it.  But given the vagaries of the publication process, I don't follow that advice. 

This poem was first headed on a different path.  I had been thinking about the kinds of people who keep watch during the night hours:   doctors on duty overnight, monks in the early morning, mothers with sick children, and the monitors in a hospital. 

I had planned to have three speakers in the poem, and I started composing in the voice of the doctor.  I wondered what it would be like to work long hours amongst the sick and dying.  The central image came to me: the doctor as the modern Cassandra, telling her patients the news they don't want.

I thought of the modern climate scientist as Cassandra:  how many Cassandras live in our modern lives!  I almost created a different poem.

On my way out of the door one morning, I noticed a thick coat of dust on a bookshelf.  I thought about dusting, and I thought of the climate maps I had played with:   how little sea level rise it takes to subsume a coastline!

I thought about the fluids flowing through our bodies, the fluids sloshing across the planet.

All these strands eventually came together in the poem that has now been published.  You will see that I abandoned my plan for three speakers; the doctor had enough to say for one poem.

Poets aren't often asked which one of their characters they like best--many of us don't create characters.  I write fiction too, so I consider this question periodically.  As I look back over the characters I've created, I have a fondness for this doctor. 

I have created many characters like her, it occurs to me, and they're often women.  They have lots and lots of duties and responsibilities.  Late at night, they return to a home that's more like a sanctuary than a home.

Home as hospice chaplain--perhaps I shall play with this idea. 

But early this morning, it's time to think about my own day of duties and responsibilities.  I will return to my sanctuary, but I'm luckier than many of my female characters.  I'll return home in the late afternoon, not the late night. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Manuscript Progress, Teaching Progress

It is the week that I knew would come, and today is the day in the week that I knew would come.  All of my online classes have items waiting to be graded and/or other gradebook tasks today.  But just up ahead:  a hole in the calendar, a hole of several months, when I won't be teaching as many online classes.  I'll still be teaching some, but I should have more free time.

My plan is to do the last revisions to my memoir/book of essays during that time.  I have a letter waiting to go to my next choice for an agent for the book.  Even if my work isn't chosen, I'm taking the opportunity to thank her for her part in bringing Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk into the world.

If you had to make a list of 3-10 books that changed your life, what books would be on that list?  The Cloister Walk changed me in so many ways:  it made me want to know more about monasticism, it made me want to go to a monastery, it made my friends want to go to a monastery with me, it showed me a different way of being a Christian, on and on I could go.  And then there are the ways it changed me as a writer.  I was interested in her book as memoir and as a book of essays, and so many of them in such different forms. 

It is the book that led to my current manuscript.

The agent I'm interested in wants to see a Table of Contents, and so I've been creating one.  I wanted a paper copy of the manuscript to put the pages in the TOC, and so, yesterday, I printed one.  As I picked the sheaf of paper, over 300 pages, out of the printer, I thought, take a minute, Kristin, and appreciate what you have done here.  You have combed through hundreds of blog posts to compile this manuscript.  You have revised those blog posts to make them more like essays.  You have figured out where to put the essays that could go at any spot.  You have taken out some material.  You have revised again.

It has all taken longer than I anticipated, which could make me get lost in self-recriminations.   But I've already lost too much time--onwards toward the goal!

Well, in a week or two, I'll move onward.  Today it's back to grading.

But I leave you with a poem--actually a link to the current issue of Southern Women's Review, where my poem "Cassandra Considers the Dust" appears on page 43.  Tomorrow I'll write more about the composition process for that poem.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Celebrate Spring: Carrot Salad with Garbanzo Beans

Some time ago, I made homemade granola bars from a favorite recipe that I first found in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu.  Go to this post, if you want more information and/or the recipe.

It's always interesting to revisit old cookbooks.  I got this cookbook while I was in graduate school; my parents gave it to me one Christmas.  Ah, the grad school days when I couldn't afford a cookbook.  I'd look at the menus in the book and make changes, since I couldn't afford the ingredients for all the dishes in one of her menus in the book.

Much of the rest of the world is celebrating the return of Spring.  Soon we will celebrate the equinox (on March 20).  What better reason to make a salad?

I have a refrigerator with all the ingredients for a green, leafy salad:  spinach, leaf lettuce, baby tomatoes, cucumbers.  But I dread all the chopping.  And then there's the chewing.

Maybe I simply need another kind of salad.  Here's one of my favorites from that cookbook.  Through the years, I've changed it, incorporating what was the topping as part of the dish.  Because it has garbanzo beans and yogurt, it could be sturdy enough in terms of protein for a light main dish; it's also perfect as a side or part of a salad presentation.

