Sunday, January 31, 2016

Heteronormative or Transgressive or a Word Yet to Be Invented

Yesterday we were going to meet up at the vintage motorcycle show in Dania Beach.  I would go to spin class and then stop at the park on the way back, which is equidistant between the gym and the house.  My spouse and his brother would ride their motorcycles over.

But our motorcycles wouldn't start.  So my spouse and his brother went to get a battery charger and set the bikes to charging.  We ate burgers and waited.  Eventually, the batteries charged, and my spouse and his brother went off--this time, successfully making it to show.  I stayed home to grade the work of my online classes.

Once that task was done, I picked up the latest book from my stack of library books, Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts.  The first several pages almost made me put the book right back down, but I persevered, and I'm glad I did.  It's a fascinating book, full of reference to critics and works that I read once upon a time, but haven't for decades (think Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler).  She's thinking/writing about gender in a way that feels groundbreaking, but that's probably because I'm not around people who are doing much of that--I still have to explain more than I think I should why I call my partner my spouse and not my husband, why I refuse to use gender when I refer to God.

At one point in the afternoon, I thought that I haven't seen the word heteronormative show up in a piece of writing so many times in the same hour--well, maybe ever, but certainly not since reading those books of critical theory that seemed so important in the late 80's and early 90's--so important, so often barely readable.

It was interesting to read this material against the backdrop of my own heteronormative afternoon--men off to a motorcycle show, woman left behind to deal with teaching tasks.  It's interesting to think about transgressiveness of all types; I think of the reactions in the spring when I told people about our motorcycle adventures, and I found myself quoting Whitman:  "I contain multitudes."

It's an interesting time to be alive, in the year after the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage more widely available--and how many of us stopped to wonder if that's what we've been fighting for all along?  After all, as a much younger feminist, I could have told you all the ways in which marriage was a patriarchal trap.  As an older feminist, I'm the first to tell you that my younger self was correct in many ways, yet also wrong.

We haven't done much reimagining of our primary units--when we say family, what do we want that to look like?  How would we need to redesign our living spaces?  How would our work lives change?

The most transgressive time of my life so far was when I lived with my spouse and 2 other adult housemates.  We lived in the Charleston, SC area, back in the early 90's, when it was much more conservative than it is now.  Most people simply couldn't fathom why I would want to live in that type of community, when I had no blood connection to the other 2 adults who weren't my spouse.

When I think about the most transgressive element, here's what bubbles up:  we ate dinner together almost every night for the first several years of living together.  Or maybe it's the vacations that we took together.

Transgressive and yet so very normal. 

I remember in 1992 when a friend at work said, "I am so tired of hearing about people's sex lives.  Tell me about your financial life--that's truly transgressive."

Except that she probably didn't use the word transgressive.  I'm the only one I know who uses the word transgressive on a regular basis.

There's something about the work of Nelson that takes my mind to the early books written by Susie Bright.  I always wondered if Bright wrote about real people--it was hard to tell if they were composites, if people could really live those kinds of lives.  How did they pay the rent?  While they were smashing the patriarchy and reinventing lesbian sex, how did they decide what to have for dinner?

I haven't finished reading The Argonauts, but I imagine Nelson's work will be short on those kinds of details too.  She's very coy about the gender of her partner, Harry Dodge, for example.  I've spent more time than I want to admit zipping around the Internet, trying to solve these puzzles.

In the course of my research/nosiness, I came across the Susie Bright's blog, which is so much like those early books of hers that I loved so much, those books about truly transgressive women, or so I thought back when I didn't realize how transgressive it might be to have dinner every night with people who shared your space.  I was saddened to read that Honey Lee had died.  I loved reading about her photography, what she hoped to accomplish, what she did accomplish; you can read it too by going here, but be warned, the pictures involve nudity in a way that seems more explicit (dare I say transgressive?) than some of the more common nudity that we see so much these days.

Here are some of the works that have inspired me this morning.  I loved this interview with Nelson at the Bookslut site.  Here's a great quote:  "Sedgwick herself has written movingly about how knowledge is not something one gains once and then moves on, but rather something one knows and then forgets, and then re-knows differently, and then re-knows or re-forgets again, and so on. The latter process is far more interesting, intellectually and spiritually."

I also enjoyed this interview with Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn at Bomb magazine.  It makes me want to do interesting things with film and grateful that there are others who do those interesting things. 

Now I must get ready for my own transgressive Sunday:  I'm headed off to church to lead voting on the church budget.  Unpack that statement!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Writing Report: Month 1, 2016

The month of January has just zoomed by.  Every week seems to just zoom by, so I'm not surprised that the month, too, feels zippy.

Let me take a minute to check in on my writing goals.  I spent the morning preparing two submissions to possible agents, so I have that on the brain--I was motivated to actually send those queries out because my goal is to send out 3 queries to agents each month as I work towards getting my memoirish book of essays published.

I have done a good job of submitting other individual works to journals this month.  I've also done a good job of writing new work:  I finished one short story and started another, and I've written at least two poems each week.

I'm intrigued by where I find ideas for poems.  Yesterday, I sent a poem to the Via Negativa site because it was inspired by two poems that were posted earlier on the site.  If you go here, you can read the poem, which seems an interesting combination of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday themes.  You can also find links to the poems that inspired my poem.

I've also picked up my Jesus-in-the-world series again.  So far this month, I have sent Jesus off to work on political campaigns in advance of the Iowa Caucuses and off to Fashion Design school.  Jesus does not do so well at Fashion Design school.

Here we are, the week-end before the Iowa Caucuses, the week-end before Groundhog Day, the week-end before Candlemas, the feast day on Feb. 2 that marks the true end of Christmas in some Christian traditions (for more on that holiday, see this post on my theology blog).  In honor of the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, here's a stanza from one of this month's poems:

Jesus understands this fever dream,
the appeal of those outside the Establishment
who dream of establishing Empire.
The scars on his hands and side throb
slightly, as they always do when the weather turns.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Simple Joys: a Cup of Tea, a Petit Four, and Friends

--A friend had leftover petit fours, so she brought them to the office, where we enjoyed them with our afternoon tea.  She asked me to take the rest of the package, since she's not supposed to eat them.  Of course I was happy to help this way.

--On my way to the office, and then later, on the way home, I was stopped by several people who said, "What are you carrying?"  I said, "Petit fours.  Would you like one?"  And of course, the answer was "Yes."

--I have this vision of a performance piece kind of art, where I carry plastic packages of petit fours to various locations and see people's reactions.  Would it be art or sociology?

--It's an easy way to spread joy, these little cakes.  They're small enough that we can eat one without guilt.  They're rich enough that we might be able to stop with just one.

--I think back to grad school days, when we'd go to The Fresh Market, which had a great mix of extravagant products that we could never afford, fresh produce that was reasonably priced, and bulk products.  We would treat ourselves to petit fours, which cost a quarter a piece.

--I want to remember how simple joy can be:  a cup of tea, a petit four, time with friends in the middle of a work day.

--And I've had more profound joys:  we've got big changes coming in the way we do English--we're adding a mandatory lab component, which means that faculty will be spending 5 hours a week with students, not 3.  Our department's full-time English faculty have been good-spirited about it and helped to figure out the logistics.  I feel supremely lucky.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

Thirty years ago this morning, the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  I happened to be in a car and heard the news on the radio.  It wasn't until hours later that I saw the footage.

It was a different time, with many fewer televisions.  I lived in a college dorm, and very few of us had our own TV sets.  TVs were expensive back then.  You wouldn't mount them around a waiting area in multiple sets.  You wouldn't mount them at all, because they were heavy and bulky.

I think of how much news I've gotten from the radio.  On September 11, 2001, I was listening to NPR before I headed off to teach at the University of Miami.  I assumed a plane had gotten off course, and headed to the car.  It was as I made the long drive down I 95 that I heard about the second plane and  third plane at the Pentagon.  I kept driving, although I was tempted to drive home.  I didn't see the towers collapse in real time.  I was still in the car.

