Friday, June 30, 2017

The Seeds of a Short Story

--Last night, at a wonderful dinner with my Hindu writer friend, I said, "I'm about to start a story that has a woman who teaches Animation at a for-profit art school who starts having dreams where God is speaking to her.  But God doesn't look like we'd expect--God is some sort of quilter."  I asked if she wanted to write a ghost in the machine sort of story--once we would adopt a theme or a symbol and then both write a story.  She told me about the various fragments that she still plans to write into individual stories.  She's writing about twins.

I thought about a friend long ago who was pregnant with twins.  One of them died while still in the womb, but the other lives still.  I've always wondered if they would tell the child about the long-lost twin.  Would the child feel a sense of loss even if she didn't know the story?  I assume she'd feel a sense of loss if she did know the story.  But at this point, I don't think I'll be using that nugget in the story I plan to write this week-end.

--Yesterday morning, I was thinking about the elements of the story about the animator, and I thought about including a summer trip to Mepkin Abbey as part of the story.  Here's the what I was thinking two weeks ago, in an e-mail to my Sociology writer friend:

"I am thinking of writing a short story while you're gone.  It will be about a research oriented, facts-based, very cerebral person who starts having dreams about God--God always looks the same, like a female quilter (I think she'll look like either you or me, because if I made her Indian or African-American, that might be stereotypical).  God will tell her to repair the frayed fabric, and the main character won't be sure of what to do exactly.
I thought about making the main character a Ph.D. in Psychology, so she understands that she's not having a mental breakdown, but she's also not sure what to do next.
I've also been playing with a story idea about a faculty member in Animation who decides to go to theology school.  Maybe I'd be repeating ground.  Maybe I should make the Animation faculty member the cerebral person who gets visions and thinks about ghosts in the machine."

--This morning, I started the story this way:

My family thinks of me as the creative one because I named my cats. So of course I wouldn’t tell any of them when I started having the strange dreams.
--These stories all have some sort of link to social justice/activist work, and this morning, I came up with the link for this story.  The Mepkin monks once raised chickens and sold their eggs in local grocery stores.  PETA accused them of cruelty, and either took them to court or threatened to take them to court.  And the monks didn't protest.  They simply stopped raising chickens and started mushroom farming.

--I've been incubating this story for a long time.  Back in October I wrote:

I'm also intrigued by the announcement that one of the Corporate highest of the higher ups will be on the campus of my current school on Tuesday.  I wrote this e-mail to the only 2 colleague friends who would understand:

"I bet I'm the only one in the whole organization who has noticed that the Corporate guy is visiting on the feast of All Saints.
Oh, I will have fun with this!  I'm already crafting a short story . . ."
And I am having fun with it--the main character will teach Animation, and I can have fun with the idea of what animates and what deadens.  I thought about starting it this morning, but it still needs time to marinate.

So this week-end, before my online class gets into high gear, I'll will grab some writing time and crank out a story.  It's been too long.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

June Recalibrations

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail that talks about the July 4 activities in the city--July 4 seems so far away, and yet it's not--how did it get to be late June?

If April was lost to the world of binders and accreditation visits, June has been lost to my online class and my Mepkin trip.  When I look back on June, let me remember those events as the reason that I got so little written during the month of June. 

Let me not be too hard on myself.  Let me also remember the month of June as the time when I finally stopped the progression of weight, slow pound by slow pound up the scale.  This has been the first month since Thanksgiving when I end the month weighing a smidge less than I began the month.  I hope to remember the month of June as the time I began the return to healthier habits, all the same healthy habits I'm always working at keeping in my life.

I have been feeling a bit of despair at the thought of sending out manuscripts.  But maybe that's O.K.--it's summer, after all, and not as many places are reading now.  Let me use this time to get back into the habit of writing more and revising more and typing some poems into the computer.

Let me also remember this month as a time of inspiration.  I have hopes that in a year or two, we'll see increased retention at my campus.  We'll talk about all sorts of reasons, but I'll look back to June, when I stood in the lobby with a basket of granola bars and fruit to welcome students back to campus.

Speaking of that basket, it's time to get ready for today:  granola bars and fruit await another set of students coming back for summer quarter.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Nothing Says Welcome Back Like Granola Bars and Fruit

Increasing retention is one of my main tasks as an administrator on the academic side of my school.  We know that students leave for all sorts of reasons, and many of them are for reasons I can't fix:  a sick family member, for example, or a move to a new state.  But what can we fix?

That will be one of my primary questions in the months to come.  I want to try a combination of methods that I'm fairly sure will work:  more tutoring, for example.  But I also want to try some experiments.

At a different campus of my school, a former director of education had one of the highest retention rates ever in the history of the school.  How did he do it?  He had a passion for beach clean up, and he invited students to participate. 

Now maybe there was another dynamic at work.  But what if retention is as simple as making students feel like they're making a contribution to something larger than themselves?

Let me ponder that idea a bit longer before launching any possibilities.  Today, I'm doing something simpler.  I'm offering food in honor of the first day of class.  And my plan is to do this for the next 3 days.

Now, I'm not bringing homemade treats.  I want something that I can hand to students as they head to class.  So yesterday I went out and bought a huge variety of granola bars.  I also bought those small oranges (seedless!) and bananas, for those who want to be very healthy.

I'm going to hand out the granola bars because they're much more expensive and popular, and I want my supply to last for a few days.  I'm hoping that having some breakfast foods will help students feel welcomed back in a different way than we've usually done.  Our usual way is to stand in the lobby saying, "Welcome back!"  Now we'll have that--along with treats!

