Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Technology Miracles Old and New

Yesterday was delightful.  I worked on my angel Gabriel poem and accompanying documents (writing process, updated bio, picture), while also working on the online classes which started yesterday.  My brother-in-law popped by for a visit while he was on call, and I worked on a quilt while we chatted.  And at the end of the day, I got the mail that told me that Atlanta Review accepted a poem of mine, "Coracle of Prayer."

I thought about how I would likely not have written that poem without the Internet and blogging.  I came across this post and video that Dave Bonta posted.  In pre-Internet days, perhaps I would have come across the facts about coracles--but would I have been as intrigued and inspired if I hadn't had the video to watch?

My purple legal pad where I write poems shows me that I was playing with the Gabriel idea before I saw this post of Beth's art that she posted in January.  I had the idea during Advent, the mingling of the thought of John the Baptist as that homeless guy under the overpass, the idea of God coming where we least expect to find the Divine, and the godlessness of South Florida. 

But when I saw her post on a day when I saw other images, I wrote a blog post about the poem I was trying to write.  That blog post led to an electronic conversation with Beth, which has led to a publication opportunity, about which I will say more later.  It's another opportunity which I wouldn't have had without modern technology.

Or perhaps I would, but at a different pace.  I could have written a letter, after all.  But without the Internet to distribute information, I would likely never have seen her piece of art from her studio in Canada.

It's a theme I return to again and again, how technology has changed our lives.  I thought of this in a different way as I set my oven to self-clean yesterday.

Note to self:  it's better to clean the oven during cooler weather.  Having the oven self-clean at a high temperature on a sultry summer afternoon is not the wisest approach.  But the result seems miraculous.  No noxious chemicals!  No scrubbing!

I wonder what technology that's just now being tested will come to seem like a miracle to future generations?

Now it's off to motorcycle training--another technology which once seemed miraculous.  I will bring a book to read during down times, if there are any--an old technology, which still seems miraculous.  I will use my reading glasses--yes, another miracle.

The world is full of wonders, if we had but eyes to see.  What poems will I weave out of these ideas?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer Vacation, of a Sort, Begins

This week will be very different from the past few weeks.  Our school has Friday off as the 4th of July holiday, and a few weeks ago, I decided to take my motorcycle training class on Tuesday and Wednesday, since there's a discount, and I didn't want to spend a week-end doing that and then trying to be functional at work.  And then, I thought, well, why not take the whole week off?

People assume I'm going somewhere, but I'm happy to be staying at home.  I've got unfinished  projects the way one does when one has hectic weeks:  I need to do some cleaning, some laundry, some banking, some cooking.  I've got online classes starting and shifting into high gear.  I've got a writing project due date.  There are non-school friends I want to catch up with.

I feel that strange tingle of nervousness--we're halfway through the year, and I've taken half of my Paid Time Off--what if I get sick?

But I also don't want to get to December and need to take the whole month off so that I don't lose my PTO.  So, it's good to take days here and there.

Plus, I've been feeling so exhausted, between school issues and Vacation Bible School--I've had lots of signals that it's time to take a few days off to regroup.

I'm hoping also to have time to read.  I've finished Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins, and I can't stop thinking about the characters--it's almost enough to make me want to go back to reread Life after Life.  But there are so many books I haven't read yet.  Next up:  The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer.  It's hard to believe how many years it's been since I read her first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier.

Now it's time to make some homemade granola bars (recipe in this blog post).  I have trouble envisioning how motorcycle riding classes will go.  Will I need dry clothes to change into?  Will we have snacks provided?  I'm fairly sure lunch is not provided.  Will I need to bring all my own water?  Will there be an air conditioned place to leave my lunch/snacks or will I use my car for storage?

Regardless of the answers, my homemade granola bars will be just fine.  And so will I.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Salads Salt and Sweet

A few weeks ago, I went to a restaurant planning to get some happy hour snacks to go with some wine.  I wasn't planning on eating dinner.

My friend and I got ourselves settled at the bar to wait for the others who would join us.  It was fairly early, so there was only one other person at the bar.  She waxed euphoric over the salad.

Yes, the salad.  She had a bottle of wine and some other goodies--but it was the salad that made her so deliriously happy.

So, of course, I had to order it--plus it sounded good:  grilled peaches, prosciutto, goat cheese, on top of salad greens with a honey lemon vinaigrette.  Were there nuts on the salad?

For days, I wanted to go back--but the salad was a special, so I doubted I could get it again.  But how hard could it be to make?  So the other day, I stopped at the grocery store.

I got nectarines, which I like better than peaches.  I added some cherry tomatoes.  I got chopped romaine lettuce, because it was on sale.  I got a log of goat cheese and prosciutto.  You can mix it all in the proportions that you like.

For the vinaigrette, I used 3 lemons, but it was almost too tart.  I used 4 T. of honey.  I mixed in a cup of good olive oil.  It still didn't taste quite right--too tart.  So I added some balsamic vinaigrette and some ginger preserves.  I just kept mixing in small amounts until I got it close.  It still wasn't as good as the restaurant version.

But then I let it sit in the fridge for a week--it got so much better.  I made another version of the salad.  When I didn't have grilled peaches, I made the salad with chickpeas--not quite as good, but more protein to be sure.  I love the mix of salt and sweet.

I think I'll explore the whole summer creating salads that celebrate that mix.