In many ways, I'm glad for the times that I heard the news on the radio and then saw the footage later.  I had time to process the news before seeing the pictures that would haunt me for the rest of my life.

I didn't hear President Reagan's speech in real time.  Have I ever heard the whole speech?  I can't remember.  I do remember chunks of it, so I looked it up this morning.  It's an amazing piece of writing.  Reagan was blessed with some wonderful speech writers, like Peggy Noonan, who wrote the speech that he delivered after the loss of the Challenger.

The whole text of the speech can be found here.  It's a masterful work, from the beginning to the end.  He talks directly to the family members of the crew and the other NASA workers.  He talks to the nation's schoolchildren, who would have been watching when the first civilian teacher in space was lost.  He talked to the nation, with stirring words about exploration and the continuation of what's been started.

I continue to be in awe of the conclusion of the speech:  "The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

It's a speech that both inspires and comforts, an interesting rhetorical task.  It makes me think of various writing assignments that I might give to my students, if I was creating writing assignments.  It would be interesting to read the speech on paper, and then to see the footage.

It would be interesting to task students to create a piece of writing that strikes the perfect notes in the perfect combination, notes of comfort and courage and inspiration. 

I wonder how many of my students would be familiar with this incident.  How many of them would have opinions about Ronald Reagan?  I'm certain that most of them wouldn't know the speech.

It's hard to believe how long ago Reagan gave that speech.  It's the kind of event that makes so many people wistful for the politics of long ago.  We forget that the politics of those times were ugly too.  But tragedy does have a tendency to make us forget our differences, if only for a moment.

Today I'll move through my mundane life, the surly bonds that keep me tethered.  I'm old enough now that I'm grateful for those bonds.  I'm hoping that my loved ones also stayed anchored to this earth for awhile longer.  I'm grateful for days when those bonds are not blown to bits.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Dickens and Me: Literature from an Alien Homeland

I have just requested my copy of Hard Times from the public library.  One of my friends at work was reading A Tale of Two Cities and loving it.  She talked about how she wished I was reading it too so that we could discuss it.  I suggested doing that with a different book, and that's how I have come to be putting a hold on the book at the website of the public library.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that I am first in the hold queue.  What?  You mean that no one else wants this book? 

I was surprised at how many different copies the library has.  I chose the Norton critical edition.  I want something that will be easy on my eyes, with the luxurious paper that Norton uses.

I first read Hard Times in undergraduate school--probably for a Victorian Literature class.  I remember writing a paper about it--or do I?  Once I would have been able to tell you exactly what I wrote, the thesis and the main points and the outside works I used.  Of course, that's 30 years ago now that I first read the book and wrote about it.

My first Dickens text was A Christmas Carol in the 8th grade.  We had to read it for class, but I was happy to do it because I loved the TV versions.  I remember loving that text and trying to read Great Expectations, which was on my parents' bookshelf.  I couldn't get through it as an 8th grader.

Hard Times was the next book, in undergraduate school, and then I read Bleak House and Oliver Twist in grad school.  When I first taught the second half of the British survey class, I assigned Hard Times.  I thought that students might relate to the education issues in the book.  When Norton included the complete text of Frankenstein in the anthology, I switched to it, and students liked it better.  When I taught an undergraduate section of Victorian Lit, I assigned Oliver Twist.  One class loved it, and one class was indifferent.

I haven't read Hard Times since 1993 or so, and I haven't read any Dickens at all since 2001.  I'm looking forward to returning to Dickens, and I'm thrilled that my friend will be reading it too.  She'll do the audio book, and I'll read the paper copy.

I miss many aspects of grad school, but what I miss most is the reading community.  If I read a book for class, there would be at least 12 other people reading it too.  I sought that kind of community by forming a book group a few years ago, but it was frustrating because we all liked such different books.  I have so little reading time that I don't want to read books that aren't important to me.

And yet, I remember the group fondly, and I don't really regret the books that didn't appeal.  They were important in their way too.  Maybe it's time to form a new group.

Or maybe it's good to proceed with a simpler plan, a reading partner who loves British Lit as much as I do.  If I didn't have my friend at work, it would be a lonelier place.  She's the one who understands this strange passion for literature from a homeland that isn't mine, literature from an alien homeland.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lenten Resolutions

Yesterday, I went to this wonderful website to think about coloring my way through Lent.  If you'd like to try something similar, this part of the website will give you templates to download.

And then, startled, I realized that Lent is just 2 weeks away.  I'm not quite ready to accept the fact that Christmas is over, and now it's time for Lent.  It seems like such a short time ago that I was reading my way through Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Lent.  And now it's time to begin again.

I just made my New Year's Resolutions/Plans--now it's time to think about what I might do for Lent.  For possibilities, see this post on my theology blog.
This year is already zooming by.  Sigh.  And January is almost over.  If I'm going to fulfill my plan of sending out 3 queries a month to agents and publishers, I need to get started.  I've done a good job of writing new material and sending out material.

In terms of my other goals, I'm doing a mostly fine job.  I have read my 2 books and my volume of poems for January.  I've eaten a good amount of fruits and veggies.  I've done more strength training and more teeth brushing.  I'm feeling more connected than disconnected.  I've not gone in the pool at all.  It got cold, and it's hard to make myself take that plunge.

I've been thinking about how my plans go astray.  At what point in the year do I get off track?  It's often tied to work upheaval, at least since 2012.  That knowledge has spurred me to do more in these weeks where I'm not feeling overburdened.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Musings by and about the Fireplace

My sister lives in Maryland, where they have wintry weather most years.  I live in South Florida, where the lowest temperature I've ever seen was 38 degrees, and that was once since 1998.  We usually get a week or two of chilly weather, with one or two nights when the low dips to 45 degrees.

I have a fireplace in my house, and my sister does not.  My house is on the first plat map of Broward county.  I think of that person(s) who built these first houses here.  Did they not understand the climate?  Were they so dependent on fireplaces back home that they couldn't imagine not needing one?  Was the climate different then?

The system that brought the blizzard to the east coast has also brought us some cold weather.  So last evening, my spouse suggested a fire.  But all our wood was wet from the record amounts of rain that we got on Friday.

Off I went to the grocery store, while my spouse stayed home to complete his mandatory training sessions at one of the schools where he teaches Philosophy.  I picked up some good deals on food and coffee, and 4 bundles of wood at $5.49 each.

I tried not to think about the rural areas of South Carolina where I've lived, where I could have picked up a bundle of wood for free, where I could have bought a cord or a truck load of wood for not much more than I spent last night.

We had a fire in our fireplace that has no damper.  It seems to work just fine, despite not having a damper.  Is that a design feature or a flaw?

I thought of past years, long ago, when a grad school friend would occasionally find an apartment that was part of an older house, an apartment with a fireplace.  I remember envying them, writing their grad school papers by the fire--meanwhile, I shivered in my meager grad school digs.

I thought of the changes of our approach to the fireplace at our annual family gatherings at Lutheridge.  We used to have the fireplace going across the week-end.  But now, with 7 little children, we haven't had a fire in almost a decade.  Those sharp-edged stone hearths frighten the parents, and the children get into enough trouble without a fire going.  We've also noticed that we all breathe better without a fire burning.

Last night, we did no work beside the fire.  We sat with our backs to the TV, enjoying music and wine and the chance to unwind.

Today as I move through my day, I'll try to take the spirit of last night with me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Snow Day in South Florida

A week ago, we'd be about to see sleet changing to snow outside of my parents' windows in Williamsburg.  And now, the eastern seaboard has had a monster blizzard that has probably smashed some records.

Yesterday afternoon, I drank hot mulled cider while I viewed other people's pictures of snow on Facebook.  It was not exactly the same as watching the snow outside of my own window (or my parents' window, like last week), but it was nice.