It's another one of those dishes that's infinitely adaptable.  You could use more or less carrots.  You could add additional veggies.  You could leave out the garbanzo beans or have different beans.  You could have more beans than carrots, if you're in need of protein.  If you don't care for yogurt or you need to be dairy free, the dish works without the yogurt.


Carrot Salad with Garbanzo Beans

1-3 C. carrots, cut into bite size pieces
1-2 cans garbanzo beans
drizzle of olive oil
2-4 drizzles of balsamic or red wine vinegar
1/2 C. to 2 C. plain yogurt
1-3 T. cumin
several cloves of minced garlic or 1 tsp. garlic powder or garlic salt (more to taste)
fresh mint, if available

Steam the carrots until they're as tender as you like.  Add the garbanzo beans.  Stir together with the drizzles of olive oil and balsamic/red wine vinegar.  Add the cumin and garlic.  Add the yogurt heaping spoonful by heaping spoonful until the salad looks like you want.  I like a creamy sauce that coats everything heavily, but you might like less.  Add the mint to taste.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Celebrate Saint Patrick's Day: from the Silly to the Sublime

Today is one of those holidays like Mardi Gras, where I wonder what revelers would say if they really knew about the spiritual origins of what they celebrate.

But I know that many people don't really care.  Any excuse for a chance to drink green beer, eh?

But this is my creativity blog, not a party blog.  Just writing the words "party blog" makes me a bit queasy.  What if future employers-to-be read this blog and assume that there is a party blog of mine somewhere?  I assure all future searchers that my life is not nearly that interesting.  Well, not my outer life.  My inner life is much more intriguing than words can capture.  Some weeks it is.

Let's think about ways that creative people, by which I mean all of us, can celebrate St. Patrick's Day.  I'll list them from the slightly silly to the more sublime:

--Put all your green clothes together, even though they are different shades of green.  Think about how you would describe each color if you had to come up with a clever name for each.  Accessorize in a way that's different from your non-St. Patrick's Day approach.

--While you're thinking about color, think about that issue of green beer.  Think about what you normally eat and drink.  How would changing the color of the food and drink change your feelings about the sensation of eating and drinking? 

--Once my spouse made crème de menthe chicken with green liqueur, which changed the chicken green.   It smelled great, but I could not eat green chicken.  My stomach turned.  Interesting how our revulsions are so deeply engrained.  Think about your own revulsions.  Are they truly self-protective?  Or should you try something again?

--If you're going to make Irish food, go beyond the corned beef and soda bread that are the staples of this holiday.  Do I have suggestions?  No, I don't--in fact, my experiments with Irish cooking have not been my most successful, although the first one did lead to one of my all-time favorite posts about Saint Patrick's Day.  Luckily, you have the whole Internet at your disposal.

--Saint Patrick was kidnapped and taken to Ireland where he spent his teenage years as a slave before he escaped.  The knowledge he acquired during his time of bondage proved very useful when he returned to solidify Christianity on the island.  Where do you see similarities to your own creative life?  What parts of your life do you see as oppressive?  Try thinking about those oppressive parts as giving you the resources you will need in the future as you create something that has never existed before.

--Part of Saint Patrick's strength came from his community.  Think about your own creative community.  What one action can you do today to strengthen your community?  Celebrate Saint Patrick's Day by taking that action.

--In many Christian circles, Saint Patrick is remembered for combining Christian elements with pagan aspects to combine a healthy strain of Christianity.  It's worth thinking about our own work.  Where have we been traditional?  How can we combine that work, that impulse, with something new?  What haven't we tried because it seems too edgy?  Why not try it today? 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Suicide Machine* to Key Largo

This week-end, I went on my first rides on the new motorcycle.  What a treat!

On Friday, we zipped around the neighborhood.  It was such fun that we planned a trip to Key Largo on Sunday.  We knew that we didn't have lots of time on Sunday--it wouldn't be a leisurely cruise.  But we wanted to seize the opportunity.

On Sunday, once we had our church commitments complete, we came home and went into high gear.  Less than a half hour later, we were on our way.

We made our way through the St. Patrick revelers in downtown Hollywood as we went to the Turnpike.  The sun beat down on us, but that was O.K.--much safer than rain.  We got on the Turnpike, which was less pleasant.

At first I felt like I couldn't be sure I was breathing--the wind and the pressure were intense.  I was prepared for the feeling that everything on my body would lift, but it was still disconcerting to wonder if my helmet was really secure.  I had trouble focusing my eyes. 

More than once, I thought, I don't even like ceiling fans--what am I doing on this bike?