In my work through the years on various church councils, I was always the one asking how we could add food to an event.  Some people got frustrated with that approach, but I always believed that food could serve as quite a motivator.  And some of our students have some food scarcity issues--students across the nation suffer more hunger and homelessness than many of us would think.

I'm thinking of ways to help students who have food scarcity issues.  We have a student lounge with a long counter.  I've wondered about having a crockpot of soup always at the ready.  We have a coffee maker where students can make coffee.  Why not soup?

I'll continue thinking about these initiatives and since I know that many of us are responsible for student success, I'll keep posting ideas and progress reports here.  Maybe we can all inspire each other.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Twenty Years of Harry Potter

Apparently the world of Harry Potter has been with us 20 years.  There's a Facebook something going around that alerted me.

I read the first book and enjoyed it well enough.  I enjoyed the first few movies even more.  The 5th movie, I think, is the one that I declared too dark:  I didn't mean the subject matter, but the fact that it was poorly lit, and I could scarcely tell what was happening on my screen.  I think it was the first one that I saw on the small screen; it was also the last Harry Potter movie that I saw.

After awhile, I just gave up on the idea that I could catch up and stay caught up, especially the year when 2 movies were released.  The world of Harry Potter joins Game of Thrones (also roughly 20 years old) and countless other projects that I'll likely never experience--while they may be worthy, time is so short these days.  Knowing that I'll need 80+ hours to get caught up means it won't happen.

What interests me more about the anniversary of Harry Potter is how the phenomena might have shaped our expectations as writers.  I'm remembering seeing J.K. Rowling on various talk shows that no longer exist.  I remember hearing her talk about scratching out the story on napkins while she tried to survive on welfare.

I remember thinking, if she can do it, I can do it!  And while I've written boxes full of material, my material success has yet to arrive for me the way it did for Rowling.  There have been moments when opportunities came my way--and then, editors left, good pay rates evaporated--sigh.

But let me not get bogged down in despair--let me be happy that so much good work awaits my reading and viewing time during a different, future time of my life.  If I find myself to be a lonely woman in elder age, I'll be happy for these great works that have been waiting for me.

And let me be happy that the writing still gives me so much joy that I feel frustrated when I don't have time to do it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Keeping Our Cool on a Hot, Summer Day

How miraculous to have cool air flowing out of the vents again.  I feel lucky that the repair was relatively small and that we could get on the repair roster for a hot Sunday.  The repair person came out, took about 5 minutes to run some tests, replaced the capacitor, and we were back in business.  We paid a bit more because it was a Sunday, but I didn't care--we both have the kind of heavy duty schedule this week that would make it hard to find another day to get it done, which means hanging out waiting for the repair person.

I have other gratitudes too:

--Our house stayed relatively comfortable.  We didn't have AC again until after 2, and the temperature didn't go above 81 degrees.  Hurray for high ceilings and trees that give shade!

--I got a lot done because we were sitting at home waiting, first for the phone call from the repair person to schedule us, and then waiting on his arrival.  I got my grades for one online class turned in, and the next online class is ready to go.

--I managed my anxiety relatively well.  If one must have a problem, an AC problem that's easily fixed is one to have.

--We have a cottage in the back that no one is using right now.  We put the AC way down so that we'd have an escape if we needed it.  It's good to know that the AC still works.

It's not the week-end that I envisioned, exactly, but we were still able to end the day by walking to the marina and sitting on our favorite bench to stare at the boats and the water. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Saturday and Sunday Sadnesses

Yesterday I was filled with a variety of vague sadnesses:  nothing too debilitating, but they stuck with me.  I started the day by needing to clean up my coffee beverage, not once, but twice.  The first time the mug slipped out of my hand, but it fell into a box of plastic bags that we collect until we take them to the recycling area at the grocery store--so it wasn't as messy as it could have been.  The second time, when I reheated it in the microwave, the coffee in the mug boiled over, and I gave the microwave an overdue cleaning.

To laugh or cry?  I confess I did a bit of both, and that mood continued through the day.  My old school had a round of lay-offs on Tuesday--I'm happy to be gone, but sad for those left behind.  And on Wednesday, some of us who once worked together gathered to watch the lake and the sunset as we had wine and nibbles.  It was nice, but it makes me sad that it takes so much coordinating to find time to be together.  Yesterday morning, we watched a PBS cooking show set on the banks of the Chesapeake, which made me miss my family and the times we sailed there.

This morning, as if to mock my sadnesses of yesterday, the AC seems not to be working .  The air that's coming out of the vents is not cool and the fan blade outside is not turning.  I decided to let my spouse sleep a bit before we see if it's something easy that we could fix or not.  And then, to call the AC repair folks today or let it wait so as not to pay the cost for an emergency visit on the week-end.  We could just move into the cottage for a bit.

I feel this sense of despair about getting one home repair done, just to face something else, one bit of organizing done which just leads to piles of other things to sort.  But let me remember the quiet graces of the past 24 hours:  the long nap of yesterday afternoon, the delicious garlic scallop pasta dish we made last night, and the delightful and spiritual conversation that Krista Tippett had with Martin Sheen on this morning's episode of On Being.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Training Week

It's been a long week of training sessions at the main campus, which has meant that I spent the week away from my office and home campus. 

It's only 18 miles to the main campus in Ft. Lauderdale, but it feels so very different from my usual commute.  For one thing, the commute of this past week was on I 95, which meant I got to experience rush hour traffic.  During my regular daily commute, I experience similar stop and go traffic, but it's on neighborhood streets so I expect to go slowly. 