Let me record a few of the inspirations and memories that came from reading Facebook posts:

--Upon seeing my cousin's daughter in an apron and the idea that she wants to be a baker when she grows up, I wrote, "Lots of yeasted bread recipes leave lots of room for error and yield impressive results--and opportunities for everyone to knead the dough! Let me know if you want some easy recipes. Maybe we could even do some sort of baking-together-but-apart kind of thing, where we all bake the same recipe (and if it might be tricky, are on call for each other) and post our results."

--This post has made me think about creating a cookbook for kids--and with the angle that families that are separated could cook together.  Stay tuned!

--That post led me to reflect on my own development as a baker.  I  started out with biscuits and cookies, and eventually made my way to homemade breads of all sorts.  I often made biscuits on Saturdays while the rest of the house was sleeping.  In some ways, my life hasn't changed much from my childhood self.  I still get up very early and get to work on creative pursuits while the house sleeps beyond me.

--Even now:  I have 2 pans of raspberry oatmeal streusel bars in the oven, one with nuts, and one without.  At church, in our smaller, more interactive service, we'll celebrate January birthdays.  And then I'll take leftovers to work tomorrow to greet our new registrar.  There should be enough to share with everyone else.

--These bars, fresh from the oven, make a great breakfast.

--On Facebook, there was also some discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, which many of us agree was our favorite of the series.  I wrote:  "I was an Apocalypse Gal from the very start of my reading life."

Yesterday down here at the southern tip of the U.S., we got no snow, but it was cold and windy.  We went to the beach with my spouse, my brother-in-law, and his wife and went to the organic brewery--we had a lovely meal of various appetizers (sweet potato fries and fried octopus and guacamole) and pizza.  Then we walked on the beach itself and collected shells.  I so rarely walk on the sand. 

There was a Canada festival at the beach--lots of tables and several bands that were playing.  Noisy, but fun--but the wind made it very miserable at times.  I was glad to be back home and out of the wind.  We played some cards and called it a night.

All in all, a lovely--but untraditional!--snow day.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Saturday Snippets: Weather and Writing Feedback

--I have been enjoying people's Facebook pictures of snow and sleds and cozy fireplaces.  I am all too happy to admit that although the pictures make me feel a bit wistful, I am glad not to have to deal with snow.

--We had record rainfall amounts yesterday.  I got soaked several times yesterday as I made my way through errands and parking.

--I had a good day for writing feedback--in the morning, I met my writer friend for our short story exchange--she's writing a remarkable series, and I always look forward to seeing what she does with the theme.  She always delights in my work, so it's a treat in many ways.  I know that I wouldn't have written as many short stories as I have in the past few years if we didn't have these reading/writing commitments to each other.

--She's currently reading A Tale of Two Cities and in love with Dickens again.  I suggested that we both read Hard Times next.  I looked at my bookshelf, and while I have hung onto many volumes by Dickens, and while I have had several versions of Hard Times, I no longer have even one.  Happily, it should be easy to find a copy.

--In the evening, I found out that I didn't win one of the book contests to which I sent my collection of poems.  But I got a wonderfully encouraging note from the editor.

--I have often wondered if I'm just fooling myself, if my manuscript isn't as ready as I think it is (and often, my thoughts spiral down from there).  But yesterday's note made me feel my manuscript is in good shape, and that eventually, it will find a home.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Zombie Snow and Other Weather Inspirations

As usual, the weather is distracting me--no, not the weather where I live--that's thankfully somewhat boring.  I am driven to distraction by this snow/blizzard event that's likely to sweep through much of the East today.  So, let me record some fragments that may or may not be useful later.

--Upon news that DC will not be running the Metro system over the week-end, one of my Facebook friends posted:  "Wow. Is this the zombie apocalypse and they're just not telling us!?"  I wrote: "Zombie snow--now that would be an interesting movie! Or maybe a poem . . ."

--Rain taps at our windows down here.  I wrote this note on the fridge:

Chili tonight?
You could eat heavy,
I could eat light.

--I thought of that William Carlos Williams poem about the plums so cold in the fridge.  I'm not sure I can create something so crystalline, so perfect, and yet so oddly unsatisfying to so many generations of students.

--I loved this pairing of paintings and Luisa Igloria's poems in Mud Season Review.  How I love the poetry of Luisa Igloria--but I discovered her after I stopped teaching classes where I have control of the curriculum.  There are many poets whom I love, and I have no idea how students would react to their work.
--Here's a great interview with Jhumpa Lahiri; she talks about moving to Italy and teaching herself Italian--and then reading and writing exclusively in that language.  She's just published a memoir which sounds fascinating.  But then, I'm always attracted to stories of creatives and their processes.

--For those of us who might feel sad when we compare Lahiri's success to our own, consider what she says in this quote:  "The other day, I pulled down off my shelf all the little journals I published in 20 years ago, like AGNI or New Letters or StoryQuarterly. I felt like they’re sacred. With all due respect, no shelf full of The Lowland will ever give me that emotion. Because those were the things that felt like miracles. You wanted to publish that? I wasn’t paid, three people read them, I made like five photocopies and gave one to my parents and one to my friend and one to my writing teacher, and that was it! Nobody knew who I was and nobody cared and nobody commented on it, and it wasn’t reviewed. This whole experience—going to Italy, living in Rome, learning a new language—I’m keenly aware of some fundamental desire to go back to some kind of beginning place."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

If Jesus Worked on a Political Campaign

On my way to work yesterday, I heard this story on NPR about the people who have given up their regular lives to work for Ted Cruz campaign.  Some of them are no doubt retired.  But I was struck by the one man who gave up his job for the chance to work on the campaign.  I was even more intrigued by the woman who sounded so breathless with wonder at the fabulousness of her candidate.

I felt a swirl of emotions.  My first thought:  I have never felt this way about any candidate ever, that I would give up a full-time job to work for a candidate.  Part of me felt sad about that--but a larger part of me was thankful for my groundedness that helps me to realize the folly of placing all my trust and hope in the political system.

I thought of the yearnings that people have, on full display here:  that yearning for deliverance, for a Messiah, and for a vision of a future that could be better.  And of course, my mind went other places, and it's not too far a stretch for a brain like mine to think about other messiahs, other scenarios.

I thought of my resolution to write one Jesus-in-the-world poem per week, and I knew that I had my subject for the week.  This morning, I wrote a first draft--hurrah!

It's been a good writing week:  I've written 2 poems this week, I've written blog posts of all sorts, I've sent packets of poems out to journals, and I've done some revisions.  I've also spent some time reading some of the short stories that I wrote in the past few years, since I also submitted a story or two.  I've been doubly pleased, because it's been a week where I also had some grading to do, and of course, the ever-present administrator week.  In short, I've felt balanced in ways that I don't always feel.

Hopefully I can maintain that balance for the weeks to come.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Computer Systems, Agreeable and Not

--The computer models seem to agree:  the mid-Atlantic to Northeast states are likely to be walloped by a winter storm of perhaps historic proportions.  I'm glad we're not travelling this week-end.

--Of course, even if we had plane tickets, we likely wouldn't be travelling.  I remember the last time that there was a storm of historic proportion scheduled, and I had plane tickets.  The airline cancelled them 4 days in advance.  I thought about trying to figure out another way to get to the DC area for the retreat I was supposed to lead, but I quickly realized that if the airline was convinced that the weather would be so dreadful, that I should submit.

--The retreat was cancelled, and had I gotten in the car and driven, I'd have been stuck there for a week.

--In the meantime, computer systems that aren't agreeing are giving me fits.  I teach online classes at 2 colleges.  At one of them, I'm trying to sign a contract.  I can download it and sign it, but I can't get it back up to the SharePoint site.  It's maddening.

--I don't understand why switching browsers often solves problems.  It likely won't solve the contract issue I'm having, but it's next on my list of things to try.

--I've spent a lot of time on this--it would have taken less time for me to drive it to the HR office.

