Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Different Types of Mardi Gras Festivities

Why is Trump addressing Congress on Mardi Gras?  Who decided that was a good idea?

Or maybe it will be a different kind of address, with a jazz band and beads being tossed around.  Nothing at this point will surprise me.

I know that many people aren't clear on why we celebrate Mardi Gras at all--I think back to how many of my students had no idea about how we came to have  Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday or most any other holiday.  They're happy to have a holiday that mandates drinking in the middle of the week.

I was always old before my time--these kinds of public drunkenness holidays make me anxious.

Today is Mardi Gras, and it's also Shrove Tuesday. It's the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins. The holidays of Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras have their roots in the self-denial of the Lenten season. These holidays are rooted in  the fasting traditions of Lent and the need to get rid of all the ingredients that you'd be giving up during Lent: alcohol, sugar, eggs, and in some traditions, even dairy foods.

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

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

I will celebrate Shrove Tuesday by meeting my friend at Panera.  We will talk about writing and other things which delight us.  It's a different kind of Mardi Gras, but it will make me feel festive nonetheless.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Staying on Task: A Variety of Them

When I look back at this week-end, what will I remember?

--We had several times on the front porch--it was lovely.

--At the same time, it's really warm for February--very strange.

--I did a lot of sketching and visual journaling over the week-end (see this post for more details).  Here's my favorite:

--One of my church friends floated the idea of doing something with charcoal sketching during Lent.  I usually sketch during the late service, and I think it intrigues people.  I worry that it might seem disrespectful, but it's a way for me to stay focused during the service.

--We got work done.  My spouse had more to do with his classes, but we both had plenty of tasks.  We also got work done around the house:  taking palm fronds off the roof, pruning the gumbo limbo trees. 

--I had a leftover can of pumpkin, and I did get it made into pumpkin bread before it started to grow mold.  Why does this feel like an accomplishment?  Regardless, it made the house smell wonderful.

--I got a lot of reading done.  After deciding that Margaret Atwood's latest work was not for me, I switched to Tracy Chevalier's At the Edge of the Orchard.  It was a treat--interesting plots, intriguing characters, a pioneer story--several of them, actually.

--I didn't write as much as I thought I might.  I woke up in a sloggy mood on Saturday.  And much of Sunday, I wasn't home.  But that's O.K. because I did more visual art than I would on a usual week-end.  In short, it was a good week-end, in terms of creativity.

--We finished the week-end at the parsonage with a Gospel ukulele meet-up.  As I sat in the parsonage, singing gospel songs, I thought, this is why people want house churches.  I sing better in that setting, surrounded by voices and instruments.  And it's impossible to drift off, the way it is when I'm one of 50 congregation members in a sanctuary designed for 300.

--Today is my sister's birthday.  In tribute, here's the ending of "Goblin Market," by Christina Rossetti:

“'For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands."”

--It's hard to believe how quickly February has zoomed right by.  Onward to March!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Visual Journaling 2017 (So Far)

We've had a good week-end, a catching up on tasks that must be done kind of week-end.  Last week-end was wonderful, but we didn't get much done in terms of the more mundane work, like paying bills, getting palm fronds off the roof, the tasks that come with being a teacher, that sort of thing.

But even with a chore accomplishing week-end like this one, there are soul satisfying moments.  In the late afternoon yesterday, we took a walk to the marina and walked home watching the sun set and the sky changing colors--so beautiful.

And Friday, we had time on the front porch.  My spouse played a variety of instruments while I sketched.  I was still thinking of that Trappist telescope:

And then I went back to a sketch from late January that I hadn't had a chance to finish:

I had written the word Sanctuary and sketched the railroad tracks underneath.  On Friday, I filled in the other spaces.  In later years, let me remember that I was reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.

I started the above piece on the same day that I created this:

It was the week-end that Trump announced his travel bans, and the airports got snarled.  It was the Sunday before the 3 judge panel issued the stay that suspended Trump's plan.  The reading from Exodus had already been planned, and it seemed fortuitous.

On Friday, I also did this sketch, based on a doodling that I had done earlier in the week during a meeting:

I thought about the painting I used to do, the times I had finished a painting and still had some dribs and drabs of paint--not enough to save, but so much that I felt wasteful washing it down the drain.  Some of those small paintings that I made to run out the paint, some of those I like better than the larger painting.

On Friday, obviously I had no paint to use up, but I did finish what I wanted to get done and then had a bit of time.  Thus, the above sketch with birds and eyes.

I've also been going back to look at these entries in what I think of as a visual journal.  I started doing it in April of 2016, and I'm happy that I still continue to make roughly one entry a week.  I'd like to get some additional markers, but maybe I'll experiment with the less expensive ones that I saw in Jo-Ann's.  I like that I'm still playing with color, even if I am not in a painting phase or a fiber/fabric phase.

Today will be another day of getting tasks done--but at the end of the day, there will be ukuleles and a pot luck meal at the parsonage.  I like these days when I can live what feels like a more balanced life:  time for chores and time for creativity.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Catching February

Many decades ago, I kept a separate runner's log--2 of them, in fact.  One was fancy and spiral bound, full of inspirational photos and quotes and an essay at the beginning of each month.  One essay was titled "Catching February."  It was written by the guy who took over the project when Jim Fixx died.

The premise of that essay was that into every runner's life comes a time of February.  It's cold and bleak and downright dangerous to run in February (this was particularly true in the northern states before climate change made some winter months balmy).  The writer talked about returning the running regimen after having "caught a case of February."

On Sunday, I realized that I'm in a time of spiritual February.  Our church has had some deaths lately.  One was an older parishioner who had been in decline, so his death wasn't a surprise--but he was always in good spirits, so he'll be missed.  The other death was a bit of a shock:  a woman who fell and because of the blood thinners she was taking, she bled to death before anyone found her.  I got home and called a grad school friend:  her father, who has suffered from Parkinson's which has gotten much worse in recent years, has entered hospice care and is refusing food and drink.  On Tuesday, her father died.  Sigh.

I feel a sense of February in other ways too.  I'm feeling both disconnected from people, and worse, I'm in that phase that I sometimes experience, where I want to just finish the job of disconnecting, that "burn it down" phase.  I've been resisting this impulse by scheduling time with friends to reconnect and to remind myself that these friendships are important, that my sense of unmooring is partly in my head and partly that we're all working at different places now.

This week, as I've been meeting friends in the evening, I've realized how much driving it now takes to get together with friends.  Thursday was particularly bad--we were meeting at a Ft. Lauderdale restaurant, and I've never seen traffic  so backed up--no accident, so I'm guessing it's seasonal traffic.  As I watched the lights change from red to green to red to green with no movement of the cars, I thought, why did I think this was a good idea?

But I know why.  I need to have a life that is more than going to work and coming home to sleep.

I've had friends who said they admire my faith or my beliefs.  I explain that it's not about faith or belief.  It's about the actions that we do, and especially when we do them during these times of spiritual February.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Trappist Telescopes and Other Inspirations

When I heard about the seven planets discovered by the telescope named Trappist, I thought, what a name for a telescope!  I've spent days thinking about what a monastic order has in common with a telescope and space exploration.