I feel like I've been living out of my car, which was a familiar feeling during my adjunct years.  Plus, I had to try to remember what's in my office that I might wish I had with me, like a mug or an extra lipstick.  I realize how lucky I am to have an office.

I haven't been able to access my work e-mail remotely--that, too, is a good reminder of the problems that adjuncts face.  As an administrator, I use whatever e-mail address faculty prefer I use.

The week was helpful overall.  I'm the Director of Education, a dean-like position at one of 5 campuses.  The most helpful part of the week was meeting the directors of education at the other 4 campuses.  I most liked the exchanging of ideas.  I've come away with lots of good ideas.

We spent part of the week learning a computer system that will let us track the skills of particular cohorts of students.  It was good to strategize with department chairs across campuses to agree on what those skills should be.  And it was interesting for me to hear those conversations, since I don't know as much about the life of a medical assistant as I do about British Literature.

Still, it's both encouraging and disheartening to realize that I have another computer system at my disposal that can do so much more than I'll ever realize that I want it to do.  I can generate all sorts of statistics about who is successful and who needs help--but then I need to figure out the best way to deliver that help.  Years in administration have taught me that it's never as easy as I think it should be.

It was good to be away, good for all the inspiration that a change of scenery inspires.  It will be better to be back.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Fewer Fireflies?

On my trip to Mepkin Abbey, I heard a local (South Carolina local) show that had 2 biologists and a writer talking about changes that they've noticed with a variety of changes, from global warming to coastal erosion to the incessant development that encroaches on it all.  They talked about noticing fewer fireflies.  One of the biologists talked about his sorrow that his grandchildren aren't likely to run around chasing fireflies because there are so few of them.

I thought about what would be one of my last visits to my parents' house in Northern Virginia, before they moved to Williamsburg.  I looked out the back window into the dark night beyond and saw what looked like a sea of twinkling stars--but it was fireflies.  That summer, we wouldn't have had to work hard to capture a jar of them, but I was happy to sit on the deck and watch the show.

I think about my own childhood, back to the days before widespread air conditioning where we'd spend the evening hours on my grandparent's front porch.  We'd shell beans for the next day.  I'd ask my elders about life when they were my age, and they'd tell me.  As the world got dark, I'd collect fireflies in old Mason jars.  I get weepy just thinking about corn picked from my grandparent's garden and served almost immediately, with butter and salt.  I would pay good money if I could find tomatoes that taste like the ones they grew so effortlessly.

Here's a poem that I wrote years ago when we first moved here back in 1998; it's an example of how I transformed homesick yearning into art.  It appeared in the Palo Alto Review.

Setting Free the Fireflies

The apartment smells like my grandmother’s
house in the summer,
a childhood time before air conditioners
ruled the season.
Gentle breezes,
smelling of mowed lawns
and ripening tomatoes,
lapped their way around our beds.
The nights glowed
with that candle-like quality
which comes from distant street lights
beaming through window blinds
left open to the breeze.
Long after the yeasty smells
of my grandmother’s early morning baking
my parents crept into the bedroom
where I slept on sheets
made scratchy
from clothesline drying.
They took my jar
of carefully caught fireflies
and set my natural nightlight

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Happy Summer Solstice!

Once upon a time, as I was looking to reclaim spirituality that Christianity had obscured or obliterated, I tried to do more celebrating of solstices and equinoxes.  I do confess that the winter solstice has more appeal, that idea that we'll be getting more light with each passing day.

And here we are, at the apex of that light.  From here on until December, we will lose a bit of light each day.  Thirty seconds here, a minute there--most of us won't notice, until the day we drive in at the exact same time and think about how the light has changed.

Next week, my spouse starts a teaching schedule where he'll have class each night.  I have vague ideas of how to spend that time--I could go for a walk instead of having a glass of wine.  I could have salad for dinner--or no dinner at all.  Maybe I'll write more or read more.

Here's my concrete idea.  I've been feeling that I may be at the point where I'm done with my activists at 50 who are working at the for-profit arts school.  I still have a story or two to write, but I'd like to put together what I have to see if I have enough for a collection.  I'd like to read through the stories to make sure I'm not just repeating.

I've been thinking about writing a different kind of story, one that captures a voice, but doesn't have a traditional story arc.  I've been thinking about the school as being haunted, haunted by all the people who once were there but no longer are.  I've been thinking about a more short-form story.

Herein lies my problem:  I think I might be done, and then I have more ideas.

I have one of those windows about to open, and I want to seize this time to write more, whatever the writing might be. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Monastery Dog and Other Poetry Inspirations

This morning, I finally wrote a poem.  I looked back through my poetry notebook, and it's been almost a month.  It has been a humdinger of a month, between my online ENC1102 class with its intense pace of a piece of work due 4-6 days of the week, work which must be graded, and my trip to Mepkin Abbey.

Yet I also feel like I've been telling myself this story every month:  Last month was a humdinger, but the pace of my life should be calming down soon, and I'll get some writing done. 

Let me sit with this idea for a bit, before I come up with plan A, B, C and a back up plan for each.  This morning let me be happy that I wrote a poem.

I came back from Mepkin with a new poem in my head, a poem inspired by a time during our retreat when I watched the monastery dog sleeping in the sun, and I thought of a previous retreat where we talked about needing to find time to write.  I thought about the monastery dog who knows how to prioritize her time.  I liked the contrast.

Over the past week, I've thought of different contrasts.  I thought of a retreatent who brought her own organic food and didn't eat the food prepared by the monks.  I thought of us all at the Sunday Eucharist service, even though we all came from a variety of practices.