--But let me think about how miraculous this all is, how much can be done, usually, from the comfort of my desk chair.

--I made several submissions of poetry packets yesterday, all of which went well, and only one of which required a stamp.

--I also graded a batch of student work--all of it submitted via a computer system, which I could then grade via that system.  Amazing.

--But I also had some great offline experiences.  After work, a group of friends I've had for awhile met at a restaurant on the water.  It was too chilly to sit on the covered deck.  It was almost too chilly to sit inside--it's the kind of place where the sliding glass doors are kept open.

--But we persevered.  I was glad that I had worn an extra layer.

--And now for another day of chill, another day of winter clothes that I rarely wear.  We'll keep our eyes on all our computer systems, as we report final numbers of students, as we watch markets around the world, as we prepare for whatever weather is coming our way.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Strange Weather, Good Books, Fine Fellowship

We are back from a whirlwind trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, where my parents live.  My sister, brother-in-law and nephew came down from Maryland, and we celebrated a late Christmas.  Plane flights are so much cheaper before and after the two weeks around Christmas.  And I like stretching the season out.

I had kept my eye on the weather, but I certainly wasn't expecting this snow that came on Sunday.

The weather report called for highs around 70 on Saturday and 19 on Monday, so I knew some sort of system would be moving through.  But there was no mention of snow.

Still, it was lovely.  We sat by the fire and watched the snow, and then we bravely went out to church. 

And then we had brunch and then more hours of sitting by the fire and watching the snow.

My sister had been working out at the gym, and she told us about the storms that had swept across South Florida in the wee hours of Sunday morning.  Our friend who lives in the back cottage posted some pictures, like this dramatic one:

Yes, that's a chair in the pool along with the palm frond.  Amazingly, the chair is OK.  There was no mention of the threat of this kind of weather when we left Florida.

Against this backdrop of strange weather, I read a pair of apocalyptic books, both set in the U.S. west, both in times that seem like they're just around the corner, not far away.  I started with Claire Vaye Watkins' Gold Fame Citrus, which was compelling and poetic, but seemed to just fizzle towards its ending; by the end, I hated almost every character.  Karl Taro Greenfeld's The Subprimes was both savage and funny and satiric, and I liked the characters better.

The ghost of John Steinbeck haunts both books, as does the shadow of Stephen King's The Stand and the vampire series of Justin Cronin.  I continue to be intrigued by the apocalyptic visions set in the desert southwest--are they different than apocalyptic visions set elsewhere?  If I was a graduate student, perhaps I'd write a dissertation.

But as I am a woman at midlife without the time to write what really tugs at me, I'll leave that literary analysis to others.  It was wonderful to sit and read, and to have time to be with my family.  It was a quick week-end, as we arrived Saturday morning and left on Monday--no time for sightseeing or shopping.

In so many ways, it was the perfect end to the Christmas season--a chance to pause, to be together, to remember what really matters.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Dreaming Boldly on MLK Day

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

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

At one point, having this day declared a holiday seemed an impossibility.  I remember the first year the nation observed it.  It was a much more quiet holiday in the 80's than it is today.  And as I said, now, a black president.  Social change often seems slow, downright glacial--and then, we zoom ahead.

May we always be moving ahead.  History also shows us that we can slip behind.

But let me also remember King's approach to history.  In 1996, when I was feeling despair, my friend Shannon gave me my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm fairly sure he said this the night before he was killed, or perhaps it was the night before the night he was killed.

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

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

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

And we have to be patient and realistic.  We have to realize that the work that we do may not yield results right away--perhaps not in our lifetimes.  This episode of On Being featured an interview with John Lewis, an old Civil Rights worker and a member of Congress.  He ends the interview this way:  "Well, I think about it, but you have to believe there may be setbacks, there may be some disappointments, there may be some interruption. But, again, you have to take the long, hard look. With this belief, it's going to be OK; it's going to work out. If it failed to happen during your lifetime, then maybe, not maybe, but it would happen in somebody's lifetime. But you must do all that you can do while you occupy this space during your time. And sometime I feel that I'm not doing enough to try to inspire another generation of people to find a way to get in the way, to make trouble, good trouble. I just make a little noise."

Today is a good day to think about how to make that noise--and to think about the next generation.  History will bend in some direction:  how can we help it arc towards justice?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Arcing Towards Justice

In 1996, when I was feeling despair, my friend Shannon gave me my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm fairly sure he said this the night before he was killed, or perhaps it was the night before the night he was killed.

What a hopeful image. It inspired this poem, which was published in The Evening Reader, a beautiful literary journal published on newsprint (and the size of one of those newspapers that are often offered for free around cities). Since it was published in Newberry, S.C., it didn't have much of a wide-reaching distribution. Still it was one of my first publications as a grown up poet, so I shall always feel fondness for it.

Here's the poem, in all its youthful exuberance:

Arcing Towards Justice

Martin Luther King said that the arc
of history is towards justice,
and I must arc
towards justice as well:
ignore the politicians who would leave
children to starve
and adults to rot in prisons.
Some days I slump towards despair;
I don’t believe I can even save
myself, much less others.

Like Harriet Tubman, I cannot tarry
long in the swamps of despair.
I must go back, stretch out my arms, ferry
others to safety:
teach them to write, to analyze,
to dream the world they would want to inhabit.
I must teach them not to suckle
on the hatred spewed
by scared, old, white men
who are losing power, and so spurt poison.

I can build an ark of activism
for the diaspora of the dispossessed,
a sanctuary where we wait
for the old, white men to choke
on their own vituperative, vindictive vitriol.

We won’t even have to remove the mantle
of authority from their cold corpses.
It has been ours all along, from the moment
we claimed it as our own,
decorated it with our own bright threads,
chose our own best ways to wear our multi-hued
mantles, beacons to gleam and glitter
in the dark days of exile,
like comets arcing through the skies,
lighting the way home,
as a legacy of hatred burns
into harmless, intergalactic dust.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Martin Luther King Quotes with Mepkin Abbey Images

"The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." 

“Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”  

“Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”  

“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Consolations in a Week of Heavy Losses

It has been a week of heavy losses:  David Bowie on Monday, Alan Rickman yesterday, and the lesser-known losses, like the poet C.D. Wright (for a great tribute, see this post).  Many of my work colleagues are  working through a wide variety of issues, and Facebook friends across the nation struggling with personal losses.  The stock market has been in a spiral, and there's talk of contagion and recession.

The weeks after the de-Christmasing of the house and neighborhoods always seem hard, but this year seems tougher than usual.  I try to stay on the bright side.  For example, yesterday I wrote this Facebook post:

"God must be planning an amazing celestial production to need the talents of both Alan Rickman and David Bowie. I'll be keeping my eyes open!"

And then I thought of all the ways I'd just exhibited crummy theology, so I wrote this:

"And of course, just to be clear, I don't believe in a theology that says that God sends the Angel of Death to take us because we're needed in Heaven. With a more tongue-in-cheek post, I'm just trying not to let Despair crush me this week with the loss of so many great talents: Bowie, Rickman, and the poet C. D. Wright."

I have tried to use these losses as a reminder to be more present, and also, to get on with the stuff that's important.  For years I soothed my anxiety by reminding myself that I had plenty of time.  Well, we may not have plenty of time.

And yet, I can become panicked and frozen by that fact if not careful.  I want to remember what can be accomplished even if I only have small bits of time.  I want to inject creativity throughout the day, since I rarely have huge swaths of time. 

I began the day by working on a poem.  In the afternoon, I created some poetry packets for submissions to journals, a different kind of creative endeavor.   Last night my spouse and I made a pot of collaborative chili with the leftovers of last night's dinner.  It simmered while we watched some evening TV.  We'll eat it tonight--I'll look forward to it all day.

I finished the day by reading Matthea Harvey's If the Tabloids Are True, What Are You?  Actually, I looked at the pictures and the erasure poem, more than actually reading her book.  What interesting directions she has taken!