Not one piece of news coverage talked about the name of the telescope, so this morning, I stopped resisting my impulse to look it up.  I had no idea the name was an acronym.  The letters stand for:  Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.

The Wikipedia article says that it was named in homage of the religious order known for brewing beer.  Hmm.  When I think of Trappists, I don't think of beer.  I think of vows of silence and stubbornly enduring fierce landscapes--which makes sense for a telescope.

Yesterday's poem had monastic elements, but not outer space elements:  it compared the life of a mother with a baby and a toddler to the lives lived by monks.  I started thinking about it because of a Facebook friend's post about getting up to feed the baby periodically throughout the night and how the monks get praise for this practice, but not nursing moms.

This morning, I wrote another poem, which had its beginnings last week, before the news of the Trappist telescope and the 7 planets.  The beginning of the poem came to me in an image of an older woman unpacking a box of things from her youth.  What does she find there?  A red cape.

When I sat down this morning, I wasn't sure what else she would find.  She finds a drop spindle and a pot in which she used to prepare porridge.  In that pot, she plants the apple seeds that she finds in the box.  She wears the glass slippers to church, but remembers why she put them in the box. 

This line might be my favorite from this morning's writing:  She feels her feet exhale when she sets them free.

Or maybe this line, from my short story that's written in the voice of an HR director:  "Any time I overhear the tiresome argument about whether or not an Ed.D. is the equivalent of a Ph.D., I think of the other meanings of the word 'terminal.'”

And thus concludes this morning's writing session:  off to school for an early morning meeting to discuss student success and retention and then to continue to audit student files.  But the most important work of the day has already been done.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Good Day's Writing

I finally wrote a poem this morning, a writing session that came easily.  Most of my recent poem writing sessions have started with an interesting idea or image and then just fizzled.

In January, that was O.K, because I was also writing a short story that went in interesting directions.  It was unexpected, and the writing made me happy.

February has felt like a more strangled writing time, with longer hours at work.  This week, as I've done fewer spin classes, I have had more success.   Something to consider for the future?

And then, on The Writer's Almanac, I read about the composer Handel (today is his birthday):  "During Lent of 1735 alone, he produced 14 concerts, most of them oratorios. He also suffered anxiety and depression, and a stroke had impaired the movement of his right hand, but he didn’t stop composing, even after he lost sight in his right eye, and then the left. He composed Messiah in 24 days."

Yes, now I'm feeling inadequate again.  But let me remember the wise words of Beth in this blog post:  "Maybe we don't know what to write or say or paint yet, in this new climate where we find ourselves. That's OK. Practice. Just get back at it. I see it like Zen calligraphy or archery: when we draw, or write a poem every day, or practice our instrument, we are preparing ourselves and honing our technique, so that when the moment comes to express ourselves, we will be ready with words or images that are true and sharp. But even more than that, we're talking about being the people we're meant to be, in spite of what is going on. Each of us needs to do whatever is necessary to be strong enough inside to get through this without losing ourselves, our vision, or our love of humanity and what is most noble about it. We have to be able to say, with our actual actions and the examples of our lives, that it is impossible to suppress or destroy the best parts of the human spirit."

Be who you are--be who you are meant to be.  Wise words.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

February Fragments: Past and Present

I haven't slept as much as I planned--my spouse has been sick off and on with a stomach bug, and last night was tough.

So let me capture some February themed fragments of thoughts:

--I won't be going to spin class this morning.  I want to be here, in case my spouse runs into trouble.

--I've been wondering if I should give up on spin class altogether.  It seems to take a lot of time, what with the drive over.  My little gym used to be on my way to and from work, but no longer.  If I didn't go there, would I enjoy the delights of my neighborhood and my pool more often?

--I feel like I've caught a case of February.  I'll write more about this idea in a later post, but it's basically my more imaginative way of saying "I feel blah."  February used to be cold and dreary, and it was tough to keep going.

--I wonder if this metaphor still holds true.  For this winter, on this side of the U.S., perhaps not.  My Facebook feed is full of people worried about the fact that their flowers are sprouting and their trees are in bud/bloom.  They worry about a freeze.  But maybe there will be no freeze.  Maybe we've had one of those rare winters when the cold weather comes early and then leaves.

--When I trained for a triathlon, back in 1990, it was just such a winter.  January and February were such mild months that it was easy to log long miles on the bike and on foot.  And I was having a tough time in grad school, with a graduate director who seemed out to get me.  It was good to have that release, which in turn gave me determination, as I was able to accomplish new personal bests in my athletic training.

--On this day in 1980, the U.S. Hockey team beat the Soviets.  The U.S. Hockey team was truly an amateur team, while the team from the Soviet Union had age, skill, and experience on their side.  I watched the game, even though as a southern girl, I didn't know much about the game.  I found it inspiring then, and I still do.  I like this reminder that underdogs can win, that amateurs can win, that even though it all looks stacked against you, a win can come at the last minute, or even the last second.

--Do I believe in miracles?  Oh yes I do, miracles of all sorts.

--I'm ready for more of them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dueling Banjos, Dueling Emotional States

Yesterday, while much of the U.S. contemplated Presidents with a day off, I went to work.  Our students, most of them, had the day off (our EMS and Vet Tech students have to accumulate a set amount of hours in some classes, so they had to report to work).  I didn't resent having to work as much as some might think:  I've often worked in schools where we celebrated holidays on a different schedule or not at all.

I interviewed a candidate for our TABE test proctor/tutor position that we need to staff.  I looked at faculty files and did some other tasks for our upcoming site visit.  I plugged along on a variety of projects.

We got notice that parts of our IT system would go down, but I didn't think much about it--it was the Ft. Lauderdale campus that would be affected, after all.  But eventually, we couldn't access parts of our system.  Unlike a few weeks ago, we lost internet access--but unlike a few weeks ago, I could access Word files.  I couldn't print, but I could see the files.

Luckily, I had printed some site visit materials that needed to go into binders--and so, I spent a few hours, making labels for binders, sticking them on the binders, punching holes into the reports, and putting them in the binders.  I was surprised by how much time it takes--which is why I haven't done it before.

I was also surprised by how satisfying it was.  At the end of the task, I had a pile of binders, an obvious sign of work accomplished.

After work, I had a lovely time of wine and cheese with friends, while my spouse taught their daughter to play the ukulele.  On the way home, he was able to pick out  "Dueling Banjos" on the ukulele--it sounds much less threatening on the ukulele than it did in Deliverance.  And then, when we got home, he switched to the mandolin, with every 5th note or so just a bit off--intriguing!  His version was plaintive and yearning and not like the movie at all.

Maybe it was because there was no second instrument with which to duel--how would it sound with ukulele and mandolin instead of banjo and guitar?

I had started the day feeling a bit pinched and anxious about money.  It was good to finish the day in a different emotional state.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Chicken Mole Poblano

A few weeks ago, I went shopping to get ready for the arrival of my college roommate.  I thought we'd make beef stroganoff, in case she didn't like my more daring recipe:  chicken mole poblano.