I'm still wrestling with the poem, but I'm happy to have work on paper to revise.

I thought I had written about the monastery dog before.  In a blog post, from 2015, I had written this:

"At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

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

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

I thought I had written that poem, but I looked through older poetry notebooks this morning, and now I'm thinking that I planned to write it, but it's one of many poems that I never actually wrote.

The eternal question:  how many of these poem ideas should I return to? 

That's a question for another day.  Today it's time to return to the main campus for my week of trainings.  Today it's the student tracking system--another computer system that will be able to do far more than I will ever dream of asking it to do.

Yet another metaphor waiting for a poem . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mepkin Mind

It is 5:17 a.m. as I write.  A week ago, I'd be about to leave Mepkin Abbey.  The drive back to Florida was uneventful and felt speedier than it sometimes feels.  I was grateful.

This past week-end has been one of finally getting caught up--I did the last load of laundry on Saturday, and did some required IT security training yesterday which will mean I can keep teaching my online classes at the community college.  I got a haircut on Saturday, which wasn't overdue, but my shaggy hair was driving me nuts.  In between, we spent lovely time on the front porch watching the rain showers come and go.

This will be a week of heavy duty training at the Ft. Lauderdale campus, where I have no office, so I'm taking my own mug, my own snack, and trying to remember what else I might need when I don't have an office.

Let me create my own Mepkin retreat in my head, a Mepkin Mind, where I can return when I need the soothing of chanted psalms:

Let me remember my delight at seeing a hydrangea bush in full bloom:

Let me remember the river that has seen so much, even if it is never the same river twice:

Let me adopt the attitude of Abbey, the monastery dog, who is always happy to be near us:

If she's ever stressed, I never see it:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day: Caring for the Next Generations

It's Father's Day, and so of course, I have fathering and larger metaphors on the brain.  We live in a landscape more increasingly wrecked by poisonous models of caretaking; I'm thinking primarily of the fractured political world we inhabit, whether we want to or not.  We're at the end of a week where we saw a man shoot congressional male leaders on a baseball field during an early morning practice, and it didn't take long before we saw lawmakers derailing conversations into tired gun control arguments.  It's clear to me that we need a different model.

One of my early morning Father's Day readings was this wonderful essay by Parker J. Palmer.  He talks about the ways that his father, an Eisenhower Republican, modeled upright behavior for his children.  I am sure I am not the only person who finds herself yearning for more of that upright behavior. 

Every time I hear people spewing vitriol about Republicans, I think about my own father, my earliest experience with a Republican.  While we disagreed often over politics, we usually had reasoned discussions.  I think about our conversations about the U.S.S.R., which always led to a discussion about what freedom means.  At the time, in the early 80's, I assumed that the Soviet Union was taking care of the basic needs, like food and shelter, of all citizens, giving them a freedom from hunger and homelessness.  My father pointed out that the freedom to make one's own life choices was more important.

I will always wonder why we have to choose, and it was from my parents that I learned to think about these choices.  We spent a lot of family time in Lutheran churches, where our task was made clear again and again:  to care for those in the world who didn't have the advantages that we had.

I want to believe that everyone believes this fact to be true--that we have an obligation to care for those who are less well off.  Sadly, I have seen the behavior of those who govern who do not seem to have any sense of that at all--it's different from past political eras when we had conversations about how we help others by leading them to self-sufficiency.

I still believe that most of us have a yearning for a more civil society, where everyone has the potential for creating a better circumstance, at least--maybe not that everyone can have an equal shot, but some sort of shot at a better life.

On this Father's Day, I'm thinking of how many fathers I know who have done a good job on an individual level at caring for the next generation.  They're much more involved in their children's lives, regardless of the age.  They change diapers, they braid hair, they fix lunches, they teach children the skills they will need, and they help older children find their way in the world.

If we can do this for our own children, we can do this for all children who will come after us.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mepkin Photo Walks

A week ago, at 5:30 a.m., I'd have been walking back from my breakfast at Mepkin Abbey.  I have often thought about the fact that I so often keep monk's hours, although I worship less throughout the day than monks do.  At Mepkin last week-end, I woke up between 4 and 4:30 a.m., but that's not unusual for me.

If my camera takes good pictures at night, I can't figure out how to give it those commands.  I spent some time in the early morning as I walked to breakfast trying to capture the full moon:

A week ago, I would miss the Eucharist service on Saturday morning.  I was waiting for my friend to knock on my door for a walk, and somehow we missed each other.  I looked at my watch, realized it was 7:25, and not only was I going to miss my walk with my friend, but also the Eucharist service.

So I decided to take a walk by myself.  It was a different kind of communion service.

I have been walking the Mepkin grounds for over 10 years--sobering to realize.  I've been taking pictures since 2009.  I brought a camera to the retreat with me; I was determined to figure out how to make it work.

Let me hasten to say that these are not super sophisticated cameras that I have.  I don't change lenses.  I keep the auto function on, even though I could be the one making the artistic decisions--there are only about 9 choices on the slightly more sophisticated camera that I inherited from my sister when she decided that she would mainly take pictures on her iPhone.  In fact, one reason I would get a smartphone is to have an easy camera feature on a device that would fit in a pocket.

Since I have been taking pictures at Mepkin for 6 years now, I challenge myself to find new angles.  For example, here's a picture of a statue that I took in 2009:

Last Saturday, I noticed that some of the tree branches and twigs behind the statue have a thorny appearance.  I tried to capture that aspect.