I thought again of David Bowie, who took such interesting twists and turns with his art, and Alan Rickman, who is most famous for his villains, but showed such a tender side in Sense and Sensibility.  I like these reminders that we can reinvent ourselves and our art.

Yes, life is short, but our creative endeavors will keep us nourished throughout--that's a consolation in a week of heavy losses.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Of Poems and Powerball

--One of the winning Powerball tickets was sold in Florida.  My spouse bought some tickets in Florida.  I have not looked up the precise location of the sale.  In some ways it's fun to dream. 

--But the work still must be done, whether I am worth my current bank accounts or Powerball winnings.  My true worth is measured in other ways:  was I kind?  Did I write?  Did I lend my talents to the world of light or the world of darkness?

--And so, I went back through my blog posts, looking for inspiration for a poem.  In this post, I came across this sentence:   "I'm going to write one of my Jesus in the world poems at the rate of one per week (for an example of this kind of poem of mine, see this blog post)."

--How often did I do this after returning from the September women's retreat?  Precisely never.  So I've added it to my list of what I hope to accomplish this year.

--And this morning, I wrote a poem about Jesus coming to the holiday cookie swap.  No need for multiplying of food at a cookie swap.  What other miracles might Jesus perform?

--For 2016, I'm keeping a paper log book with weekly updates.  I'm hoping that this form of journaling will help keep me on track.

--I have a poem on the Via Negativa site; go here to see it.  It's another poem inspired by both recent events and the story adjacent to the Epiphany story, the fleeing of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of King Herod.  Here's my favorite chunk of the poem:

Others rely on maps or GPS devices,
but we travel with a different
sort of celestial directions.

--When you're done with the poem, scroll down to notice that I've created an avatar.  I used the gravatar site, and it was remarkably easy.  I was impressed with myself all out of proportion to the amount of difficulty in the task.

--Here we are at dawn's first light, albeit cloud-covered--no news crews are camped out at my curb.  I'm guessing we didn't win.

--So let me submit some work to journals while reading periods are still open.  The work must be done.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Fate of the Musical Instruments

My spouse and I spent part of the holidays talking about the musical instruments.  What to do with them?

You might say, "Why, play them, of course."

Once we might have agreed.  Once we moved in and about communities that would have encouraged that:  weekly folk music group meetings, regular retreats, church groups, you know the possibilities.

But now we don't have as many opportunities to play the instruments.  We don't have a house where we can leave them sitting out on the off chance that we pick them up when we find ourselves with 15 minutes of free time.  We don't have much storage space.

And then, there's the larger issue of whether or not we might do good in the world by giving them away.  We've already given some of them to an urban Lutheran church which has a program to try to keep children from being attracted to gangs.

We might give them to that church or we might take them to a retreat center.

How did we come to have all these instruments?  The usual way:  we had some from childhood, some we adopted, some we bought because we saw a good deal or we had an idea that we would learn something new.  We picked up a few along the way because we got them free when we spent a certain amount of money at the big chain instrument store.

We accumulated many of them while my mother-in-law lay dying, a death by medical-industrial complex that took almost four months.  Along the way, I joked uneasily about the buying of instruments as being one of the stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross never discussed.  We spent many an evening shopping for instruments, for sheet music, for a variety of supplies like picks, strings, and cases.

We've sent many of those instruments on to new homes.  It just wasn't practical to have a drum kit set up in the living room.  We didn't need several cheap guitars that we didn't have time to learn to play.

The instruments that are left are harder:  the pair of mandolins that we bought ourselves for a wedding anniversary, the interesting drums that we've picked up on our travels, and the extra violins.  I'm not sure what decisions we will make.

I realize that part of what makes it hard is the same dynamic involved in getting rid of books and getting rid of art/craft supplies:  it forces us to come face to face with past spending and with our hopes that never materialized.  I'm not sure which reckoning is harder.

That's why I like the idea of giving all of them to groups that work for peace and justice.  I want that transformative power.  I like the idea that just because the hopes and plans that I had for me didn't work out, that the musical instrument/books/arts and crafts supplies can help others.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Joy of Soup

I am late to writing.  The early morning rain woke up my spouse, and we decided to make some fish chowder.  We needed to go to the grocery store, and on the way, we filled up the car--between the holiday break and the fuel efficiency of our Prius C, it had been almost a month between fuelings.  Amazing.

So, he will have fish chowder for lunch, and I will have some tonight when I return home after work and spin class.  There's something so comforting about knowing that a bowl of soup awaits one.  He will be at rehearsal with the Broward Chorale--yes, it's time for rehearsals again.  Time zooms on.

One thing that startles me about the death of David Bowie is to realize that he was 19 years older than I am. I think about what was going on in my life 19 years ago, and it doesn't seem that long ago.  I will be 69 sooner than I want to think.

For those of you still wanting to read David Bowie tributes, I recommend this one on the NPR Music site.  But I digress.

There are times when I feel like we've fallen through a hole in time--here we are, still making pots of soup against the chill, still getting ready for our classes, still rejoicing when we find good deals at the grocery store.

But of course, things have changed.  My spouse is smoking the fish with his hand-held smoker--what a fun, little tool.  Last night we took some smoked cheese to a friend's house--delicious.

And now it the rains begin again.  How wonderful to have a pot of soup waiting at the end of any day--but especially a chilly, dreary January day.

And if you want your own free-form chowder, here's what to do, with variations, in case you don't want to go to the grocery store.

Seafood Chowder

If you've got a jar or two of clam juice or lobster juice, put them in a pot.  Add a few cups of water.  My spouse also added some beer--white wine would also be good.  I like these spices:  basil, oregano, a bay leaf or two.  Garlic would be great, as would a chopped onion, sautéed separately in butter.

Dice a potato or two or three or four.  Let them steam/boil in the water.  They don't have to be covered.

Cut some white fish into bite size pieces.  Or use any fish you like, including cans of tuna or salmon.  Shrimp would also be good.  A can of clams would work too.  Add those to the pot.  Bring down the heat so that the liquid simmers.  Add some frozen corn.

Towards the end, add enough milk/cream/half and half to make the soup a chowder.  If it's not thick enough, whisk in some flour.  If it's too thick, add more milk/cream/half and half.  Heat it all to a piping hot temperature, being careful not to curdle the dairy.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Heroes--Just for One Day

I was surprised this morning to hear that David Bowie has died.  I had no idea that he was sick--why would I?  He just released an album, which sounds like it's fabulous.  This podcast made me want to go out and buy the CD right now, except that no stores are open.

I've always been intrigued by David Bowie's ability to reinvent himself--and often to become exactly what the culture needed, but didn't know they needed.

I need that message that I, too, can reinvent myself too--it's never too late to explore different possibilities for my life and my art.  I love the fact that David Bowie spent the last years of his life creating a jazz album that's not only a solid effort, but may well come to be considered a brilliant contribution to the field.

I also admire David Bowie for seeming to stay above societal pressure in his art.  The easy thing would be to do what one has always done, what the fans clamor for, what society expects one to be.  David Bowie rarely bowed to those pressures.

I feel that Bowie's music was part of the sonic backdrop of my youth.  In the 70's, when he experimented with personas and androgyny and different styles (in terms of both music and clothes), I was young and not allowed to watch much TV, so I wouldn't have known about any of that.  But my mom had the radio on throughout the day, and we listened to AM stations which played a wide variety of music--so you might hear "Fame" followed by something by the Eagles and then an old Johnny Cash song then "Space Oddity," and then something from Glen Campbell and then a Beatles song.

And then came the album Let's Dance, which seemed to play throughout my last year of high school.   "Modern Love may be my all-time favorite Bowie song.  Or would it be "Under Pressure," which combines Bowie's talents with one of my all-time favorite bands, Queen?