I first found this recipe in a Cook's Illustrated magazine; it was simplified, but I have simplified it further, as I've experimented.  I couldn't find the dried ancho chiles, so I used fresh poblano peppers.  I have made this recipe on the stovetop and also in the oven.  It's very flexible; you could leave out the raisins, for example.  The recipe would also work with green peppers, although it would have a different flavor--likewise, you might not be able to find canned chipotle peppers, so just add some chile powder.

Grind the following in a food processor in 2 batches:

4-8 poblano peppers, without cores and seeds
1-2 onions
1/2 c. raisins (if you have time, you could soak or stew them in chicken stock)
1-2 C. almonds
2 slices bread
1-2 chipotle peppers, canned in adobo sauce
1 small can tomato paste
1-2 C. chicken stock to help everything blend together
garlic cloves or garlic powder
4 T. sesame seeds

From the food processor, put everything in a large pot and bring to a boil as you add (I've wondered what would happen if you didn't bring it to a boil and simmer it for 1/2 an hour as the recipe says we should do):

4 T. cocoa powder
1-4 T. cinnamon
1 T thyme
1 T oregano
1/4 C. oil

Let the sauce simmer--or move on to the next step.  If your pot is big enough, add 6 pounds chicken.  I've used all kinds of chicken:  boneless skinless chicken breasts or various parts--they're all delicious.

But an easier method:  grease 2 pans, size 9 x 13.  Put the chicken pieces in the pans.   Pour the sauce over it.  Bake in a 350 oven for 50 minutes.

I've eaten this alone and with rice.  If I had good tortillas, they'd be tasty too.

I wonder how the sauce would be with other meat?  Hmmm.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Stitching and Mending

Yesterday was the kind of nourishing day that I hoped it would be, the kind of day we all said that we had needed:  quilt group day!

I say "quilt group," but only one of us is actually working on a quilt.  I took care of my pile of mending, one of us worked on a portable loom, her friend from out of town worked on intricate beading, and two of us worked with yarn (one knitting a sweater and one crocheting an afghan).  I don't remember a time lately when we've been so relaxed as a group, when we've had so much laughter.

I've been gathering with variations of this group since 2002, so I know how the group dynamics can change.  I know that if we have one bad day, it's important to keep going back, because the next gathering might have us back to our warm, encouraging selves.  Yesterday was the kind of high point moment that will keep me committed to this group.

There have been quilt group days that only lasted for a few hours.  Yesterday was one of our more leisurely days:  we gathered at 9, had bagels with cream cheese and salmon that my spouse had smoked on Friday, and got started working.  My spouse came with me, and he and the spouse of our host went outside to explore the new smoker.  We had an interesting tomato cous cous soup for lunch. 

We had great conversations.  We used to all work together at the same school, but now we don't, so there was some catching up to do.  We had great conversations about serious stuff (the future of higher ed, upcoming accreditation visits) and about popular culture--what we've been reading, what we've been watching.  We talked a bit about politics without depressing ourselves.  We watched the behavior of the 7 pets that live with our friend in her house.  We talked about the strange behavior of our students and coworkers.  Every so often, someone said to me, "Maybe you should write a story about that."  I always replied, "In a way, every story I've ever written has been about that very thing."

What I like about this group is that we can go from hilarity to talking about deeply serious stuff.  We had an interesting digression into existentialist philosophy and what happens when we die, and we digressed into questions about whether or not the universe is beneficent.  At one point, the spouse of our friend wandered through and looked surprised.  I said, "Yes, this is your atheist wife talking about Purgatory with your Hindu friend."

Around 3 or 4, some of us had to leave.  Some of us stayed to enjoy an evening meal together:  a pork butt that had been smoked, delicious green beans with garlic, and an interesting potato salad.  And then we played cards.

It was a wonderful day, a day when I could put aside my evergrowing chore list and just enjoy being with a group of people who have been friends for a very long time.  While there's a sadness about the fact that we don't see each other several times throughout the week the way we could when we all worked in the same building, there's a joy in the depth of connection we can maintain by seeing each other once a month.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Self Care: Salmon and Tulips

My house is sticky, as if a band of 3 year olds came over when we were at work and played with melted chocolate and marshmallows.

But of course, that's not the case.  My spouse made an amazing main dish last night:  bacon-wrapped salmon with a glaze made of blackberry syrup, smoked on the grill.  And I made a side dish of butternut squash with a maple syrup glaze. 

Ordinarily, for my spouse, that would be too many sweet dishes on one plate, but the bacon transformed the blackberry glaze into something more savory.  Plus, I made a "salad" out of sliced grape-sized tomatoes, black olives, shaved parmesan, with a vinaigrette.

We ate outside in the back, so my spouse could keep an eye on the salmon that he was smoking for today's quilting group gathering.  Once that smoking was done (delicious!  one must sample what one is bringing for brunch!), he moved the smoking logs over to our outside fire circle, and we enjoyed a fire.

It was a lovely way to end the week. It has felt like another week of long days, with times of fulfillment and times of long meetings and times of feeling a current of tension without fully knowing why we're all stressed.  It's one of the disadvantages of a small campus.

In these times, self-care, like a good meal or relaxing with a fire, becomes even more primary.  In that spirit, I bought a bouquet of tulips on Thursday when I shopped for Friday dinner:

I couldn't get a great picture, but I wanted to record it anyway.  I love the vase too, bought to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, a work in ceramics made by a NC potter.  Each time I've seen the flowers, I get a double shot of joy.

This week, I will have more moments with the potential for joy:  I've scheduled time with friends throughout the week.  I can feel my shoulders relaxing away from my shoulders just thinking about it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

It Begins: The New Sanctuary Movement

Yesterday on NPR, I heard this story about a woman in Denver who reported to a church instead of reporting to her deportation.  I thought, and so it begins, our new sanctuary movement.

My current church would not work well as a sanctuary church--we have no shower or any way to bathe except for a sink here or there.  To get to the fellowship hall, one must leave the building, which might leave sanctuary seekers at risk--they'd have to choose between the church sanctuary and the fellowship hall.

We share our space with roughly 7 other congregations--because we have 3 large gathering spaces (our fellowship hall has two sides, and either can be used as a large space), it works well to share.  What would happen if one of the church groups wanted to shelter someone, and the others didn't approve?

We are a small church--occasionally we do a shelter week with a homeless group, and it's hard to get enough church volunteers to make that happen.  I'd be interested to know how churches shelter a person in an ongoing way--how are boundaries drawn?

I will be interested to see how the Trump administration handles this issue.  I know that for years, officials have been careful to keep immigration showdowns out of churches, hospitals, schools, and other "sensitive locations."  But those policies were created by other people.

I haven't always been sure of the faith lives of U.S. leadership, but I've known about the faith traditions that might have shaped them.  With past leaders, I thought there might be a chance that they'd understand the motivation of sanctuary churches.

With Trump, I'm fairly sure that he hasn't been around the types of people who have the theology that would lead them to offer shelter.  Will he react in authoritarian fervor?  Will he decide that he has more pressing issues and thus ignore the sanctuary movement?

I suspect that it depends on how the movement grows or doesn't grow--and what other issues emerge in the coming weeks.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Writing Prayers for 2018

Yesterday was a long day at work--long in terms of hours spent in the office, not long in terms of being onerous.  On the contrary, I liked feeling that I was solving problems and helping make the school stronger.