This past week, I've been pouring the vinaigrette on non-salads too.  I had a can of chickpeas that marinated in the vinaigrette--delicious mixed with goat cheese.  I also poured it over a leftover pasta with tomatoes and olives pantry kind of meal that I put together when I was out of most fresh foods--much tastier than the original pasta meal with parmesan cheese that I first served.

I liked the vinaigrette so much that I made another jar full.  I used 2 lemons this time.  It was almost not tart enough.

In my younger days, when I had lots of unstructured time and a kitchen (think grad school), I kept a variety of sauces and vinaigrettes on hand.  I had forgotten how transformative they are. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Love Wins, and History Marches On

It has been an interesting week in terms of social justice progress.  Even as I have marched through a very tiring week, I've taken moments to let myself feel awe at the news I've been hearing.

The event that most of the nation and future historians will remember from this week will be yesterday's ruling on gay marriage.  I listened to this story on NPR yesterday about the man who wrote a paper as a law student arguing for the rights of gay people to marry; he wrote it in 1983, and he's spent the time between then and now working on that goal.  I thought about how few of us see our goals and visions so thoroughly accepted.  He will go to his grave knowing he's been a success in what he set out to do.

The conversation covered the idea of whether or not this change has come quickly or slowly.  He said that his younger colleagues want to change the world and they get discouraged at how long it might take.  But here we are, in quite a different landscape than the world we inhabited in 1983.

I think of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's.  I used to think of it as a social movement of the 1960's, but my college teachers explained how much groundwork had been laid in the 1940's, 50's and earlier.

Both of these social justice movements show that the changes seem like they're happening very quickly, but what often happens quickly is laid on a bedrock of thousands of acts of smaller resistance and consciousness changing and tinier legislative wins than the ones that were sought.  And then, at some point, boom--it seems as if the whole nation decides to change, all at once.

I'm also thinking of the issue of the Confederate flag.  I lived in South Carolina for many years, and I have heard various sides of the arguments around the flag.  I remember after a week or two at my small college in a small South Carolina town and thinking, some people here act like the Civil War was fought last year, not 120 years ago.  That wound seemed so fresh.

I was surprised when South Carolina moved the flag from the State House (or was the state ordered to do it?  how can I not remember?).  There was the compromise that it could stay on the grounds in an area that celebrates the Civil War.

I remember walking to the State House grounds during grad school.  I loved the statue that celebrated the courage of Civil War women--it was a statue of a woman struggling to lean forward to protect the children in her skirts.  I would touch the statue and wish for similar courage.  I would scold myself:  "You think grad school is so tough; it's nothing like the Civil War."  Something about that statue steadied me.

But I digress.  In short, I thought nothing would change people's minds about that flag--and for some people, this is true.  But the shooting in Charleston may have propelled the flag off the grounds altogether.  We shall see.

We also had Supreme Court decisions on health care and fair housing.  It's been a fascinating time to watch the Court.  My spouse keeps saying that the decisions are less interesting than the fact that it is this court that made those decisions.

Early this morning, I went to the grocery store to help my friend who has had hand surgery with her groceries.  I bought some groceries too.  I put my cantaloupe on the conveyer belt.  I thought of my mother's quip whenever she cut up a cantaloupe:  "Cantaloupe without a man!"

But now we can. 

I wish I had a more satisfactory conclusion--but I suspect the coming weeks/months/years will be like this:  small moments when we realize what a different world we're leaving for our children.  Some of the changes I like, while others make me mourn. 

I think of a law student working on a paper, someone we haven't heard of, don't expect to hear from--how will the world be changed by ideas that are only being formed today?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Painting with Children

Last night's adventure with the children, creativity, and Vacation Bible School:  we explored paint.

Well, only one kind of paint:  watercolor.  Years ago when I was first the Arts and Crafts director for VBS, I asked my sister about the activities I thought about doing so that I could have a sense of what would work and what wouldn't.  My sister said, "I've never met a kid who didn't love to paint."  Now, after years of VBS, I can say the same.

She gave me great tips that non-caretakers of children wouldn't think about:  make sure the paint is washable so that it comes out of clothes.  Make sure it's non-toxic--I always check, although I want to believe that all art supplies that children might use are non-toxic.  Make sure every child has his/her own set of paints; sharing is not everyone's strong point.

On Tuesday, we made objects out of air dry clay.  We painted the objects last night.  We used watercolor paint.  A few years ago, I gave the kids both kinds of paint:  tempera and watercolor.  I was surprised that watercolor worked so well with clay.  It's easier to set up and clean up, so last night, we used only watercolor.

I also gave everyone paper plates and paper, if they wanted a different experience.  And we had another successful evening.

I was intrigued by what elements captured which attentions.  Some children intently worked on their clay pieces with great precision.  A few went right to the paper plates.  Some preferred to dip their paintbrushes in water to watch the water change colors.

As always, I am happily surprised at the enthusiasm of the children.  Not one says, "Forget it.  This is stupid.  I'm not doing this."  No one said to me, "You're stupid, and I can't believe you're making us do this."  These are reactions I expected when I first started doing this work with VBS.  And year after year, the children enter into the activity:  some are meditative, some cautious, some enthusiastic, but all are willing to try.  There's not a lot of judgment:  very few children reject their creations.

I don't think I have a better group of children than elsewhere.  I think that we lose that quality along the way.  We lose it for a whole host of reasons.

Some of us are lucky as we recover some of that spirit along the way.  But so many are not.