So many songs to choose from!  I'll take my Best of Bowie CD with me today and listen and mourn. 
I always feel a twinge of sadness when I hear of someone's passing--but when it's someone as talented as David Bowie, the world seems washed in tears.

Years ago, I couldn't get enough of the song "Heroes."  I was reading apocalyptic literature, as I usually am, listening to that song, and this poem emerged.  It has been unpublished until now.

Luxuries Lost

With the ruins
of an industrial city behind
us, we see the sun
shine on this beach of stones.

It pours through the poisonous
haze, and we remember our mothers
who praised the virtues
of fresh air and sunshine,
the cure for all ailments.

We wish for that healing but can’t hold
much hope. We share
the last peach that the planet
will produce, at least in our lifetimes.
You hand me a chunk of cheese.
I pour the last of the wine.

Our kisses taste of luxuries lost.
We strip to our bare skins
to lie on the sun-soaked stones,
ignoring the risks of radiation
seeping into our cells,
to feel this way
one last time.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

All the Ways a Creative Group Inspires

Today, instead of going to church, I will go to be with my quilt group.  My quilt group often inspires unexpected creativity.

For example, last month, our atheist friend had written an amusing piece of fiction in which she imagines she's come to consciousness in purgatory.  At our quilt group, we had a rousing discussion about our different beliefs about what happens when we die.

My atheist friend does not believe in an afterlife.  And yet she wrote a piece about purgatory, which she imagines as a place of endless shoe shopping, which she hates, and having to make small talk with people she despises.

The next morning, I wrote what is probably one of my most favorite things I wrote last year.  My friend wrote from her point of view; I wrote from the point of view of God who was dealing with my friend's wrong perceptions of where she was and what she needed to do next.

She thinks she must earn her way to Heaven.  She doesn't realize that she's already there, but it's her attitudes that hold her back.  It could be worse.  Her attitudes could make her perceive herself as being in Hell.

For more on the theology of it all, and to see a few paragraphs from the piece I wrote, go to this post on my theology blog. 

I need to think about what I want to sew today.  I find it soothing to sew long lines, so I'll probably take some strips of fabric along with some mending.

I hope it is one of those days when we don't get bogged down in talking about school stuff.  I understand the consolation of blowing off steam or puzzling out issues together.

What I'd really like to talk about is some possible alternative futures.  I feel like I've forgotten to dream that way.  I don't want to talk about how we'll limp towards retirement, no matter what the Education Industrial Complex throws our way.  I'd like to talk more about what might bring us joy.

My spouse is coming along--he and the spouse of the atheist will be grilling a brisket for later.

So, we will have sewing, we will have cooking, we will have good food that's already been prepared, we will have good conversation--and with luck, we'll leave inspired!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Let Us Remember to Nourish Ourselves

I got to the end of the work week yesterday with the kind of headache that I don't usually get.  I waited for it to go away, and then took 4 aspirins.  An hour or two later, it was worse--so I took more aspirin.  Happily, since I don't get headaches often these days, I can handle that much aspirin.  And still, my headache receded but didn't go away.

I was also exhausted.  I just wanted to curl up under my desk and sleep.  But there were many meetings yesterday, and so I just slogged on.

Still, it was a week that had many good moments.  Our Tuesday of meetings was broken up with a departmental potluck lunch.  My department brought so much food that we ate it again on Wednesday.

One of our colleague friends brought her famous beans.  She makes them the old-fashioned way, from dried beans that she soaks overnight.  Then she cooks them for hours, and then adds a finely diced jalapeno pepper and a can of petite-diced tomatoes and a diced onion.  Then she cooks the pot some more.

I used to make beans this way.  Perhaps I will again.  I will also always keep cans of beans in the pantry.  For a processed food, they are lightly processed and full of nutrition.  But they are easy-ish to make from scratch.  I should remember this.  I tend to think of lentils as the only bean worth cooking at home (for my favorite lentil recipes, see this post).

I used to make granola by a time-consuming method that involved cookie sheets and long time in the oven, with stirring every 10 minutes.  But Mollie Katzen showed me that there's a better way.  You can make granola in single serve batches or make enough for the week, if you have oats, nuts, and a skillet.

The easiest way is to put long-cooking oats and nuts (quick cooking will work too, but not steel-cut) in a skillet.  Heat the skillet and stir until they toast.  Put in a bowl and serve with milk.  It's good hot or cold.

I also sprinkle some sugar; one could use brown sugar, honey, or any other sweetener too.  I like a sprinkle of cinnamon, along with other sweet spices, like allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.  Ginger gives a nice kick, either dried or grated.  I've put coconut in the skillet with good results.  I've used seeds, like sesame and flax seeds.  I've used dried fruits, like cranberries or currents.

It's a high-carb breakfast, yes.  But they are nutrition-packed carbs.  For those of us who love cold cereal for breakfast, it gives us a less-processed, more nutritious choice--and for many of us, this fiber-filled, protein packed cereal will keep us going longer.

Many of us are already back at work, but the work week will intensify this week, I predict.  So this week-end is a great time to make plans for how we'll have nutritious meals.  Homemade granola is one approach.

And for those of us who want a good lunch, I'd make up a casserole today or tomorrow and eat on it all week.  This post has a great veggie-risotto bake that is amazingly versatile, and this post has a Mexican casserole and a broccoli-veggie cheese soup recipe.

Let us remember to nourish ourselves--good health begins with healthy food.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Keeping the Lights Lit

I confess that I have not put away all of my Christmas stuff yet--all the decorations are packed away, but my little trees that came with lights are still out.  As I drove to church last night for a budget meeting, I was glad to see that some houses still twinkled with lights.

Of course, on a day like yesterday, with bad news from stock markets around the world, it's good to have extra lights as night falls.  I am less worried about the Chinese stock market (most of the world isn't invested heavily in that market), but I am worried that our collective jitters will jounce us right into a recession.

It feels like we've never really left the last recession, but the truth is, if one looks at traditional economic cycles, we are due for a downturn.

But let me not focus on this bad news on a Friday.  Let me instead note that yesterday I spoke to our new students; this was the first time that I was asked to be part of New Student Orientation.  The students paid attention.  They were engaged.  It was a delight to be there with them.

In my capacity as head of the General Education department, I meet many students.  Most of them come through my door because they are upset or because they are in trouble.  Students don't seek me out to tell me what a wonderful experience they are having.

In between, I got a variety of tasks done--in a week of many meetings, it's tough to get the ongoing work done. 

And then, since I was at my desk by 7 a.m. yesterday, I left work at 3, which felt subversive somehow, yet I reminded myself that I put in 8 hours of work.  I came home and made cookies for our Library Committee meeting today.

I won't be at that meeting except to begin it and to hand the baton to the librarian.  Yes, I am double-booked, but I didn't do that to myself.  I have a meeting where we will go over the hiring process.  It's a process that seems byzantine to me, so perhaps this meeting will be useful.

Our budget meeting last night was useful in a different way.  We have moved the discussion of the budget to a different meeting on an evening, and the vote is held on a Sunday.  Perhaps we have fewer people in the church who want to argue over our budget.  Perhaps people are less willing to argue if they have to make a special trip.

I've never understood the need to argue anyway.  It's not like we have any extra money at all to allocate.  We barely cover our bills, and that's about it.  We're also lucky that we don't have to have the wrenching conversations about what to cut.

Last night was the first budget meeting night when no church members came to the meeting.  Therefore, it was a quick meeting.

With luck, today's meetings will also be quick.  And let me also remember that even on days when meetings aren't quick, I often find poem inspirations.

I'm tired right now, so it's hard to believe this will be a day of inspiration.  But many a narrative reminds us that when we are tired, we are more open to that inspiration.

Yes, a good reminder:  let me be open, let me be present.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Epiphany in a Windowless Room Under a Fluorescent Sky

I thought that yesterday was going to be a day of many meetings--it was actually a day that was one long meeting.