In the late afternoon, I got a pleasant surprise.  I had been thinking about which manuscripts were out in the world and trying not to feel despair about how few are out there circulating.  I checked my e-mail and found an offer to participate in the prayer project that has been one of my favorite writing assignments of the past.

I haven't been part of the project for several years, and the invitation to be part of this year's Bread for the Day made me very happy.

I try not to think about how many writing opportunities have come and gone for me:  editors that have retired, publishing venues that have changed or closed--and my own time constrictions which means that I can't find other opportunities the way I might have.

So, yesterday's invitation made me happy not only because of the invitation itself, but because it reminded me that some doors might open again.

I will be writing the prayers for January 2018.  The first year, I wrote the prayers for August.  For the next two years, I wrote December prayers.

I found it a bit jarring to write prayers for Advent as we moved through the season of Lent.  But as an administrator, I'm often dwelling in multiple seasons:  I think about the schedule for an academic term that's six months away.  I plan events far off in the future.  I guide faculty through documenting a past year's worth of faculty development while also planning for the coming year.  I do the same thing for assessment activities.

Now I will be writing prayers for January while this past January is still in my memory--I wonder if that will affect the writing? 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

All the Zenias We Have Known

I have spent much of my reading this past week with Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.  I am fairly sure that I read it when it first came out, and maybe once or twice after that, but probably not at any point after 1997 or so. 

Interesting to think about what a different person I was, in many ways, when I first read it:  a new Ph.D., working in a community college, in my late 20's, rehabbing wrecks of houses that we bought from the VA when they were repossessed.  My spouse and I lived with 2 friends and their pets in our communal living experiment.

So, looking back, it's not surprising that I identified with the character of Charis, who tried to care for everyone (draft dodgers, chickens, customers at the new age store where she works, and the manipulative Zenia).  Charis, with her vegetarian diet, her growing of veggies, her living in a drafty house and trying to make it homey.

Now I might feel more identified with Tony, ensconced in her comfortable marriage to a college boyfriend, edging ever closer to retirement, her academic interests that baffle her colleagues.  I'm not as interested in the history of war as she is, but I understand what it's like to have interests shared by absolutely no one in one's social orbits.

I find Roz fascinating, perhaps an alternate life Kristin, with her feminist magazine and her various business interests, along with interesting children who both mother her and exasperate her.  It's hard to relate to her interest in fashion, although the fact that fashion betrays her is something familiar to me.  Her feelings of inferiority that fly in the face of her successes--that, too, feels familiar, although for Roz, it's played out in the person of her husband, not her career.

I think of this book and Zenia, this book's warning about the people who will worm their way into the safe fortresses we think we've fortified and then wreck it.  The Zenias I have known have been different--not as effectual, thank goodness.  But I do feel like I've known more Zenia-lite people than should be statistically likely to come into the life of one person.

I've been doing a bit of soul searching even before reading this book, but let me put it in the terms of this book.  Am I too Charis-like, unwilling to see facts that are plain to everyone else?  Or are we all in the same boat, only willing to see evil and lesser treachery in hindsight.  Ah, hindsight, when everything is so clear.

This book should be a comfort to me, along with being a warning bell, because it shows how skillful the manipulators are.  I was fascinated to see how Zenia knows just what details will win over her victims.  This one needs to rescue the distressed, this one needs to know facts about her father, this one will believe this story about the past, while the other one needs a different story.

I'm still thinking about this novel, from the vantage point of a different place in my life.  I want to believe that this novel teaches us that we become less vulnerable as we come into midlife.  We are less concerned with what others think, and having been victimized before, we are less likely to believe the manipulators.  We become more secure in ourselves, and thus, less vulnerable.

But I suspect that if I read the last 100 pages again, I'd see it somewhat differently--we're still vulnerable:  witness how the characters come close to losing it all as they confront Zenia near the end; notice how Zenia can still manipulate them with much the same traps that she's tried before.

In my focus on the characters, let me not forget to praise the writing itself.  I love the imagery:  Tony ponders various wars throughout the book, the ways that wars are won and the many ways that wars can be lost.  I love how Atwood captures particular times in history.  I love the quirks of the characters, the ways that Atwood gives them depth.  The book is an English major's delight, the layer upon layer of meaning.

I stopped by the library last night.  I wanted Atwood's The Stone Mattress so that I could reread the short story with these characters--but it wasn't nearly as satisfying.  Next on my reading list:  Atwood's latest book--yes, it's back to dystopia for me.

And then I hope to read Margaret Drabble's latest sooner rather than later.  I feel lucky that so many of my favorite writers from my youth are still writing such vibrant work.  I'm like Tony in that way too, finding early morning solace in pursuits (mostly academic) first loved in college, still satisfying decades later.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hearts and Sweets and Other Inner Organs for Valentine's Day

--If you were hoping for a serious post for Valentine's Day, head on over to my theology blog, where I have posted a piece I wrote for Living Lutheran a few years ago.  It now has a different title:  "What the Monks Can Teach Us About Romantic Love."

--I have cookies in the oven (butterscotch bars!) in the oven, but not because it's Valentine's Day.  The faculty sponsor for the student Vet Tech association asked if I would make some for their bake sale because they were so delicious when I brought them for our faculty development/meeting day.  Of course I said yes.

--It's the easiest cookie recipe ever, so it's easy to say yes.  If you need a quick, sweet treat for today (or any day), I posted the recipe in this blog piece

--I needed to get some information yesterday to be able to quickly write a piece for our college newsletter-type publication, so I went into a classroom--students were dissecting hearts, so I got a quick refresher on how the heart works.  I almost wanted to don gloves myself and stick my finger in an aorta.  I love the heart as a metaphor for love--it's such a sturdy organ.

--Or maybe the liver would be a better metaphor:  it can regenerate itself, after all.  It detoxifies. 

--The other organs and inner parts of the torso seem more problematic--I'm thinking of the stomach and the colon. 

--Kidneys have potential as a symbol of love too--the fact that one can be functioning on less than full capacity, but the detoxing job gets done.  Or is that image problematic too?

--If the liver had become the central metaphor, the way the heart has, how would it be depicted?  I'm thinking of all those paper hearts and homemade Valentine's which look nothing like the real heart.

--Suddenly, I'm wishing I had some red construction paper and paper doilies.  I used to make Valentines with windows that had hearts that sprung out of them.

--At the 2016 Create in Me retreat, I made a different sort of Valentine:

Monday, February 13, 2017

Valentine's Eve

Yesterday was an odd day for me emotionally.  It has been a week-end of overturned plans; yesterday, instead of the motorcycle ride we planned to take to the Everglades Seafood Festival, we had my brother-in-law and his wife over for a meal.  We grilled the food that we had planned to serve on Friday, but didn't because those plans fell apart.

My parents have gone to Hawaii with their friends, and they're posting wonderful pictures--it makes me yearn for mai tais by a distant, different shoreline.  I did use that emotion as a motivation to get the paperwork to get our passports renewed.  I've still got a few months before I would have to start the process over again.