Of course, the advantage of taking many pictures is that you get the occasional surprise.  My spouse delighted in this one, with Spanish moss not thorns, which I didn't even remember taking:

I feel like I see the world differently when I'm walking with the camera.  I notice angles and colors and the way the light changes a shot.  I can't always control what the camera sees, however.  Here was another shot that my spouse liked.  The cross didn't have this glow when I saw it with my eyes, but the camera caught it:

One of my friends asked me how I learned to take such good pictures.  I said that I take a lot of bad pictures, and every so often, one of them stands out.  It's one of the blessings of a digital camera:  one can take lots and lots of pictures.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Many Ways of Looking at Exile

A week ago, I'd have already been on the road for 2 hours.  This morning, similarly, I've been awake for awhile, but I've been grading.  However, my mind wanders back to my time away at Mepkin Abbey.

We gathered to talk about the power of story.  We talked about the types of stories we might tell, and we focused on these four:  Hope, Exile, Repentance, and Home.  Our leader pointed out that almost any story can be framed as a story of one of these elements.  And since it was a retreat at a monastery, we focused on how religious traditions, particularly Christians, have seen these elements in telling our stories of the larger faith.

I thought we'd be writing our stories, but we told our stories--one of our retreat leaders modeled the process by telling by telling his story as we moved through each module.  We discussed, and then we broke into groups:  first pairs, then a group of 3, then 5, and then for our final gathering, we stayed as a large group and each person took a turn.  It was a great way to help us get to know each other.

During the retreat, the topic of exile was the element that most moved me to take notes.  I have always had this sense of exile--that I'm displaced somehow, never really home, never finding my larger tribe.  I've always seen this feeling/condition as one that needed fixing--and as soon as possible.  As we discussed exile, I had a moment of insight:  what if this feeling of exile is the norm?  Or what if it's actually a preferable state?  After all, when we're in a state of exile, we remember our true home (God or Heaven or something better, if you're not inclined to use religious terms).

We are to live our lives fully while holding onto them lightly.  Think about what this means:

--If we're in exile, we don't need to hoard anything.  We might as well use it.

--Exile re-orients us away from our things and illusions about our lives and towards what really matters.

--If we didn't end up in exile, we might forget we need God.

--When we're displaced, we're more in tune with the moment.

We talked about this idea in spiritual terms, that our true community (church, God, social justice co-workers, etc.) may not be the larger community (the U.S., the world).  But I also see this dynamic in places where we might not expect it to be at work; for example, how do we deal with the fact that we may feel in exile at places where we'd expect to feel at home, say, at church?

I wrote an e-mail to a friend upon my return.  She responded:  "I know, however, that I would have been abjectly unhappy if I had stayed in the village where my cousin still lives today.  So, what to do:  follow your dream of the big world, or then regret having lost your home for the rest of your life."

She's hit on an essential question:  how do we remain faithful as we live our lives as resident aliens?  The answer to that question is as varied as humanity itself.  More to come!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Thoughts on the Day after an Early Morning Shooting at a Baseball Field

At some point, will I wonder why I'm not writing more about current events?  Will we look back to see 2017 as a pivotal year, much the way that 1968 or 1974 were pivotal years?

In fact, yesterday I wondered if this year was more like 1967, a year before a pivotal year.  One of my colleagues posited we're at 1970, with innocent people being gunned down (Congressional ball teams yesterday, Kent State students in 1970).

Yesterday I headed out to find a better deal on Styrofoam cups--our campus goes through an amazing amount of them every week, and I'm the one with the credit card for the campus.  I happened to be on the road when Trump spoke about the shooting, and I was somewhat impressed.  I thought his speech was a good speech--for him.  He's like the student who usually hands in such bad work that when you get mediocre work, you might be overly impressed.  When I say "you," of course I mean me.

I was less impressed with some first year Congresspeople who got bogged down in a gun control disagreement when interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered in the afternoon.  And on TV, I watched various Congresspeople vow to work together to end partisanship--and I had the uncharitable thought that it was too bad that it took a horrific shooting on an early morning baseball field to get these people to do their basic jobs.

But let me not get bogged down in negative stuff.  Let me return to a scene a few days ago, in a gas station in Georgia, when I remembered again how much I love this country.

I was gassing up my car, and I saw a group of guys in crisp, white shirts and pressed long pants.  They had fairly short haircuts, and I thought, are you guys trying to look like Mormons?

And then I caught site of the name tag of one of them--why yes, they were trying to look like Mormons, because they are Mormons.  They were trying to put exactly $40 worth of gas into their SUV, which I assumed was rented, but I don't know why I would assume that.  They were so happy when they achieved their goal.

I looked around the gas station that was a mile away from I 95, one of the nation's main vehicle arteries, and thought about what an interesting group of people had assembled.  There was me, a woman solidly in midlife, with the music of monks in my head.  There was the group of young, Mormon men.  There was a pick up truck--not the super expensive kind, but a regular one, with a fishing boat in the back (once we called them john boats--they're the kind made out of metal, painted green, like a wider, shorter canoe).  Most of us were non-descript:  the middle-aged black guy (bigger, but not obese, but not muscular either) coming back to his car with a super big drink, the woman in polyester shorts filling up her non-descript sedan car. 

Here we all were in southern Georgia, a part of the country where not too long ago we'd have made efforts not to need gas so that we wouldn't encounter ugliness.  Think of how many of us might be at risk:  the Mormons, the women travelling alone, the black guy.  Yet here we were, peacefully travelling along the road, gassing up our cars, and as long as it's daylight, we're all relatively safe.  And even after dark, we're likely to be safe.