During yesterday's meeting, I thought about the fact that it was Epiphany, and I sat in a windowless room under a fluorescent sky.  I composed lines for poems and eventually wrote a sonnet.  It's not a great sonnet, or even a good sonnet, but it kept me steady and focused.  Writing in rhyme and form is an interesting exercise, but not one I force myself to do often.

During our morning break, a colleague friend asked me what I was doing, and I told her.  Then I had to explain what a sonnet is--my English major colleague friends helped, especially when we talked about iambic pentameter.

My sonnet is not in iambic pentameter.  I am not that talented/dedicated/interested.

I thought of a formalist poet friend from years ago.  She would work on a poem for months, crafting every line until the meter was perfect--and it seemed natural.  Mine just seems forced, but that's likely because I only work on it for an hour or an afternoon.

In the afternoon, I sketched angels and vines around the margins of my meeting agenda.  My Culinary colleague friend sitting beside me sketched an angel in profile.  Mine was full on, with a cartoonish face.  My writer colleague friend thought the angel was saying no, because of her o-shaped mouth.  I had intended to show that she was singing, so I sketched some musical notes around her head.

I thought of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"--I titled mine A Very Young Girl with Ragged Wings.  Her wings were ragged, and her gown had layers of ruffles that may or may not have been ragged.

My writer colleague friend asked if I was going to write about her.  My visual artist colleague friend asked if I was going to construct the dress.  I was just filling time during the afternoon meeting and responding to the doodle of my Culinary colleague friend beside me.  I thought about the different responses to my doodle--how intriguing!

I came home and checked through every slide for an online course I'll be teaching and did dishes.  I would have rather had a different 3 Kings celebration, but oh well.  My spouse has been fighting a cold (the cold has been winning), and even if he hadn't, I'm not sure what we would have done differently.

By the end of the day, I had written 2 poems in free verse (one written before I left for school), an unfinished poem in free verse, and a sonnet--plus a series of sketches--all in all, a great day in terms of creativity.  Here is my sonnet:

We stare at our phones and our screens,
no time to search for a star.
We consume information in constant streams,
but wisdom remains afar.

We sit in endless meetings
under a fluorescent sky.
Some look at numbers to determine meanings,
but most don't even try.

We wish for clear direction:
Come to Bethlehem and see.
We hope for resurrection:
Take your family and flee.

But even if the messenger did appear,
we are much too distracted to hear.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany Insights

Today is the Feast Day of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the ways in which the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus is revealed early in the Christ story. More specifically, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men from the East to see and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.

Many of us unChristmas the house the day after Christmas, but the Christmas season extends well beyond December 25.  In fact, we could celebrate not just 12 days of Christmas, but 40 days, until we get to Candlemas on February 2.  I like a season that extends through the colder, darker part of the year.

But back to Epiphany.  The word epiphany in literary circles has come to mean a sudden insight (that's the most simplistic definition).  I spent the early hours of Epiphany morning listening to a discussion with Maria Popova--what an interesting human. Here's a nugget of insight from her:

"Cynicism is the sewage of the soul.   . . . Hope is the counterpoint; intelligent hope is the counterpoint.  Hope with critical thinking is the only antidote to cynicism, and one we very much need."  Maria Popova on NPR's On Point (the episode is here).

What keeps her optimistic?  Her wide range of reading, I suspect.  Popova talks about how she has discovered many writers that she loves by a stray footnote that sent her on a search.

Yes, I remember those days.

She mentioned Ursula K. Le Guin's wonderful book, The Wave in the Mind.  When I went to Popova's post that lists 16 writers and their inspirations for better resolutions for the new year, I saw a picture of the book.  I thought, that looks familiar--I wonder if I already own it.  Sure enough, there it was on my shelf.

Unlike other books on my shelf by Le Guin, this one is unmarked, which makes me think I haven't read it yet.  Amazon tells me that I bought it February 19, 2004.  So I plan to dive right in.

And then I thought, how interesting--once I discovered books I wanted to read by coming across footnotes and references.  Now it's primarily by reading other people's enthusiastic opinions in blog posts or Facebook updates.

And once I went to the library to get the books I wanted.  How strange that they are now on my shelf.  And of course, many articles that people reference I can read online, in the wee, small hours of the morning, when physical libraries are closed.

I've been thinking about epiphanies--we think of them as coming suddenly, but the story of the wise men reminds us that they come as a result of studying the text, whether it be sky or books or cultural wisdom or fellow humans, for years and decades.  Those of us who have yet to see our master works make their way in the world can draw comfort from that.  Those of us who still feel that we are still waiting for our epiphanies may find inspiration in the vision of the wise men, studying the stars for signs and portents.

Today gives us an opportunity to take a bit more time to savor the season before we let go of Christmas entirely.  Have one last cookie or cup of Christmas tea.  Think about how you will continue to infuse sweetness into your post-holiday life.  Think about the twinkly lights and the star that is so central to the Christian Christmas story.  How can you get more light into your life?  What star waits for you to notice and to follow its guidance?  Think about the gifts of the wise men.  What gifts do you need?  What gifts does the world need from you?

Happy Epiphany!  May it be a year of light and a distant star that brings us to Good News.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Poems in the Midst Meetings and Siloes

Today is a day of many meetings--never my favorite kind of day.

In part, it's because these meetings revolve around information that is not new to me.  But I must sit there, patiently, while the more pressing work remains undone--pressing in terms of my priorities, I do realize.

Yesterday I scanned through my e-mails.  I thought, O.K, I'm good for now.  No one found a better job over Christmas break.  No one is in the hospital.  No  one has quit in a huff.

Ah, hubris.  By noon, I got a call from an instructor who has been deleted from the system.  He thought he would not be returning until Spring or later--but then I moved the class so that he could teach it.  We called our sister school in Miami, where he was housed.  We left messages, since their HR person was on holiday.

I'm not sure what happened in the past 2 weeks, and in any case, it doesn't matter.  Now we must go through the whole laborious, hiring process again.  Now my fear is that my instructor will say, "Just forget it."

In my early days as an administrator at this school--and in the 1990's, in a community college in South Carolina--hiring was so much easier.  I understand why some of the changes are good.  It forces everyone to be conscientious.  But it also means that I hire fewer people these days.

So, I will sit in meetings and wonder what problems are arising that I might be able to fix sooner rather than later, if only I wasn't sitting in a meeting.

Let me remember that these days can contain blessings.  Some meeting days, I get a scrap of a poem.  Some meeting days, I get a whole poem--see this post for an example.

I have already written a poem this morning, so in some sense, my most important work of the day is done.  My thoughts have returned to the solitary missile that sits in the Everglades, at the Nike Missile Site which is now a historic landmark

I thought of that missile that once sat in community with other missiles.  I thought of the newer, larger missiles which got siloes of their own.  And now, this one remaining missile sits in a silo of its own.

And yet, it's not lonely.  People like us visit it:

I thought I might write a poem that says more about siloes.  Perhaps that poem will come later today.

Here are the last 2 stanzas of my 11 stanza poem, stanzas which seem prescient in all sorts of ways, in terms of sea level rise, in terms of aging and becoming obsolete (the fate of the missile but also of all of us), in terms of work:

The missile also hears the sea,
once more distant
now creeping ever closer.

But the missile sits,
its fate, as always,
in the hand of others.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The World Returns to Regular Life

In my part of the world, public schools begin again today after a 2 week break.  Those of us teaching college may start classes today or this may be a week of getting ready for those classes.  Those of us who are administrators return too--my hope is that no one has decided to quit in the past two weeks, but if someone must quit, that they do it soon, while I still have time to scramble.

Even those of us who don't have the leisurely breaks of students and teachers are likely coming back to our first full week of work in weeks.  Many of us have had at least one holiday in the past 2 weeks, if not 2.

We return to more sober work places.  Gone are the parties and the decorations and no more plates of holiday treats will be found in our offices.  Many of our colleagues may be more crabby or tired.  Some of us are returning with colds.