I am glad to see people posting on Facebook about the Grammy Awards, as I grow weary of the rage and the reposted stories.  I don't want to know what you're reading that's made you so very angry.  Go back to talking about your breakfasts, please.

I watched the animated shows and partially animated shows on Fox:  Son of Zorn has really blossomed into a show worth watching.  It was good to end the day laughing at an absurd cartoon.

Here we are, the day before Valentine's Day, a holiday that has always left me queasy.  When I was young, in elementary school, in the years before teachers leapt in to make sure that no one felt left out, Valentine's Day was a clear indication of who was in, who was out.  I got my fair share of Valentines in the shoe box that I made into a "post office box," but no declarations of undying love.

Now that I am older, I see this day as essentially a manufactured holiday, yet another one, designed to make us feel like we must spend gobs and gobs of money to demonstrate our love.

If you want to show me you love me, don't spend thousands on a bauble.  Go ahead and pay down the mortgage.  It may not seem romantic on its face, but what could be more romantic than ensuring that I have a roof over my head and a door that locks.

And there's a larger social justice element, even beyond the question of how we spend our money and the best use of that money.  This blog post reminds us of how many of our Valentine's Day traditions are built on the backs of abused workers--and not just abused workers, but enslaved workers and children:  "70-75% of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans harvested in West Africa, where almost 2 million children work under violent and hazardous conditions.  Many of these children are kidnapped or sold (some as young as 7 years old) and forced into such labor."  The statistics are similar for our roses, our diamonds, our technology, and our stuffed animals.

I do understand why people want a holiday in the long winter months to celebrate love.  But I also understand how this holiday is painful to many:  those who have lost the loves of their lives, those who have never experienced the love for which they yearn, those who love in a different way.  After all, this holiday doesn't celebrate all love, but one certain kind of love, and the societal hype reinforces ideas that may get in the way of a realistic approach to relationships.

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

 I think that in America we do a bad job of learning how to manage our emotional lives.  We think our feelings are real.  We forget that the emotion we have today will likely be gone by tomorrow.  We forget that our bad feelings are often triggered by all sorts of things that have nothing to do with how we really feel.  Low blood sugar has caused many a fight--and probably more divorces and break-ups than we like to think about.  Many of us go through daily life fatigued.  We think our boredom and sadness are caused by our families or our friends or our jobs--and that might be the case--or we might just need more sleep.

So, as we begin the mad rush to Valentine's Day, let us take a moment to remember the gift of being able to love each other.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Valentine's Day Approaches

At one point, we had thought we might be on motorcycles, headed to the Everglades Seafood Festival.  But my brother's wife is not up to a ride, and we thought about driving the car and letting the guys take the bikes--then we started to think about who really liked seafood and was it worth the effort?

The short answer:  no.  They'll come over in a bit, and we'll grill.  We may walk to the beach, depending on how everyone is feeling.

Yesterday, we needed to get out of the house, so my spouse and I walked over to the beach.  It was a beautiful walk, but a crowded beach.  We had watched a movie, Hell or High Water, which I liked better than my spouse did, but we needed some activity after a low key day.

I did get some weeding done.  After doing some weeding yesterday and seeing how hard it is to uproot the dandelions, I'm thinking that a dandelion would be a more appropriate flower for Valentine's Day than the roses that so many will buy in the coming days.

I've been looking through pictures from old Create in Me retreats.  I do love these metal flowers:  the colors and the permanence, so different from much of the love that comes to our lives.


I also have love on the brain as I am now deep into Atwood's The Robber Bride--what a perfection of a book.

Soon Valentine's Day will be upon us--I'm glad that my spouse and I are on the same page about that holiday.  I feel the same about this holiday as I do about New Year's Eve--why spend that extra money just because marketers have decided that we should?

For a more nuanced discussion of love, see this week's episode of On Being.  Here's a quote from Alain de Botton to get us ready for the annual celebration of love that may or may not be your experience of Feb. 14:
"So we have this ideal of what love is and then these very, very unhelpful narratives of love. And they’re everywhere. They’re in movies and songs. And we mustn’t blame songs and movies too much. But if you say to people, 'Look, love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each other’s needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is, but we’re going to do our best,' that’s a much more generous starting point."

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Week in Review: Good Books, Good Writing, Good Work

It has been the kind of work week where I had 8:30 a.m. meetings before classes started on the same day that I had to stay late for student appointments or for other types of meetings.  Happily, my work weeks won't always be that way.  Let me take a look back at the week before moving forward:

--I have done a lot of work with faculty files, and they are getting ever closer to shipshape.  I looked through the files of Business faculty and General Education faculty, and most of the information matches across documents--hurrah!

--I've been part of strategizing meetings all week, strategizing about a variety of issues that will make the school stronger.  And even better, these meetings remind me that I am part of a good team.

--I had pho with my Hindu writer friend.  We've both gone on to other schools, and we both miss people from our shared past.  I like knowing that I'm not alone in missing people.

--It's been a good writing week.  I've made some poetry submissions and finished writing my short story.  And last night, I wrote a poem.  If I'm hard at work on a short story, it's hard to write a poem during the week.

--I discovered that I have now accrued 1.8 hours of Personal Time Off.  You might say, "That's not enough for anything."  No, it's not, not yet.  But it feels like I've passed another milestone point.

--I'm happy that I'm not the only one aghast at some of the events swirling around the Trump White House.  I'm not sure how it will all end up, but I'm glad that plenty of people are keeping watch--and ready to go to the barricades.

--That said, I'm beginning to be weary of Facebook negativity.  I'd like to go back to hearing about what people are eating, what they're reading, what they're creating.

--I am really enjoying Atwood's The Robber Bride.  I'll write more about this later, but let me record this nugget. When I first read it, I was about the age of the characters when they were in college.  Now the chunks about middle age are speaking to me--and I think those characters are actually a bit younger in the book's present time than I am now.

--Last night I thought we would be hosting some folks for dinner, but those plans fell apart when one woman's spouse got sick.  So, instead of having a late dinner that would have accommodated everyone's schedule, I had an early dinner of tomatoes with shaved parmesan and olives.  Yum.  And there was time to read while my spouse played violin--and then we caught the end of a Charlie Brown Valentine's show.  It was one of those windows of time that opened up, and even though I felt a bit sad about not seeing friends, I also felt a bit of relief because my work week of long days had left me so very tired.

--On the way home, I stopped by the library to get the copy of Hell or High Water that I had put on hold and that had come in.  I also picked up the latest Barefoot Contessa from the library:  Cooking with Jeffrey.  It made me think of my full-time faculty days, when there was more time for crafting, often with the Food channel on in the background--and there are pictures of a very young Ina and Jeffrey, which made me wistful for lost youth in general.

--This morning, I made pumpkin pecan waffles, a recipe from a different book.  Here, too, I am wistful for even earlier days, when we'd make waffles and feel festive.

--We will have a low-key day at home today.  We both have grading to do, and other chores to take care of.  But there will be time for a movie, time for burgers that we ended up not cooking for our guests last night, time for a walk or a nap.  In short, it will be the perfect way to restore me to my center.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Court Cases and Language Matters

Last night I stayed late at the office to talk to a student before her 6 p.m. class--and then I went to follow up with the Director of Admissions who had brought her to me.  Thus, I was in the car as the moon played peek-a-boo with the clouds, and I heard the news that the federal appeals court had rejected Trump's demands to reinstate the travel ban.