I think about the way the world would be transformed if we could all be like my VBS kids.  I want to think about the ways we could make that possible. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Insights from Half a Week of Vacation Bible School

I am tired this week.  I knew I would be:  full days at work followed by long evenings at Vacation Bible School.  I didn't anticipate additional work stress, as these weeks between quarters are usually quiet.  Not this week.  I've heard from students angry about grades ("No, I can't call your teacher; she's on vacation in Paris.  This will have to wait until July 9 when she returns").  There are issues with staffing and classes: faculty who may or may not be with us then and decisions that must be made by others before I can proceed in finalizing the schedule.  These are problems which will be solved in good time, but my strength/weakness is my efficiency, and when I feel I'm not being (or prevented from being) efficient, I get snarly.  There is more dealing with traffic.

But then I get to VBS, and I get to do this:

Making Paper Snowflakes/Masks/Abstract Art

and this:

Creating with Clay

and this:

Decorating Quilt Tops for Lutheran World Relief

I've written at more length about the restorative power of arts and crafts at the end of a hectic day in this post at my theology blog.  For this post, let me collect an assortment of other insights from this week:

--Several children at Vacation Bible School are special needs kids.  I thought about how I approach them with more patience and encouragement.  What would happen if I thought of all the people with whom I interact in any given day as a special needs kid?  At the very least, I would be less snarly, which would be a good thing.

--With all these children, I'm amazed at how loving/enthusiastic/trusting these children are to us.  We are many of us basically strangers to each other.  Many of our VBS kids come from the surrounding neighborhood or they are friends or relations of members; we see them once a year at VBS.  But you wouldn't know it to look at our gathering:  lots of hugs, lots of earnest talking, lots of play.

--We are lucky that we are a church of trustworthy adults and that we have safe space regulations that we hope will eliminate any chance that predators have for finding prey.  But I still worry about the openness of these children.

--I spend a lot of time with college students and adults who are not so trusting, and I wonder if we could restructure all the things in adolescence that strip us of our trusting natures.  I see so many closed-up people, people who would not enter enthusiastically into the arts and crafts activities that I have planned.  And then to spend an evening with kids--the contrast is startling.

--I love the adults who show up to help with VBS.  We have a small church--70-100 worshippers a week, so we really need every adult who can drive at night to show up to help in some capacity.  There are the big jobs of being a teacher for a class or making the meal.  But there are many smaller jobs.  Last night my Arts and Crafts assistants were great teenagers who helped these children who had a variety of skill levels--I hadn't anticipated how helpful they would be.  And let us not forget the clean up crew.  Last night while I put supplies away, a helpful mom swept up all the scraps of paper that had floated to the floor.  I got home 15 minutes earlier because she pitched in.

--This VBS group has worked together through the years, and it's high intensity times like these that make a bond between us.

--I've written in several places, most recently this post for the Living Lutheran site, about VBS as neighborhood outreach:  "It means that the most effective form of neighborhood outreach for our congregation is vacation Bible school. Even the food pantry doesn’t see this much traffic."

--I wonder if we could do something similar for other institutions.  And yet, let me not forget the basic lesson that we haven't determined a way to translate enthusiasm for VBS into more regular attendance: "How I wish we had the resources to offer a vacation Bible school experience more often, say quarterly, instead of once a year. How I wish I knew how to make other elements of church inspire the same passion and enthusiasm." 

--Should we?  Maybe we should just accept the grace of this week and not look to do more.

--And maybe I should remember how soothing it is to cut paper when work leaves me frazzled.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I am feeling tired this morning.  Let me think about how to get my equilibrium back . . .

Perhaps we feel polluted.

Or perhaps we feel like an ancient tree with the ground beneath us hollowed out.

It's time to return to the ancient practices:

A good book might cure our ills.

A pot of tea couldn't hurt.

Maybe some exercise.

But above all, some time to notice the way the light shifts.

We can spare a few moments here and there each day for these recalibrations.

In these ways, we will be restored.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Alternative Evening Activities

I am exhausted this morning.  Last night after work, I slipped away from work to go to my secret appointment, my very transgressive activity.

No, no, no, it's nothing like that.  I spent hours doing this:

Well, not the doing, but the supervising.  It's that time of year again:  Vacation Bible School!  For more on why we drew hands on white cloth, see this blog post at my theology blog (hint:  last night's activity involved quilts).

Why do I call this activity transgressive?  For all sorts of reasons.

I've noticed through the years that people have a wide variety of reactions when I tell them that I'm giving a week of my evenings to do VBS.  They wonder why I do it, since I have no children.  They wonder if it makes a difference.  They can't imagine that an artifact from their childhood like VBS still exists--and then they talk about why we've made the changes that we have, like holding VBS at night. 

And many of the people I know haven't been to a church since they left the unsatisfying churches of their youth.  Some of them act as if I'm going to some strange cult that indoctrinates children.

Actually, very few people have reacted like that.  But they do wonder why I'm willing to upend my schedule the way that I do.  One person said to me "You must really care about the spiritual life of children."

Well, yes, but I care about the spiritual lives of all of us.

I told my spin instructor why I wouldn't be there in the evenings this week, and she said, "We'll miss you."

I said, "I'll miss you guys too, but some times it's important to do things for the greater good."

She gave me that big smile and said, "That's a great way of thinking." 

I started thinking about how few of us think that way anymore.  We don't care about all school districts, just the ones where our children go or the ones that affect our property values.  Many of us will respond to a huge tragedy, but how many of us respond to the ongoing tragedies?  I could go on and on.

I am heartened, though, by how many of us still respond to tragedies of all sorts.  At least our hearts are not hardened.