I don't have a cold--yet.  My spouse has been fighting off a cold for days, and yesterday and last night, it appears the cold is winning.

I return to work pleased with the things I've accomplished:  I got some writing done, some submitting done, some motorcycle training accomplished.  We took some day trips and saw friends and the family who live nearby.  I had time to see my friend who went to the hospital with a collapsed lung.  I enjoyed events that come only with this holiday:  special church services, looking at Christmas lights, Christmas cookies, that sort of thing.

My guest room is still not organized the way I want it to be.  I still have books that need to be sorted.  I've got mending to do.

I haven't cleaned the house the way I thought I might--but my spouse is going to do some home repair this week, so that's the reason.  We got the pool pump working again.  We planted seeds and bought shrubbery.  Yesterday we washed the motorcycles and the cars--chores we don't do often.

Am I ready to return to work?  In a word, no.  I'd like more time to work on my projects.  I don't know if I'd ever have so much time to work on my projects that I got tired of them and felt ready to return to work.

But I am still happy to have a job with people with whom I truly enjoy working.  I still believe in the field of education, even through the changes that make it more difficult than it used to be (assessment, compliance, HR rules and regulations, record keeping, the adjunctification of the work force, among others).

So, here are my hopes for today.  Let it be a quiet day at work, with no hysterics, no one quitting, no students who feel they have been wronged.  I'd like every day to be a quiet one, but first days back especially.  Let my e-mail inbox be relatively empty.  Let there have been no crises while I have been away.  Let the HVAC system be working so that our moods aren't ugly.  Let us leave our ugly moods aside.

Most of all, let me remember that people are likely to be a bit more fragile today.  Let me treat everyone with great care.

And then, let me be that person every day.  Let me allow bad moods to wash over me and away.  Let me give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  Let me remember that everyone is doing the best they can--and let me be present and available to help.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

In Which an Obsolete Nike Missile Triggers Gratitude

I had an interesting discussion with a friend during our New Year's Day walk.  Talk turned to places where one might move, and she mentioned Orlando.  I said it was too fake for me, a town based on fakeness.  When asked to elaborate, I said, "Well, there's all those theme parks"--to me, the epitome of fakeness.  She disagreed.

I've been thinking a lot about our different outlooks on theme parks and the fakeness/reality of place.  She sees theme parks as a legitimate expression of creativity, and she's right.  I see them as places designed to give me a safe experience while separating me from a lot of my money, while promoting popular films and other vehicles designed to separate me from more of my money and to anesthetize me so that I won't venture out into the wider world.  I'm right too.

We're both right, and we're both wrong, and whole books have been written on this subject.  It's an interesting question in this world where more and more of us live more hours online than we do in what we used to call the "real world." 

Yesterday was one of those days when I had a real experience--and I'm reminded of why lots of people prefer to go to Disney World.  I spent much of the day feeling a bit (or a lot) terrified--and then, exhilarated, educated, intrigued--while circling back again to terrified with stinging rain and shivering leg.  Yes, another motorcycle adventure.

I began the day with my nerves feeling jangled.  I was tired and sad about the end of the holidays.  A very large part of me wanted to stay home, drink wine, and laze about the pool again.  But we had agreed to meet my brother-in-law and his wife for a group motorcycle ride to the Nike Missile Site in Everglades National Park.

I spent the first part of the ride, when it was just me behind my spouse as we zoomed to the Turnpike and down to the meet up place, feeling nauseated with fear, like I had never been on a bike before.  What was that about?  I thought back to SCUBA training, to the caution that even the most seasoned divers can succumb to panic.  I kept focusing on deep breathing, and eventually we got to the meet up point.

The panic returned as we sat in stop and go traffic waiting to get off the Turnpike where it ends.  Grrr.  It occurs to me how much of the past 2 months I've spent sitting in traffic jams/slowness that I didn't anticipate.  I hated the zooming and the stopping, plus the sun was at its hottest beating down on us and the fuel smells were close to overwhelming.

Happily, all of my icky feelings evaporated as we got onto the backcountry roads headed to Everglades National Park.  I love the expansive way I feel as the landscape stretches out into fields and vast skies.

We went to the Nike missile site once we got to the park.  Lots of people, including me, say that South Florida paves over its history (see the discussion of fake--above--I've felt distress about the funkiness of Hollywood Beach, which I first loved so much in 1998, and much of those interesting buildings have been bulldozed for faux-Tuscan condo enclosures and beach resorts with closed off spaces).  It was great to see a piece of preserved history, even though it's history that's barely older than I am.

I had decided not to take my camera, and frankly, the pictures wouldn't have been all that interesting.  We saw a cinderblock building here, a dog kennel there.  One lone missile remained.  It seemed small and lonely, although it had been freshly painted.

Our guide reminded us that the missile was designed to bring down aircraft, not another missile, not to go to Cuba.  But it did have 40 megatons of nuclear fissile material onboard, which was double the amount of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  A commander in his 20s at the site had a letter signed by the president of the U.S. giving him the authority to use whatever means necessary, including that warhead, to protect the nation with no further instructions.  Yikes.

I've seen lots of missiles and other types of weapons, most commonly in museums, like the Air and Space Museum, or on military bases, as a display.  It was fascinating to see it on the site where it would have been used, with the 10 x 12 bunker nearby where the 4 servicemen (gendered term used intentionally) would have hidden once they sent the missile into the air.

What kind of incinerated world would they have emerged back into?

And then, there's the question of sea level rise that's never far from my mind.  At one point, our guide pointed to the plaque that designated the site one of historic significance.  He said, "That means this site will still be here in 50 years when someone younger and prettier than me will be giving this same tour to people younger and prettier than you."  My spouse muttered, "Or it will all be under water."

Again, I had this image of future generations SCUBA diving through the wreckage of our lives.  And it won't just be the southern tip of Florida--much of the edge of the east coast will be under water in the next 100-500 years.  Imagine swimming around Williamsburg and other colonial sites.  Imagine much of Manhattan under water.

But I digress.

We walked around the site for a bit, and then we headed out.  Both bikes were having some trouble starting.  Our bigger bike that we were on (not the slightly smaller bike I've been learning to control) spews gas when being started--not good.  But we made it back.

On the way back, we rode through a brief downpour--the rain on a motorcycle feels like it's stripping off bits of skin--a very stinging experience.  And my lower left leg got more soaked than the rest of my body--and then it started shivering.  Very strange to have just one limb shivering.

I thought back to my discussion of what's real and what's fake.  At a theme park, I could go on a "motorcycle ride"--but it would be a controlled ride.  I could be sure that my bike wasn't going to crash.  I would ride with people similar to me.

Yesterday at the missile site, I was surrounded by all sorts of people:  a variety of motorcyclists, a variety of tourists, more veterans than I would have anticipated, several park rangers.  I was surrounded by buildings of real history, not representations of buildings that were on film or real buildings across the globe.  I saw a real missile.

Of course, we could have a rousing conversation about these points too--was the missile real, even though it was disarmed?  Why should buildings that were actually used at a historic point count for more than representations of those buildings?  My friend and I didn't have  chance to hash out those points on New Year's Day. 

The larger point from history also interests me.  The world was so close to nuclear war at that point in time, from 1962 to 1992.  With so many itchy fingers on so many triggers, what has kept us safe?

Or is safety just the ultimate illusion too, much like those theme parks?

As we rode home, I noticed that my panic had eased, which was strange, in a way--after all, I knew we were on a bike with a hose leaking fuel.  But we've been in many a vehicle that leaked combustibles, and we've lived to tell the tale.  So it is with many a disaster saga.

I breathed in the rain-freshened air and said a prayer of thanks for the atmosphere still above us, the land below us yet to be incinerated or sunk beneath the sea.  And later, I sat down to my supper of turkey and dumplings, I felt much cozier than I would have if I had given in to my impulse to stay home and loll around the pool.

Cozier and luckier.