I was listening to NPR, so I got to hear a great conversation about the Constitution and the way it's supposed to work.  I have always been impressed when our system of checks and balances works, even when I don't always agree.  There were moments in the post-September 11 years when I worried about the future of the first amendment, and if we had had more terrorist attacks, I think we'd be living in a more repressive country than we are now.

There was also a great conversation about human rights, and not just the right of U.S. Citizens.  I felt a bit teary, but then I always do when I think about these issues.  I have an almost religious reverence for these documents that have done so much to shape our thinking about human rights.

When I used to teach on-ground classes, I would have students read some of the important documents of our nation and write about them.  When I taught the first half of the Brit Lit survey class, we discussed the thinkers that led the early U.S. patriots to write those documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  In short, when I was teaching, I looked for ways to work these citizenship lessons into my classes.  Many of my students had never been exposed to them at all.  I worried about them; it's easy for people to strip you of your rights if you don't even know you have them.

Back in those days before September 11, 2001, I wouldn't have dreamed of the Patriot Act, and how people would willingly give up those rights in hopes of being a bit safer.  And then, how many of us willingly give up every scrap of privacy for the convenience of living so much of our lives online--and I'm the same, although it's partly because I feel that my life is so boring that I am willing to give up that privacy.

Yes, I realize how much I might regret that openness if a truly repressive regime that threatened more of us living in the U.S. came into power.  But last night, I felt that stirring of hope that I so often feel when talk turns to the Constitution.  Last night, I was moved by the power of those words to shape actions by some of the most powerful people in the U.S., perhaps in the world--and I reflected on how sturdy those early documents have proven.

And then I came home and spent some time with some different powerful words:  Margaret Atwood's.  Last night while I waited for the student, I wrote this Facebook post:  "Tonight I will have popcorn for dinner and read Margaret Atwood. No not "The Handmaid's Tale" or the other dystopias. Not "Cat's Eye," with its message of how female friends can turn on each other. No, I'm in the mood for "The Robber Bride," which has been on my list of books to revisit since reading Atwood's short story collection "The Stone Mattress," which has one story that revisits the characters."

I will write more about The Robber Bride later, but as I read I marveled at the power of Atwood's skill with words.  It was a great night, although much too short, remembering that words are important and that language matters.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Blooming Seasonally

In the dead of winter, let us think of the azaleas of spring:

Let us remember the first daffodils of February:

We could force the flowers open, the way our female relatives used to do with Christmas cactus and amaryllis:

But for those of us with eyes to see, let us appreciate the spare beauty of winter, with its stripped branches and bare flower beds:

Even in a winter landscape, there are bursts of color:

And we can rest assured that Spring will come again, with its riotous explosion of flowers:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

AWP Envy/Melancholy/Wistfulness/Nostalgia

Today many writer folks set out for DC--the AWP conference starts tomorrow.  I feel this weird emotion that has no easy name.  Let me try to untangle my feelings today:

--I'm nostalgic for the 2011 DC AWP conference which I attended.  I've been rereading my blog posts, which likely triggered a deeper case of nostalgia than I'd have otherwise. 

It was a great AWP, and I returned home full of determination not to miss another one.  For a variety of reasons, I have yet to return.

--I feel this sense of wistfulness, because of people's posts--yes, even this early--about all the people who are running into each other at airports and such.  But I know that if I went, I would be unlikely to run into people I know.  I know that most of the people I know also do not have the kind of writer's life that makes going to the AWP feasible.

I have books that I got at the last AWP that I have yet to read--why do I want to go to buy more?

The wistfulness also comes from rereading some of my 2011 posts and remembering how hopeful I felt about social media's ability to open doors and make an easier writing life.  And now my Facebook feed seems full of difficult politics more than anything else.  I'd like to get back to reading about people's creative projects and what they had for breakfast and what their chickens/dogs/babies are doing.

There's also a wistfulness that comes from reading posts from people who live in the area, posts that have restaurant suggestions.  And I realize that the D.C. that I once knew doesn't really exist anymore. 

--That feeling leads me to some nostalgia, but for several different D.C.s.  There's the city where I worked in the summers when I was in my college years, back when D.C. had the highest murder rate in the country.  I could have picked up a cheap property then that would be worth millions now.  There are also later D.C.s--my parents lived just outside the city, on the Virginia side, and we often explored parts of the city when I returned for visits.  I kept up with which exhibits were coming to the city, which bands, which restaurants.

--I feel a bit of sadness for how I don't live the kind of writer's life that justifies the huge expense that going to the conference entails now.  When I went in 2011, I only had to pay for the airfare, which I could find for a cheap rate, and the conference fee.  I stayed with my parents, so I didn't have the huge hotel fee.

Back then, I had a dean with an academic background, so he understood the value of the conference.  My school didn't have travel money, but I didn't have to dip into my vacation time to go.

I feel a bit of sadness too, because even if I went and made connections, I would return to a work life that would make it hard to move forward with those connections.  I went out for Pho last night with my Hindu writer friend.  She asked me if I had made any submissions to an agent.  Frankly, I don't have a lot of free time in a day, and I've decided to use the free time that I have to write, not to pursue an agent (although I will send out some poetry submissions here and there).  It's just too dispiriting.

--There's a sadness for how much has changed since then--my parents have moved to Williamsburg.  They're happy, and I'm happy, but I'm remembering the 2011 AWP when I stayed at the house where I've returned since 1984, when I had a chance to see family in addition to attending a great conference.

In 2011, I felt more connected to people because of blogging more than Facebook.  And this year, I can't help but notice that many people are not blogging in the same way.

--But let me not get swamped by these strange emotions.  Let me remind myself of the ways I am lucky.  I'm happy that I have a good job with good pay; if I wanted to go, I could go, although not this year, when I haven't accrued vacation time yet.  I know that most people aren't working at schools where they have travel money that covers a huge trip like this one.  And writers working outside of academia are also unlikely to have the budget to go.  The conference is a good one, but it's not worth debt to me--when the cost to go to a conference begins to approach a mortgage payment, I have to ask myself serious questions.  And I'm glad that I have access to books here, away from the publishing centers of the U.S.  And I'm grateful for my writer friends here--we could have our own mini-conference if we could all find a day when we were free.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

When the Network Goes Down

Yesterday was a day of irritations, but thankfully, most of them were minor.  I got to the office to find out that with Friday's network updates, our computer systems were scrambled:  we couldn't get onto the network (which meant no Microsoft Office or Excel), the computers couldn't send things to the printers, that sort of chaos.  Ordinarily, this might not matter, but we're at midterm, so several instructors had to scramble, since they arrived assuming they could print midterm exams before class.

We didn't get network access until afternoon.  But I tried to think about what I could do.  I got a lot of faculty files checked; I'm now in the part of the process that has me looking at each document in the file to make sure they all say the same thing.  You may or may not be surprised to find out that people put wrong graduation dates on a form or that they think they got a BA in one subject, but the transcript words it differently.