The trip from Homestead to Key Largo was the one I really wanted to experience, and it was breathtaking in different ways.  The idea that on a bike of any kind you're in the landscape, not just viewing the landscape behind a screen--that's not my idea.  I first encountered it in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Yesterday I thought about how true it is.  If I'd been in a car, I wouldn't have smelled the marshy smells and the salt.  I'd have still oohed as we went over the big bridge on Highway 1.  But it was different on a bike. 

In many ways, I wish it had been a less busy day on the roads.  It would have been nice to go a bit more slowly.  But we're in the middle of one of our biggest tourist seasons ever, so we kept pace with the traffic--again, it's safer that way.

We ate at a Key Largo restaurant with the surliest wait staff I've ever seen.  We got there at 4:25 in the afternoon.  I expected the place to be deserted.  Nope.  It was still hectic.  The wait staff was unsmiling, only half of my food was delicious, but the view was great.

We didn't linger--it wasn't that kind of day.  We wanted to be home before dark.  So, off we went, back on Card Sound Road, which was the less busy way to get back to the mainland. 

Once we got on the Turnpike, the less busy feeling was over--lots of traffic.  But we were in a hurry to get home too.  The sun seemed to be setting more quickly than usual.  We pulled into the driveway just as the sun went down.

I wouldn't have realized how many motorcycles are on the road if I had been in a car. Are they always there or is it a function of our tourist season and the gorgeous weather yesterday? Zero percent chance of precipitation--that's great tourist weather, whether you're on a bike or in a car.

I also thought about what a traditionally gendered activity motorcycle riding is for most of us.  I saw two women yesterday in control of the motorcycle.  Everyone else rode behind the man driving it.  I thought about how I have no idea how to drive a motorcycle, and even if I did, this one is so heavy I expect that I'd have trouble.

Still, in my non-traditionally gendered life, it was nice to take a backseat for a change.  I sat in the backseat and tried to have complete trust in the man driving the bike.  Since he's my spouse, it wasn't too hard--just the newness of the bike made me worry a bit.

Some people say motorcycles are dangerous, and in a way, they are.  But any driving on South Florida roadways feels dangerous.

What to do?  Sit in the house for the next 50 years?  No, we didn't move down here to sit in the house!  We moved down here to be part of a completely different landscape.  And a motorcycle is a great way to do that.

*I don't really think of motorcycles as suicide machines.  But during our ride, I kept thinking of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," and this allusion pleased me the most.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

For Your Sunday Reading Pleasure

What I have most been enjoying reading:  the work of my students in my Humanities class.  It is so wonderful to read their own pieces and to watch them respond to each other as they analyze history, art, architecture, philosophy, and religion.  I'm sure that part of my delight is that the subject matter is very different from the other classes that I'm teaching.  Part of it comes from their responses to each other; they seem to have been truly thinking about these issues.

But I can't share those with you, and they might not delight you as much, since you didn't create the curriculum and haven't been watching the trajectory of those students.

However, I have come across a preponderance of interesting reading across the Internet--well, across a very narrow spectrum of the Internet.  Here are some short pieces I enjoyed over the past few days:

This interview with Jane Hirshfield was amazing--she's got a book of poems out and a book of essays!  So many books, so little time--yes, that old song again.  But what a great problem to have.

This blog post of mine talks about reading the same book of meditations each year at Lent.  Each year, I adopt the same Lenten discipline.  I may or may not adopt an additional discipline, but I always intend to read my way through Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Earth.  Each year, I am partially or fully successful. 

Each year, I underline anything that speaks to me loudly.  Here's the quote for this year, so far:  "In solitude, we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness" (p. 53).
This essay also talks about the idea of use, worth, and usefulness, in terms of our creative practices:  "I hate to inevitably bring it back to capitalism, but I really must. Because we live in a society that grants us zero established time to create without the expectation that what we create will be lucrative. And this engenders a culture in which everything we love, and do, is meant to be a consuming passion or vocation (unless we’re mega-rich, in which case, see you on the links!). The idea of writing as a lifelong hobby or interest to be nurtured seems absurd in this kind of culture. Therefore the only way to scoop out time and legitimacy for one’s abiding love of writing is to enroll in a degree-granting program that will offer both structure and more importantly, authority and permission to spend time doing something that, in fact, offers little to no monetary promise. Investing time and money, receiving a degree — these are only the ways we are allowed to give these pursuits a sense of legitimacy."