And here's a secret, less I sound so morally superior:  I do VBS because it's fun.  I like the planning with these people who have become my friends.  I like the interactions with children.  I love the chance to play with art supplies.

I also like feeling like the work I do has meaning.  I don't mean the spiritual formation of children.  I hope that will happen, but I really can't be sure.

No, here's what I mean:  I go to a smaller church.  To put on VBS each year, we need every person who is capable of helping to help.  It doesn't matter that I have no children--I'm willing to put together a piece of VBS, and people are eager to have me do it.  In a larger church, it might be years/decades before I had the opportunity to plan a week of arts and crafts for VBS. 

I like feeling appreciated.   I go through many a day where I wonder how we came to forget to say "please" and "thank you."  When I spend a week of evenings at VBS, I hear those words a lot.

In short, I get many benefits from this week of alternative evening activities.  It's worth the exhaustion.  And even my exhaustion has a benefit:  it reminds me of how easy my life is in so many aspects.

Tonight it's on to clay!  And soon, the most essential element:  glitter!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Teaching Trade Negotiation

My spouse is teaching Philosophy classes again.  Long ago, when we were young undergrads together, we dreamed of dual teaching careers.  While our dreams haven't exactly come true in the ways we thought they might (we're not at a small liberal arts college, for example), it is interesting to be having these conversations about curriculum again.

We both tend to be lecturers (sage on the stage, with class discussion following), but these days, it's good to be more interactive.  Last week his Situational Ethics class was supposed to discuss international trade.  How to make that interactive?

We thought about some TED talks.  We thought about reading international treaties.  But then I remembered an exercise from the long ago days of youth groups, an exercise designed to teach us about world hunger.  In that exercise, we divided into groups and were given popcorn.  Some groups were given more than they needed, some less, and some had other resources; I have a memory of pennies.  What would each group do?  How would they negotiate?  Could we get to a point where everyone had what they needed?

It's an exercise that stuck with me, obviously.  Here I am, decades later, suggesting it.

So, I used that idea as an inspiration for a different kind of classroom exercise.  I would divide the class into groups and give them items representing wealth (pennies), weapons (matches, which my spouse lit and blew out so that there would be no risk of mishap), manufacturing resources (pieces of cloth), food (popcorn), and natural resources (shells and rocks).  Each group would represent a country, and each would have some of what they needed, but not all of what they needed, and each group except one would have excess resources of some type.

He gave them 20 minutes to analyze the situation and to strategize.  And then it was time to negotiate.

He says it went well, although he was somewhat disappointed that they didn't immediately make larger connections to the philosophers that they'd been studying.  But that might happen, if not immediately then later.  And it might help them understand trade relations in a way that they hadn't before.

I think back to my own high school years.  I remember in a Civics class we pretended we were members of Congress.  We created bills and worked to get them passed.  It taught me more about the way that government works than anything I've done before or since.

Because I like the idea of this blog being a resource, let me see if I can post the curriculum that we created.  I have a vision of it being a flexible assignment.  For example, I talked to a friend who teaches in a Hospitality program.  We thought about how we could adapt the process, what the items would represent:  money, food, staffing, . . .

I won't go through and standardize the spacing and type font--that would take more time than I have. 

I'd be interested in hearing about result across varying curriculums.  I remember once doing something similar in a Composition class and having students write about what they learned about the experience.  I liked it for a variety of reasons:  it was something that they hadn't experienced before, and the writing assignment was fairly plagiarism proof.

Trade Negotiation Simulation

Popcorn represents crops/food

Penny represents wealth in the treasury

Match represents weapons

Seashell/rock represents natural resources

Piece of cloth = ability to manufacture cheaply what the rest of the world wants/needs

The challenge—group of students represents the government that must decide on the best way to get what their countries need.  Each group needs to have at least 2 students, but more ideally 3-4.

 The Countries:

 Country 1 (U.S. counterpart)

 Popcorn:  30 kernels

Penny:  30 pennies

Match :  30 matches

Seashell:  10 shells

Piece of cloth:  1

Country 2 (European counterpart)

Popcorn:  20 kernels

Penny:  20 pennies

Match :  25 matches

Seashell:  8 shells

Piece of cloth:  1

Country 3 (poor country in Africa)

Popcorn:  2 kernels

Penny:  2 pennies

Match :  0 matches

Seashell:  25 shells

Piece of cloth:  0

Country 4 (country in Asia that’s not a developing nation, but first world, like Japan, but not China)

Popcorn:  15 kernels

Penny:  30 pennies

Match :  2 matches

Seashell:  2 shells

Piece of cloth: 20


Divide the class into groups.  Distribute the resources.  The pages go to each group—will you give each group all the pages so they all know about each other?  Or if they know less about each other will the negotiating be more real?

Give the groups 10-20 minutes to strategize how they’ll get what they need/want from other countries.

Then have them come together to negotiate.  See what happens.

Should you have more time:  You could have something happen:  a famine, that wipes out the food resources of some countries (popcorn taken away), a recession (pennies taken away), a natural resource that finds new use in manufacturing (shells given)—how do outside factors like these influence negotiations?
Ask them what they learned.  Ask them to discuss which country represents which real world counterpart—only teacher has the information which will be revealed at this point.

 Ask them to spend the next week paying attention to news stories about trade negotiations and international relations.  Tell them that you’ll expect them to report back at the beginning of the next class.  Was the class simulation realistic?