Let me remember that fact, on the day after Congresspeople were shot as they practiced for a baseball game in the early morning hours.  These events are still rare.  Let me offer up this prayer that they continue to be rare, that on almost every morning, we can all put fuel in our cars or show up for baseball practice, with the relative assurance that we will not be attacked.  And let me also offer up a prayer for our fellow humans who live in much more dangerous settings, who don't have that assurance.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Of Poet Laureates and Poetry Progress

I am just seeing the announcements that Tracy K. Smith will be our new poet laureate.  I am so in awe of her work and so intrigued to see how she will use the power of that office.

In the interest of honesty, let me also observe that this news makes me feel inadequate.  She's 45, the winner of many prizes, the head of Creative Writing at Princeton.  I am a woman who will be 52 one month from today, and my publication roster is smaller.  I cannot imagine that I will ever be invited to work at one of our nation's more prestigious universities; but I also know that if I did work there, I'd be worried about the nation's dispossessed who aren't being served by those universities.  I am working with those populations, and I confess that I am no miracle worker.

I was thinking about the paths my life has followed as I drove up Highway 17 towards Charleston. I don't usually take that route, but I was meeting my Mepkin friends for lunch in Mt. Pleasant before we went on to the Abbey.  I thought about some of the past times I've travelled that road, both when we lived there and when we came back.  I thought about the time that I read at the Piccolo Spoleto festival, which felt like a highwater mark of my career.  I had one chapbook published, which meant that I could read at the event.  I felt sure that I'd have a book with a spine soon--and surely, I could than translate that success into a different kind of teaching job--I wasn't naïve enough to think it would be a Princeton kind of job, but perhaps a liberal arts school or a smaller state school.

That was back in 2005, and while career/artistic doors have opened to me, they haven't been the ones I expected.

I feel fortunate to have had friends along the way, and our stories are similar.  I think of good news that came to them, good news that I thought might be transformative--and yet, the paths that came afterwards aren't the ones we expected.  Perhaps our new poet laureate has similar stories.

I'm also struck by the fact that I read at Piccolo Spoleto in June of 2005.  I think of 2005 as one of my worst years, bookended by the horrible, drawn out, death-by-hospital of my mother-in-law and the worst hurricane season in Broward county in almost 100 years.  But it was also a year of creative success, and the year I returned to France (where I was born on an Air Force Base) with my parents--it was a trip that I knew would be one of my favorite memories, even as we were making those memories.

I feel like I've taken a bit of a sabbatical from good writing practices--in the past two months, with the accreditation visit and the follow up, with the intense pace of my ENC1102 online class, I haven't returned to my writing desk as often as I would like.  Let me now begin to plan for the bit of time that I see on the horizon, where the pace of my various work lives lightens a bit.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Quick Overview of My Mepkin Trip

I am back from my quick trip to Mepkin Abbey--before I head back to work, let me write down some impressions.  I expect to do some deeper pondering in the coming weeks.  But for now, here's an overview of what might come later.

--The drive up was grueling.  I left at 3 a.m., and all was going well, until I came to a stretch of highway at Jacksonville that had not one but two accidents.  It took me almost half an hour to go two miles, and I know it could have been much worse.  And at the end of my trip, Highway 17 was very congested.  We took a back route to Mepkin, and I got lost--made a left onto the road I thought was the correct one, since the sign said "Junction with 402" with an arrow.  But that road was Cainhoy Road, whereas the correct one was just ahead.  Luckily one of my friends had a GPS and came to get me.

--What's really strange about the drive up--I hardly recognized the Charleston/Mt. Pleasant area anymore, despite having lived there and making periodic returns.

--For the first part of the trip, I listened to commentators on the BBC dissect the British election of the day before, where Theresa May lost seats in the election that she called 3 years before she had to do so.  On the way back I heard some NPR pieces on the one year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

--The weather was fairly beautiful, although it was June, so it was hotter than I'd like--but not as hot as it often is in June.

--The moon was beautiful too--I expected the full moon to keep me company on the drive, but it was mostly behind me as I drove north.  I kept trying to catch it rising, but I only got a glimpse on Friday night--a gorgeous, orange full moon.  The clouds and trees kept it obscured.

--It was strange to have the light of the full moon having just reread Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, visiting a monastery that's a former slave plantation.  I thought about slaves making their escape, how scary the landscape seems even with the benefit of electric light.

--One morning, I heard the sinister call of the alligators, but I never actually saw one.  I thought of the T. S. Eliot line about the mermaids singing, and wondered how I might transform it with alligators making the song.  And then there's the plainsong of the monks . . .

--This year at Sunday Eucharist, we had a harpist--how cool!

--I knew that this retreat would be structured, but it was even more structured than I thought it would be.  Luckily, the subject matter (the power of story) continued to interest me, and I liked all of the people on the retreat.

--The most important idea that I took away:  I tend to see a time of exile, a feeling of displacement, as a situation that must be fixed as quickly as possible--but what if those times are the norm?

--The two friends I regularly meet at Mepkin were there too.  We carved out time to reconnect.  That's always wonderful.

--I didn't do much of my own writing, but I did get an idea for a poem that I will write this week.

--I didn't get to every service, the way I sometimes do.  There were times I sacrificed a service so that I would have time to walk with my camera.  That experience, too, was a worshipful one.

--I took a lot of pictures--over 500.  I brought a set of fresh batteries, but to be on the safe side, I should have brought 2 sets.  This trip is the first one where I brought the more sophisticated camera that I inherited from my sister.