And long before the first MFA program existed, there was T.S. Eliot, writing letters to Emily Hale back in the U.S.  In this post, Paul Elie tells us that the archive of over 1000 letters must remain sealed until 2020.  At first, I thought, well I'll never know what they say.  And then I thought, wait, that's only a few years from now.

Once again, I'm thinking of all the things we write, what remains sealed and what is out there for everyone to see.  In a hundred years, will we still be unsealing caches of letters and historical documents?  Will there be people who want to read them?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Poetry Saturday: What to Do with Ashes

I read Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about the decline and death of her very old parents.  At the end, she talks about deciding what to do with her parents' ashes.  They sit in their separate boxes in her closet.

She thought about dumping them somewhere, but she had problems with all of the possibilities.  I loved this sentence:  "Throwing their ashes off the side of a boat makes as much sense to me as tossing them into a wastebasket at Starbucks" (p. 227).

I've thought about this issue of what to do with ashes since my mother-in-law died.  We talked about tossing them into the ocean, but she never really went to the beach down here.  She had feelings for Indiana, but if we had driven back there, we would have been unfamiliar with her landscape.  In the end, my spouse buried them in the yard of our old house, and the bougainvillea tree that he planted always bloomed extravagantly. 

We decided that she was as fond of our house as any place.  And we liked the idea of her returning to the earth, instead of sitting in the gray cardboard box.

We are both Ash Wednesday and Easter people, always conscious of that Ash Wednesday message that we are dust and to dust we shall return--and yet, we are also resurrection people.

When we were discussing ashes and what to do with them, this poem came to me.  The people in this poem are entirely fictional.

Ash and Salt

For a year after you died,
I reread all those childhood books,
revisit Winnie, Madeline, Charlotte, and Wilbur.

I remember you reading
these books that provided us a private language
of blustery days, bad hats, and great pigs.

I make myself the foods that provided comfort once:
fudge, grilled cheese sandwiches, boiled custard,
pancakes with chocolate chip smiles.

I light the candle I find in a closet
of a house I won’t live in much longer.
The candle consumes itself.

I decide it’s time to let you go,
to set this yapping dog of grief free.
And so, with the full moon above,

 and the sea sucking my ankles,
I try. I hurl clumps
of ashes into the waves.

I trust that they’ll be gone
by morning, that no little children
will make a gruesome discovery at sunrise.

Lacking the proper language, with no sacrament,
I lick my fingers
that taste of ash and salt.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Dreaming of the AWP

Leslie Pietrzyk has a great post with all sorts of valuable information about how to survive the AWP.  It reminded me of a Facebook conversation that happened weeks ago after Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote 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 the AWP convention and how that relates to book sales.  Jeannine said, "Yes, it's more indirect than direct sales, though direct sales definitely happen there. I think you end up seeing people, making connections, old friends ask you for poems at their literary journals, people might tell you about jobs or other opportunities - that kind of thing. It's like, is it worth it, strictly monetarily? Hard to say! I'd love to hear other people's opinions on it..."

And with that invitation, I wrote this reply:

"The conference fee itself is VERY affordable.  It's the hotel and airfare costs that make me decide against it. The workshops and presentations: VERY useful. Making connections: very possible, although my introvert side hated it. I figure that if one must stay in a hotel and eat and fly to the event, the AWP costs over $1000: one can buy a lot of how-to books and inspiring outings closer to home for that chunk of money.

But every year, I do wonder if I've made the right decision not to go. And I wonder how all the grad students that I see there afford it. I would not have been able to go in grad school. Of course, I was determined to be debt-free, and I suspect that grad students are using some of their student loan money to cover it. Or worse, credit cards."

Jeannine responded, "I think if you're trying to sell a book, it's undeniably useful to go; if not, then the benefits are more amorphous."

I replied, "That's a good point too. I've often wondered if one could tie in a huge road trip if the AWP was within driving distance--do readings along the way. Of course, then the issue becomes taking that much time off work, if one has that kind of job. I also know people who tie it all into family vacation time. I like the idea of a trip with multiple purposes--even though the thought of it exhausts me."

I am guessing that by now, most people have made their decisions about whether or not to go to the 2015 AWP conference.  I won't go, although I'd love to see Minneapolis.  Future conferences?  In 2016, it's L.A.--I'm fairly sure I won't be there.  But then the conference returns to the east coast:  2017 in D.C., which, since I have family in the area, is doable.  And 2018 is Tampa--Tampa!  The AWP in a city with warm weather!  In early March!  I can drive there. 

So, it's not too early to start thinking about the 2017 and 2018 AWP.  I don't have a book with a spine to promote at this point, but I want to have one by 2017 or 2018--and that means I need to go into high gear now.