The following pages can be given to the groups—perhaps each group only gets its own sheet—or is it more realistic that they would know these facts about each other?


Country 1



--Can’t produce goods cheaply enough to get all citizens all the consumer goods that they want

--Because of stability and wealth of country, Country 1 worries about becoming a target.

--Many citizens in this country worry about the poverty that they see in other nations.


A wide variety—every kind of person with every kind of skill level and educational background.


 Popcorn represents crops/food

Penny represents wealth in the treasury

Match represents weapons

Seashell represents natural resources

Piece of cloth = ability to manufacture cheaply what the rest of the world wants/needs



Country 2


 --This country finds itself bordered by hostile neighbors with many weapons.

 --This country is close to countries that can’t provide for their own citizens and so this country often finds refugees trying to enter the country.  These refugees often have few skills.

 --This country is also close to many nations torn apart by war and  refugees fleeing the war with nothing more than the clothes on their backs  want to come to this country.  But the country is already stretched thin economically providing for its own citizens. 

 --How will this country pay for all the needs of refugees?


 Stable, well educated, but average age of citizen is 50-70


 Popcorn represents crops/food

Penny represents wealth in the treasury

Match represents weapons

Seashell represents natural resources

Piece of cloth = ability to manufacture cheaply what the rest of the world wants/needs


 Country 3


 --Can’t grow much food—infertile land

 --Bordered by nations at war

 --Citizens living as if the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened:  not much widespread electricity or plumbing or sanitation.  Many people living in small villages where they try to farm.


Young population—lots and lots and lots of people.  They don’t have as much school education as the rest of the countries, but they are creative thinkers and problem solvers.


Popcorn represents crops/food

Penny represents wealth in the treasury

Match represents weapons

Seashell represents natural resources

Piece of cloth = ability to manufacture cheaply what the rest of the world wants/needs

Country 4


 --At this point, the country isn’t threatened by neighbors.  But historically, they have been.  The debate continues:  do they need more weapons do they have?

 --the weather isn’t always stable.  The country can’t provide as much food as it needs to feed its population.


 Lots of people, wide range of ages, but the majority is under age 45.  Equal mix of educated and not as well educated.


 Lots of manufacturing and the huge population doesn’t mind working long hours for less pay than they’d get in country 1 or 2.

Popcorn represents crops/food

Penny represents wealth in the treasury

Match represents weapons

Seashell represents natural resources

Piece of cloth = ability to manufacture cheaply what the rest of the world wants/needs




Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day 2015: A Poem, Of Sorts

It's Father's Day--could I say anything new?  This blog post is my favorite tribute that I've written to my dad.

Here is one of my favorite pictures of my dad:

I also love this one:

My dad is practicing his singing for a Harmonizers concert; my nephew is listening to the practice CD too as he plays Minecraft on his Ipad--together, even though plugged in.

Today I want to play with a photo essay.  Or a photo poem.  Let me see what happens.


Though we hike through the backcountry, the best fathers have showed us how to return.

The best fathers show us how to pack all we need on our backs.

The best fathers give us maps to the trails.

The best fathers know we cannot avoid snakes and thus we need a snake bite kit.

The best fathers will keep us warm, even when we're stranded.

The best fathers give a whistle on a family lanyard that cannot be unbraided.

Of course, we could change the word father to poet--would that work?  Artist?  Teacher?  Guide? 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Networking or Nourishment

After a grueling week, it was good to gather with friends last night in downtown Hollywood.  Our neighborhood civic association held a wine social at Hollywood Vine.

We drank our 2 glasses of wine and talked to our friends, whom we already knew.  I thought that I should move around and network--or at least meet my neighbors.  But frankly, I didn't feel like it.

Our friends have a second grade child who grew restless, so we moved on.  A few doors down, we came to a beer garden.  I use the word garden very loosely.  The back area looks out on the alley and parking lots.  But the white lights strung above the wooden picnic tables appealed--plus, we didn't have to shout the way we had at the wine shop.

As we drank our beers, I watched the people come and go--what an amazing diversity.  Tiredness began to take over, and soon we walked back to our cars.  It was a nice way to end the week.

I'm grateful that most weeks aren't so grueling.  I do feel a bit of fear that my work life is about to become more grueling.

Late in the afternoon, we got official word of whose offer of voluntary separation was accepted.  I only know about my faculty.  I'm interested to see what happened in other departments--and I'd like to know more about the larger implications.

Those answers will come later.  For now I need to focus on what needs to be done most immediately.

My online short story class starts Thursday.  I need to get all the changes finalized and entered into the course shell.  I have a poem that needs to be to an editor by July 1--it's almost done, but I need to make sure I can't improve it further.  Vacation Bible School starts Monday evening--I have the supplies bought, but I need to remember to get them to the car on Monday.  I have rough drafts from my Composition students to read; I think that comments and suggestions are much more crucial for the rough draft than the finished draft.

This morning, instead of doing any of the above, I wrote a new poem.  Well, I'm still wrestling with it.  And yet, I don't regret that use of time.  I'm always amazed at what bubbles up and what my subconscious brain pulls together.

Soon I will go to spin class and then it's off to have lunch with friends from a variety of schools.  It's the kind of networking that works better for me--but of course, it's not really networking, is it?  It's keeping my connections nourished.

Nourishment--I should focus on what connections and events bring me nourishment and which ones don't.  I can't ditch all the ones that don't, of course.  But I can cultivate more opportunities for nourishment.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Holes in the Social Fabric

Yesterday was surreal.  Early in the morning, I heard about the shootings in Charleston, but not much news was available.  Throughout the day, I kept checking to see if we knew anything new.  I kept trying to focus on other things but was distracted by wondering about the latest development.