I assembled a binder of faculty development and inservice days.  We got other tasks done:  strategizing about hiring decisions, for example.  But it's surprising how discombobulating I find it to be cut off from all my files.

In the late afternoon, I strategized with the librarian from the Ft. Lauderdale campus.  My school needs a library assistant, and we talked about the ideal candidate.  We also talked about how much we love books, and about the jobs that let you be around books, but without time to read them (she had once been a manager at a Barnes and Noble).  All night, I dreamed of hiring someone for the position.  Now I will need to launch some of those actions in waking life.

Most days at work, I feel that everything is going smoothly, that teachers and students are taken care of, that the work of learning is happening with solid scaffolding underneath.  Other days, like yesterday, I have a glimpse of how easily it could all start to fall apart.  And yes, I'm also thinking of networks and how fragile a net they really are.

But let me not think about that.  Let me keep taking steps each day that will get us closer to a successful accreditation visit while ensuring that the important work of education stays on track.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Week-end Gratitudes

It has been a great week-end.  Let me capture some highlights:

--It was good to have time to get the house back in order:  sheets washed, floors vacuumed, kitchen counters cleaned.  We also did some cooking.  I baked 4 loaves of quick bread to use up some cranberry sauce that was more than we would ever use as a condiment.  I slice it and put it 2 slices to a baggie, and then put the baggies in a freezer bag--easy to take to the office.

--My friend and spin class instructor had shoulder surgery, so I've been making food for her, including lentil soup on Saturday.  On Sunday, I took the food to her.  Although she has more recovery to go, she looks great, for someone who just had shoulder surgery a few weeks ago.

--I got some grocery shopping done.  It was Sunday, just before the Super Bowl, so it wasn't crowded, like it usually would be.

--We continued to talk about what we want for the cottage.  Should we move the large, orange sofa out there?  Could we find some fabric for table coverings that would tie together the orange in the sofa with the lavender and purple walls?

--I got work done for my online classes.  And I was able to balance that with the writing that I wanted to get done.  I'm very close to being done with my story about the corporate exec coming to evaluate the school.  It's taken me in interesting and unexpected directions, and I'm happy.

--I preached at church yesterday.  For more on that topic, see this post on my theology blog.

--I didn't get the reading done that I had planned to do.  On Friday, I took library books back, hoping to renew 2 of them.  Sadly, someone else wanted them, and to find that out, the librarian had checked them back in.  So, although they weren't actually due until Saturday, I had to surrender them.  But that freed me up to read not one, but 2 volumes of poetry:  Ice Mountain:  An Elegy by Dave Bonta and Dark Fields of the Republic by Adrienne Rich.  I read them both on Friday, straight through, back to back.  And then I wrote a poem.

In short, it was a great week-end, as most of our week-ends are.  I did many of these things against a backdrop of hearing about a judge putting a stay on Trump's travel ban, which meant a window opened for refugees, who were trying to take advantage of it.  I can't imagine what that must feel like, being stranded and then the urgency.

I know I'm a lucky woman, and hearing about refugees reminds me to be grateful.  And this morning, I'm grateful for the kind of week-end we've just had.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Existential Exile and the Way Back

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat has an interesting post on existential exile.  She points out that exile in Egypt is a shorthand way for Jews to discuss a larger existential exile:  "When we talk about being slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we're also always talking about experiences of constriction in the narrow places of our lives now."  Those narrow places can be overwork, letting the feeling of being overwhelmed overtake us, despair, depression.

She talks about Pharaoh:  "For the Me'or Eynayim, galut is a state of not-knowing God. It's a state of having fallen so far from unity that we don't even realize we've fallen. This, he says, is what we experienced in the Narrow Place. And Pharaoh is the exemplar of exile. He saw himself as a god, and had no awareness of a Source greater than himself."

I instantly made connections to first century Rome, where Caesar also saw himself as God.   Many 21st century Christians have lost sight of (or never known) how much early Christian language would have been an affront to Caesar, a way of saying fairly directly, "You are not the ultimate leader."

And of course, the parallels to modern politics leap out at me too.  We have a president who seems to be uninterested in discussion and infuriated by dissent. 

Rachel points out the value of Shabbat as our chance to taste the redeemed life, "to live for one day a week not in grief at the world as it is, but in celebration of the world as it should be."  Our religious practices are not the only way, of course, but they do lay a solid foundation.

 I have had the kind of week-end, so far, that restores my soul.  On Friday, I read two volumes of poetry and wrote a poem that had been percolating.  On Saturday, I worked on my short story that I'm writing.  I made 4 loaves of a cranberry quick bread variation on an orange-cranberry bread recipe that I love and a pot of lentil soup.  We made homemade pizza and ate it while we watched one of my favorite PBS shows, A Moveable Feast.  We got blinds hung at a window, which involved untangling a number of cords.  We took a deep nap, and later in the day, we sat on the porch and watched twilight overtake our street.

Today I'm in charge at church, so my Sunday, oddly, may not be as restorative as my Saturday.  I may get some grocery shopping done, later, while the rest of the nation watches the Super Bowl.  The week-end is never long enough, but if I plan it right, it can be what I need to enter the work week refreshed and ready.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Old Friends, Park Benches, and Book-ends

A week ago, I'd have been making cookies for our trip to the Keys.  This morning, I'm making a quick bread with leftover cranberry sauce that we had with our grilled pork tenderloin on Monday night.  In the past days since my college roommate left, I haven't had time to write about the visit. 

Let me take some time this morning to capture some memories before they slide away:

--My friend came on a Tuesday.  When I got home, I made a beef stroganoff, so that she'd have something to eat if she didn't like the other things we made.

--I needn't have worried.  She's not a picky eater.  We also had a chicken mole poblano that was unusual but delicious--a bit of heat, but not too spicy.  We had a grilled, salt-packed pork tenderloin on our last evening together--we ate outside, which was lovely, albeit chilly.

--We didn't end up having a picnic in the Keys.  I had planned to bring the bread, condiments, meats, and cheese separately, so that our sandwiches wouldn't get soggy.  I forgot the bread.  My spouse suggested that we eat at Mrs. Mac's Kitchen.  It has a lot of artifacts from old Florida as decorations, which we knew would fascinate our friend.

--We also had fruit milkshakes at Robert Is Here, one of South Florida's oldest roadside fruit and veggie markets.  Yum.

--We did more than eat.  My spouse served as tour guide when I had to work.  My spouse and friend went to the Coral Castle, which she had heard about on some sci-fi show.  While they were that far south, they took the Tamiami Trail west, and stopped at the welcome center that's halfway across the state.  They explored various beaches.

--I enjoyed our trip to the Keys, although it was a lot of driving.  My spouse took the motorcycle down, and my friend and I drove in the car.  On the way back, my friend rode on the bike; my spouse drove the bike, and my friend took all sorts of pictures as they went over bridges.   The motorcycle is really the way to see the Keys.

Then my spouse headed back, while my friend and I meandered.  We stopped at a T-shirt shop that had signs at every corner telling us that we were on camera, that the prices were the prices, and to be sure of what we wanted before we came to the counter.  My friend wanted cheap T-shirts so we braved the customer-unfriendly attitude.