--Back in January, when we decided to come, I thought, oh, good, summer, a time I haven't experienced at Mepkin--I'll see what the liturgical season is like.  But it was Trinity Sunday, a high festival, which was interesting too.

--I brought books, and I scanned Wired for Joy, a book I found on the Mepkin shelves, while I was there.  Wired for Joy irritated me, so I put it aside; it seemed fairly self-evident to me about being aware of moods, although the writer would call them wires, not simply moods, and wires get fried and can be rebuilt and such.  I read Rob Bell's How to Be Here, which also seemed a bit simplistic, albeit with good nuggets here and there--along with lots of white space.  It was not the kind of retreat with lots of reading time.

--The drive back was much easier, which is not always the case.  There is that feeling that I'm hurling myself across the southeast.  And I'm somewhat haunted by all the other trips I've made, both with others and all by myself.

--I got home by mid-afternoon, and it was good to have time to reconnect with my spouse and with my life here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Mepkin Bound!

This blog will be quiet for a few days while I go up to Mepkin Abbey (don't come burgle my house--my spouse will be holding down the South Florida fort).  In fact, by this time tomorrow, I will already be on the road if everything goes according to plan.  I will be attending a retreat on The Power of Story.

Readers of this blog will remember that last year I was going to Mepkin Abbey to do a poetry workshop with Kathleen Norris, when she had to cancel.  I went anyway and had a great time.  But it wasn't the kind of structured workshop the way that I imagine this week-end will be.

I would be happy to go to Mepkin Abbey for time to study just about any subject, but this one will be relevant to me in many ways.  I'm telling everyone it's a writing workshop, but I'm not sure.

I haven't been to Mepkin Abbey in the summer; I've been in every other season.  Will we still take long, rambling walks when the temperature soars?

I will meet two friends there; we have a long history together.  I am anxious to catch up with these old friends, who began life as work colleagues long ago when we all worked at a local community college in the Charleston area.  In those days, I was not interested in monasticism and couldn't have even told you that there was a monastery nearby.

Will the gardens be beautiful?  I've found something to treasure in each season that I've visited.

I'll bring a pile of books, real books printed on paper, because that's the way I travel.  I'll bring my laptop with vague ideas of the creative work I want to do.  I'll bring the camera.  I'll bring extra batteries.  What will I actually do while there?

I know that I will take pictures.  I know that I will walk, even if I sweat through my clothes.  I know that I will attend many services in one day.  I know that I will write something, although I'm not sure what (the long drive usually leaves me with lots of ideas).  I know that I will read, although it might be a book that I pick up at the monastery.

My hope is that I recalibrate myself in ways that are important.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Free Form Recipes for Rainy Days

I watched it rain and rain and rain yesterday.  I had hoped that because we had breaks in the rain, perhaps we wouldn't have flooding.  But by the time I left the office at 5, the streets were starting to flood. 

Sadly, I'm used to driving through flooded streets.  Wisdom tells us not to drive through standing water, and I do pay attention to drivers going through ahead of me to try to tell how deep the water is.  But if I decided not to keep moving forward, I'm not sure what I would do--the standing water is usually worse to the side of the road.  And I don't have anyone with an SUV who could come rescue me.

I was glad to get home and settle in with a bowl of homemade clam chowder.  I plan to make a pot of chili tonight.  And since we're going to have several more days of rainy weather, let me post some recipes here.  These recipes are very flexible, and if you don't have an ingredient, you can substitute or omit.


If you have an onion or two, dice them and cook them in a pot with a few T. of oil until they soften.  If not, onion flakes or onion powder will do.  I also add herbs like basil and oregano at this point.  You could also add chili powder, jalapeno powder, cumin, paprika, and other forms of heat (or save them for later--or both).

If you're using meat, now would be the time to add it.  Ground beef, ground turkey, chunks of chicken or beef or pork--any of these would be good.  Brown the meat right along with the onions.

You'll need a few cans of beans.  Any kind will do; my favorite is red kidney beans or black beans.  Open the cans, drain them, and rinse them.  Add them to the pot along with a few cans of tomatoes.  You can adjust amounts to your taste; I like more tomatoes, but my spouse doesn't.

You could also add pasta or rice, although chili purists would disagree.

Your chili will need heat.  I prefer cumin; my spouse loves chili powder and hot sauce of all kinds.  Bring the chili to a boil, and then reduce the heat to let the chili simmer.  You could eat it right away; you could eat on it for days.  I like to let it simmer for at least an hour, but I don't know if it really tastes better that way.


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--with bacon, if you have it.

Dice a potato or two or three or four.  Let them steam/boil in the water.  They don't have to be covered.
Here's my recipe for an easy lentil soup.  I wrote it for a cousin who hadn't done much cooking, which is why it's in this format.  After the soup recipe come two recipes for what to do with the leftovers:  lentil loaf and lentil salad.

Lentil SoupA timing heads up: this soup needs 30-60 minutes to simmer.

The bare minimum of ingredients you’ll need:

12-16 oz. package of dry lentils
28 oz. can of diced tomatoes (I like Del Monte petite cut)
OR 2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes
Pot of water

Nutrition Booster:

Several carrots (3-6), chopped into bite size pieces (you can use baby carrots, but they’re more expensive). Carrots are SO nutritious and cheap—don’t be afraid to use a lot.