As I drove to work, the shooter was caught, and the day became stranger.  The shooter's name is Dylann Roof, and he lives in Lexington, S.C.  My grandmother, Mary Crumley, married my grandfather, Frank Roof, who was from Lexington, South Carolina.  I spent time mentally running through the family tree, trying to remember who might have had a baby 21 years ago.

Let me hasten to say that the surname Roof is very common in the middle part of the state.  I've met several Roofs, and we're either not related or very distantly related.

Still, it was strange hearing/reading the family name throughout the day.  It was strange seeing scenes from Charleston, where I once lived.  I often go for weeks without thinking about the old family homeplaces or places where I once lived.  Yesterday, I was suffused with memories.

I finished the work day by going to graduation.  Graduation often leaves me somewhat weepy, but yesterday was weepier than usual.  I thought about my own graduation in a very small town in South Carolina, Newberry.  I thought about the graduating students of 2015, the faculty, and all the support staff--I gave thanks for the community we've created.  I said a prayer for graduates who begin a new chapter.

And then, I listened to a newscast as I drove away and thought about what it would mean to go to a prayer circle/Bible study, sit for an hour, and shoot people.  I listened to all the tributes to the people who died, and I thought, I have done nothing with my life.

Of course that is not true.  If I died in a way that horrified the nation, and my life had to be summed up in a few sentences, what would people say? 

Perhaps they would talk about the thousands of students I've taught--many of them the first in their families to go to college.  Perhaps they would talk about my unfailing belief that my students could succeed against great odds.

Maybe they would talk about my work as a supervisor, the ways that I tried to help all members of the college navigate towards a better life.  Maybe they would talk about my infectious smile and the ways I tried to stay positive.

Would anyone talk about my writing?

Would the members of my church be interviewed?  What would they say?  Would they talk about the fact that I served dinners to the homeless, bought food for the food pantry, helped with Vacation Bible School, and helped design/create worship?

Would anyone think to seek out my retreat communities?

It's interesting to think about the social fabric.  I always joke that I could drop dead, and no one would notice until someone wondered why I wasn't answering e-mails.

But of course, that is not true.  So many of us are woven tightly into the fabrics of our communities.

Yesterday also made me wonder about people like that young man who could sit for an hour with a group of people and then shoot them.

How can we make sure that our social fabrics have fewer loose threads?  How can we weave everyone in?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Restoration of Reading

I've spent the whole morning thinking about the shooting in a downtown Charleston church last night.  I lived in the Charleston area for five years, and before that, I lived in Columbia for 5 years and Newberry for 4 years--I've lived an equal amount of time in South Carolina and South Florida.  My first thought was that no one I know would have been at a prayer meeting that started at 9 p.m. at an A.M.E. church.  And yet, it won't surprise me if I discover some connections before the day is done.  It's a small world, and the church world is even smaller.  For more of my thoughts on shooters in the sanctuary, see this post on my theology blog.

Before I heard the news about the church shooting, I was marveling at the fact that I woke up feeling refreshed.   Why would I marvel?

Because driving home last night, about 8:30, I felt so incredibly drained and tired.  I wondered how on earth I would ever be able to feel renewed.  I wondered how I would get through the rest of the week.

It's been a tough week--all the toughness that comes with the final week of the quarter ("What do you mean I failed the class?  What do you mean it's too late?"), all the toughness of impending voluntary faculty severance packages, all the toughness of a spouse who teaches at a different place who is learning the place and the students, all the toughness of weekly upkeep that feels harder than usual, the toughness of a friend's hand surgery.  It's the cumulative effect that's more draining than any one item.

Yesterday morning, as I sat waiting for my friend to be discharged after hand surgery, I started the new Kate Atkinson novel, A God in Ruins.  I had read Life after Life, and I was interested to see what she did with the continuation of these characters.

Last night I got home and decided I was tired of staring at screens.  I made myself a big bowl of popcorn, the old-fashioned way, in a pan.  I crunched popcorn and read.  Heaven!

My spouse came home and we chatted for a bit.  And then I fell into a deep sleep.  I only slept for 5-6 hours, but that's better than what I've been averaging since the voluntary faculty separation packages were announced.

I love this novel of Brits with their stiff upper lips doing what must be done during World War II and beyond. I love the moving back and forth in time.  It's a more traditional moving back and forth than in Life after Life.  Thus, the characters feel more fully developed.

I've been trying not to let the news out of Charleston sink my mood.  Today is graduation at my school.  It couldn't come at a better time.  I need this reminder that we do good work at the school, and that although I hear many a sad tale of woe, there are many other students who go on to graduate, and one assumes they then go on to have good lives.

And of course, at some point, for some of us sooner than others, it will all be over.  Let me remember to live each day fully.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Century of Ash and Smoke

Yesterday as I drove home, I heard news of Vladimir Putin ordering new ICBMs, which he says will be able to penetrate any anti-missile defense.  In return, the U.S. is moving equipment into place that could protect various countries.

There was this moment when I thought, ICBMs?  What year is this?  It feels very cold war.  It feels very much like the made for TV movie from 1983, The Day After.  In that movie, the run up to nuclear exchange comes from the U.S.S.R crossing borders into West Germany.