We also stopped at an set of shops that looked like it was run by an artists' collective; we had a great time chatting with a woman who ran a store, while she mixed up a scented oil concoction for my friend.

My friend had wanted a picture of a pelican, so we stopped at a biker-friendly tiki bar that's at the upper end of Key Largo and has a huge property with lots of water around.  And there, finally, she found a pelican who stayed still long enough for pictures--and in fact, seemed to pose with its head tilted back in a way I've never seen a pelican hold its body.

--I also enjoyed Sunday, a rainy Sunday full of church, soup, and a trip to Ikea.  After all the Saturday driving, it was good to have down time.

--We had great conversations.  I enjoyed hearing about the women's march and about life in Butte, Montana where she lives.  She's much more of a free spirit than I am; for example, she travelled to the women's march knowing where she'd spend the first night, but not the other four nights.  She mentioned she was on a shoe-string budget, so it wouldn't have surprised me if she planned to sleep under a bridge.  But she's resourceful and outgoing, and she found lodging.  It made for great stories--I love being reminded that there are lots of other ways to live a life, and that we do exist in a generous universe.

--My friend still works in radio, and we had fun planning shows, just like we did back when we were in college.  This morning, I'm remembering the Simon and Garfunkle song about old friends who sat on a park bench like book-ends.  The song has this line, written by a very young Paul Simon:  "How terribly strange to be 70."

It's also terribly strange to be in our 50's--in some ways, like no time has passed at all.  But all too soon, we, too, will be in our 70's.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Important Book, Compelling Read

Once my college roommate and I were English majors together, so I was surprised that she hadn't heard about August Wilson's ambition with his plays to write a play representing the African-American experience in the 20th century, 10 plays, one for each decade.  But I'm not sure I'd have known that fact if I hadn't spent so many years teaching the Introduction to Lit class, which often included Fences or The Piano Lesson in the standard textbooks.

I had August Wilson on the brain as I read Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  I didn't expect to have time to read while my roommate visited, but a week ago, my spouse took my roommate to see the Everglades, and they timed the traffic wrong--so my friend got to experience both the natural wonder of the Everglades and the human-made misery that can be Miami rush hour. 

I took advantage of that time to devour Whitehead's book--what a masterpiece.  In some ways, the book does what Wilson did, by showing the wide variety of the African-American experience in the U.S. in the 19th century--but in some aspects of its alternative history chapters, Whitehead uses history from the 20th century too.  It's an interesting weaving together.

I have heard many reviewers speak highly of the main character Cora, but that's not the element of the book that will stay with me.  I am most intrigued by how each chapter analyzes a different element of slavery in the U.S. and all the ways that institution has shaped the country.  But it's so much more than that--for example, Whitehead also uses Native American history as part of the book.

It's a book that doesn't shy away from all the varieties of brutality present in plantation life.  As a child, I knew about cruel overseers, at least from the time I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and saw Roots, but I never realized how cruel the slaves could be too each other.  And the book is quite clear about the way that exposure to cruelty quickly blunts the horror of it as it becomes acceptable.

I had thought about buying the book because I worried that I wouldn't be able to read it quickly enough in the 2 weeks that our public library allows for new releases.  But it's not a homework kind of book--it's a speedy read, a compelling, can't put it down kind of book.

Many have talked about the book as important in terms of remembering our history and how we got to this point in race relations in our country.  But it's a much bigger book than that--it reminds us of how the powerful will prey on those with less power, and in all the ways we can resist.

And yes, I would still be saying that even if we had a different administration in the White House.  But at this time in history, as we see the rise of populist leader after populist leader, especially the type who is not interested in preserving progress made towards human rights, the book's message seems ever more essential.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemas: Be the Light, Hold the Light

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

On this day, we remember devout Simeon, who has been promised that he would see the Messiah--and so he waits and he waits and he waits.  But finally, at the end of his life, he does hold the light of the world, the baby Jesus, in his hands.

Imagine it:  to hold the light of the world in your hands.  In so many ways we still do.  We carry the light of the world inside us.  How can we, as embodied light from God, deliver this light to the world?
There are other holidays happening today too; Groundhog's Day is probably most famous.  The pagan festivals of Imbolc and Oimelc celebrate the stirring of seeds, the shifting of seasons, the time when the planet begins the tilt to spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
Today is a day when churches, monasteries, and abbeys across the world will bless the year's supply of candles. I find myself enchanted by that idea.  It's also a day that celebrates the sprouting of seeds, deep in the dark ground where we can't see them.  It's also an idea that inspires me.

Those of us in the bog of political despair may be feeling like we will never see light again.  This morning, on the BBC radio program Witness, I heard this 10 minute segment that reminded listeners that today marks the anniversary of the announcement of the dismantling of apartheid back in 1990.  I remember hearing news reports; I thought some cruel trick was about to be unleashed.  A week later, Nelson Mandela would walk out of prison; I held my breath, waiting for an assassination which did not come.  Mandela would go on to win the presidency in 1994.

Those who are younger than I am might not realize how huge that event was for me and many other activists.  Apartheid seemed like a government system that had existed forever, an entrenched evil that had a deathgrip on the country.

And then, it vanished, and a much more humane system evolved.  It's still far from perfect, but it's better than the old system.

Some of us worry that we're seeing the end of democracy in our country, that we may be in the deathgrip of evil ourselves.  But today, on this day that celebrates the sprouting of new seeds and the reminder of the cyclical nature of the seasons, let us focus on the light. 

According to some traditions, today is the last day of Christmas, but most of us bid that season goodbye 30-40 days ago.  Today would be a good day to give ourselves one last gift:  a meal together with those whom we love perhaps, or some down time to do the activities which bring us joy.

In this way, we can cup our hands around our candlelit spirits, which may feel a bit flickery.  In this way, we can protect our dimly burning wicks so that we can live to blaze another day.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Feast Day of St. Brigid

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism and the other pagan religions of Ireland. She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.

Like so many of our early Christian church mothers, she felt called by God from a very early age.  She resisted attempts to get her married:  one account has her scooping out her diseased eye in protest of an impending marriage--and later, healing her dangling eyeball by putting it back in her head.  When we go back to read about the lives of women in medieval times, it's amazing that more women didn't fight harder to go join the cloistered life.

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

She's also famous for her generosity, especially to the poor.  She showed this compassion early on, giving away all of her mother's butter to a poor person--and then, by her prayers, the butter was restored.

There are so many ways we might celebrate her feast day.  To celebrate her generosity, today would be a good day to give away some of our stockpile, secure in the knowledge that we'll find abundance as we need it.

To celebrate her miracles, which involved abundances of butter, milk, and beer, we could bake some bread and slather it with butter.

To celebrate her artistic tendencies, we could start an illuminated book of our own.  How would our lives change if we kept a daily book that illustrated all the miraculous abundance that we found in the world?

But above all, today is a good day to consider our own lives.  If centuries from now, a middle-aged woman read about your life as you’re living it, would she be inspired?

Across a space of centuries, Brigid inspires me.  I'd like to be a similar inspiration.