Yesterday I thought about how apocalypses seem to come and go in cycles.  I get used to thinking that I don't need to worry about nukes, and then I realize that we were actually safer during the cold war, in that we knew where all the missiles were.  I think that ICBMs are less a threat than suitcase nukes, and then the leader of Russia begins building them again.

This summer brings us the 70th anniversary of the first nuclear explosions.  Most people will probably not be observing these anniversaries at all.

Today is the birthday of John Hersey, perhaps most famous for his book Hiroshima, which began life as a nofiction piece in The New Yorker. In the summer of 1985, I read obsessively about nuclear weapons, both their genesis and their current status, and Hiroshima was one of the books I read. Best book of that summer? War Day, by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, a sobering piece of fiction about life in the U.S. after a massive nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; it's still a compelling read. I remember Hersey's book as being elegaic in its depiction of the lost city and the suffering of the people.

Several hundred years from now, some enterprising graduate student might write a dissertation about my poetry. That graduate student might muse about the theological and nuclear themes in my poems. In some ways, they seem so separate, and yet, in some ways they dovetail. What will that dissertation conclude? Hmm.

That graduate student might read this stanza from my poem "Century of Ash and Smoke" (unpublished) and see the influence of Hersey:

If I had lost you
in the bomb blast at Hiroshima,
I might have found your likeness,
fused into concrete.

Here's the rest, less Hersey than September 11, 2001:

You leave for work
and have the bad luck not
to run late, to be in your office
when the bomb detonates.

You’ve spent so much of your life
at the office, and now you’ll be there
permanently, your remains mixing
with the melted office supplies,
your ashes drifting away
with the whisps of scorched
paper and shredded records.

Cheery little poem, eh?

It would be interesting to do a count.  How many apocalyptic short stories have I written?  How many apocalyptic images weave their way through my poems?  I wonder if I'm more likely to have the apocalypse come by way of disease or nuclear war.

I puzzle over this. It's an ongoing theme in my writing. I understand why I find the post-apocalyptic landscape compelling. What I don't understand is why I always start at the beginning of this story (or is it the beginning?). What happens to these characters? Why don't I ever write about the end of the story? What happens to these people after the journey?

Maybe I'll write some of those poems and stories, now that I've noticed this lack. Maybe I've got a book trajectory, once I do.

Or maybe I'll discover what I already knew. The part of the apocalyptic narrative that interests me most is the build up to the catastrophe. The aftermath doesn't always interest me as much.

I still go back to watch some of those 1980's nuclear war movies (I have two of them on videocassette tape--how long will I support that medium? Do I get DVD copies of those movies?):  The Day After, Testament, and Threads. I often watch only the first hour or so. As the movie world descends more permanently into the post-blast world and becomes desolate, I get impatient.

Nuclear Homecoming. Now there's a title. I have a sneaking suspicion that it would only attract a small subset of people, but that the larger chunk of potential readership would run for the metaphorical hills from a title like that.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Calm, Chaos, and States in Between

--Despite getting good sleep last night, I find myself feeling skittish.  It's the presence of Tropical Storm Bill, even though we will not be affected as it moves ashore in Texas.  Or are these rain clouds some trailing effect?

--I feel skittish because there are noises:  rain spitting on the windows (despite some sun), traffic, branches moving in the wind, perhaps something skittering across the roof, the creaks and groans of an older house.  I see why people once believed in ghosts.

--I might prefer a ghost to some of the explanations (inside the realm of possibility or not really) of creaks in a house.

--I am also skittish because of work drama, both real and imagined.  We're at the end of a quarter, when students go off the rails. The non-students are not always doing a good job of staying on the tracks either.  And our full-time faculty have been offered a voluntary separation package--a buy out, if you will.

--Perhaps that's an explanation for my skittishness.  The work drama is very similar to an approaching hurricane--one wants to prepare for what's to come, but one must wait until the track of the storm becomes clear.

--Yesterday when I couldn't sleep and was awake at 2 a.m., I typed some older poems into the computer.  I'm amazed at how many poems I have that were inspired by T.S. Eliot in some way.  Eliot was never one of my favorite poets.  I would have speculated that I would be more inspired by Wordsworth or Keats, and I have been.

--I've been far more influenced, however, by more recent poets, especially poets of the feminist decades.  I remember writing on a page of a collection by Marge Piercy, "This is my 23rd Psalm."

--I have Piercy's latest collection on my shelf.  I look forward to reading it.

--For those of us who call ourselves feminist poets, we should submit to Rattle.  Their call for Special Submissions says, "We’re currently seeking submissions from Feminist Poets for our Spring 2016 issue. The poems may be any style, subject, or length, but must be written by those who identify as Feminist Poets and often use poetry to advocate for women’s rights. Please explain how this applies to you in your contributor note."

--We've got until October 15.   More details are here, if you scroll down.

--I also like Rattle's weekly competition, Poets Respond (more details here, if you scroll down):  "Every Sunday we publish one poem online that has been written about a current event that took place the previous week. This is an effort to show how poets react and interact to the world in real time, and to enter into the broader public discourse."

--Last week I wrote a poem about the Tony Awards for Fun Home.  It didn't win, but it was fun to write on a deadline.  I don't always find poetic potential in the week's events, but I loved the idea of fun houses and mirrors and homes.

--It's good to keep writing, despite all the drama, real and imagined.  I can't always write my way back to complete calm, but I can write my way out of the chaos.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Lake District to Call Our Own

This week-end I was struck by Beth's post ; she says, ". . . most of the poets who are working on Annunciation are people I met through qarrtsiluni or other online venues. I sometimes forget to stop and trace the lineage of those relationships back, since all this has happened over just one decade, but it strikes me as a sort of rapid evolutionary process, where creativity and human relationships have partnered with advances in technology and communication, changing all of our lives and probably our brains as well."

I, too, am routinely grateful for all the connections the Internet has created, and a bit in awe of what it has made possible.   It has been an amazing decade.  I can hardly remember how I used to find poets whom I liked.  Now, most of the books I buy because I'm familiar with the poet's work online, and usually because the poet blogs.  There are the occasional Facebook posts that lead me to a poet, but for the most part, it's still blogs.

I realize that for some people, finding poets through blogs may seem as ancient a technology process as reading a paper magazine and searching out the poets found there.

I love the connections that the online world make possible.  For example, this week-end, I read this poem by Luisa A. Igloria, who posts a poem every day on Dave Bonta's blog.  Some of the lines in the poem reminded me of my posts that I wrote earlier in the week about gender and Caitlyn Jenner (here and here).  In this blog post, I wrote these words that I knew would need to be in a poem soon:  "I'm afraid that I worship the god of self-improvement plans.  It's the idol worship that seems to be running amok in our society."

On Saturday, I sat down and wrote a poem.  It was likely a different poem than I would have written without Luisa's poem.  It was better.

And then, as I have done occasionally, I sent it to Dave.  He suggested adding the word "pilot" to the last line.  Brilliant! 

On Sunday, Dave posted my poem on his blog.  And then he wrote a Facebook post.

As a result, this poem may have gotten more people reading it than the poems from earlier in my career, long ago, when tiny journals published my work on paper and mailed those journals to a tiny database of subscribers.

I like how this process shows, in close to real time, the writing process of this poem.  I don't have to wait for years for the poem to appear.

I also like how inspired I feel.  I like how these poems talk to each other.  I like that we have it documented.

I do not envy future grad students, who will have so much more material to mine as they write their scholarly tomes about this time.  But I am excited to be living in this time.

I predict that future generations will see this time as one that's as exciting as the time when Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote or when Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece, Frankenstein.  Just as I see writerly networks of the Romantic age who were influenced to become much better than they would have been on their own, I see our own time through a similar lens.

We have a Lake District to call our own.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The History of Cotton

--Never let it be said that I am a faithless woman.  We've had the same sheets on our bed for almost 13 years now.  They have been washed to blissful softness.  The first time the fitted sheet ripped, a few weeks ago, I mended it. 

--If I was a different kind of writer who had lived a different kind of life, I might be writing an essay about all those sheets have seen--and in fact, I suddenly have a short story idea.

--But I'm not living that kind of narrative.  My sheets have mainly seen us in some of the most boring moments of life, like sleeping and waking up.  No children have been conceived between those sheets.  No one has died between those sheets.  We did not betray each other.  We have not seen a succession of pets.  We did move the bed and its sheets from one house to another, but that's the extent of the drama.

--When the fitted sheet ripped again this week, we decided it was time to get new ones, which we did yesterday.  They look beautiful, like a Monet painting--but they have not yet been washed to blissful softness.

--I went back to get more matching pillowcases:  2 for $24???!!!  Is it just me, or does this amount of money seem like a lot for simple rectangles of fabric sewed together?  I found some different pillowcases in a color that matched on clearance for half that price--and made with organic cotton. 

--I don't mind cotton treated with pesticides, so organic was not the selling point.

--I was transported back to my childhood classrooms in Montgomery, Alabama where we talked about cotton and cotton's history in the U.S. South and the Civil War and slavery.

--Without Eli Whitney's cotton gin, some historians theorize that slavery would have been abandoned.  It's the cotton gin that effortlessly separated the cotton from the seeds that made cotton such a cash crop.  When you had to pay for the upkeep for the slaves to do that work, cotton's profitability plummeted.

--I think about a time a few years ago when I stayed at Mepkin Abbey.  My African-American friend and I took a walk to the African-American cemetery, a trek that took us through a huge field of cotton.  My friend spread her arms wide and said, "I have never seen cotton growing in a field!"

--I think of the landscapes of my childhood, where we were never far from cotton growing in fields.  We either took a field trip to a cotton field or one of my elementary school teachers brought in cotton so that we could see how difficult it is to get cotton off the seed and stalk by hand.

--I have wondered if my childhood teachers had their history wrong when they taught me about the cotton gin.  Did slavery make agriculture more profitable, and thus would never have been voluntarily abandoned?

--And it's impossible to keep my thoughts away from the plight of today's migrant workers.  Some labor theorists would tell us that migrant workers are a sort of slave.

--I think of my younger vegetarian self who declared that meat is murder (did I say that before I saw the album by the Smiths?  Hard to remember).  My younger vegetarian self didn't know about the abusive practices that brought her vegetables to her table.

--It is so hard to make fully ethical choices.  I think about the workers in India who made my sheets--were they paid fairly?  And who gets to define fair?

--Perhaps it is best to adopt a spiritual practice that seems akin to the way that some Native Americans bless a meal.  We routinely say grace at my house, and we thank the animals and plants that gave up life that we may live, the farmers and truckers and grocery store staff and all the workers that bring our food to us, the hands that prepared the food, and we ask to be blessed to do God's work by the energy that the food brings us.

--I could do the same thing with every object:  bless the hands along the way that brought it to me and ask that they be protected.

--I cannot grow my own cotton; I cannot even grow my own food.  But I can pray for the ones who provide for me.