Flavor Boosters:

1 onion, chopped (or dried onions)

several cloves of minced garlic (put the cloves through a garlic press or look for jars of minced garlic in your produce department and use a spoonful or two; or use garlic powder)

several Tablespoons of olive oil

herbs: oregano and basil

several Tablespoons of brown sugar (or molasses)

several Tablespoons of red wine

several Tablespoons of balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar

Basic Instructions:

Put the onion and oil in a big soup pot. Turn the burner to high or medium high (8 or so on your burner control dial). Stir the onions around in the bottom of the pot until they’re limp and more translucent. Add the garlic and the oregano and basil. Stir another minute or two.

Put all the sliced carrots that you’re going to use in the pot and cover them with water. Turn up the heat of the burner under the pot until the water boils. Let the carrots boil 10-15 minutes. You want tender carrots before you go any further. Spear one, let it cool, and eat it to be sure.

Add the tomatoes and the lentils and all the rest of the flavor boosters that you’re using. Fill the pot the rest of the way with water. Let the pot come to a boil, then turn the heat way down (you want it to simmer just below a boil—you’ll probably want to keep the heat at medium low—at 2-4 on the dial). The lentils probably need a half hour of cooking at this point. If you think about it, give the pot a stir every so often (if not, no big deal).

You can also let this soup simmer away for an hour or longer. Just keep an eye on the liquid level (those lentils will soak it up as they cook!) and add water as necessary.

You could serve this topped with a dollop of sour cream, if you wish. But it’s great plain.

A pot of this soup will easily serve 6-15 people; smaller groups can get several meals out of one pot. And it’s cheap (it will cost you $1.00-$2.00 to make a whole pot), so when you’re tired of it, throw it out.

What to do with leftover Lentil Soup:

Lentil Loaf

If the soup has been in your fridge long enough, it's likely to have absorbed excess liquid, and you won't have to drain it.

Take 2 cups of the drained soup (you can include the carrots and tomatoes) and put in a bowl. Beat 2 eggs and add them to the bowl. Add 1 cup of bread crumbs (Italian bread crumbs add nice flavor) and a drizzle of olive oil (2-4 Tablespoons). You could stop here or you could add: up to 1 cup of nut pieces (walnuts work nicely), up to 1 cup of seeds (sesame works nicely), up to 1 cup of oats or wheat germ or flour.

If you add a lot of dry ingredients, you might also need to add back some moisture. You want the consistency of wet glop (think meatloaf, if you've ever made it or a mortar mix). Start with 1/2 cup and go up by 1/4 cup increments. You could use plain water or: soup liquid, tomato juice, 1 more beaten egg, or stock.

Grease a loaf pan and add the mixture to the pan. Put the pan in a 350 degree oven. Bake covered for 30 minutes, uncovered for 10. Slice and eat.

You might want to serve with some sort of sauce. I used to serve it with Hollandaise, but ketchup might work too. If you're a non-vegetarian, gravy might be a treat.

Lentil Salad
Boil as much liquid out of the soup as you can (or drain it--or let it sit for several days, and it will absorb the liquid). Add chunks of feta cheese to the lentils, along with tomatoes (cherry tomatoes cut in half work well), cucumbers, peppers or whatever veggies you have on hand. Voila! A lentil salad (feel free to serve it on top of greens) or something you can spoon into pita bread.

 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.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Summer Rains

The rainy season has returned.  I hesitate to use that term, "rainy season."  When we moved down here in 1998, we had a clear rainy season and then a dry season.  There was some blurring around the edges, but never torrential rains in the dry season, like we've seen in recent years.

Still, there's a comfort to thinking that the rain reappears on a schedule.  Yesterday, out of the corner of my eye, through the window I saw a flock of white sea birds against a gray, stormy sky. Oddly, my first thought was that it was snowing. If it ever snows in South Florida in June, we will know that the planet has crossed some sort of Rubicon.

Last night, as we enjoyed wine and cheese with our friends in their back yard, we heard storms rumbling towards us.  Happily, we live in the same neighborhood, so it didn't take us long to get home.  We may have left prematurely--it took awhile for the storms to settle in.

There was some talk of tornadoes and power outages, but our corner of the county was spared.  We didn't even get much thunder--or street flooding.  These days, with any rain, we keep a wary eye on the water levels on the streets.

I do miss the gentle rains, the pitter patter that lasts all night and soothes us to sleep.  We don't have much of that rain these days.

This morning, before dawn, I walked outside to watch the storms approach.  The sky pulsed with lightning from the east, but we have avoided thunderstorms so far.

This morning, I'm remembering June of 1999, one of the record breaking months when it came to rain accumulations.  I got more writing done that month than I perhaps ever have.  I would go teach my class in the morning and hurry home ahead of the rain.  From mid-morning to the time when my spouse returned after 5, I wrote and wrote and wrote--and mailed out packets of poetry, despite the fact that many literary journals were closed for summer.  It was heavenly.

Today will not be one of those days.  I must soon hurry to the dentist and then be on my way to work where I will assemble the final accreditation document for this round.  I will have some tea and coconut bread.  It will be a different kind of rainy, writing morning.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Summer of Sangria: Ginger Lime Sangria

I have been looking for ways to reduce my wine consumption.  A few weeks ago I read a raft of stories that talked about the rise in breast cancer risk with each alcoholic drink one consumes--drink more than 5-7 drinks a week, and your risk goes up to 40%.

While those stories leave me with many questions about what constitutes that risk and how the researchers could be sure it was alcohol and not some other factor, I decided it was time to think about cutting back.  Even though I should also be cutting calories, I decided to experiment with sangria, even though a glass of sangria wouldn't save me many calories.

Last week, I experimented, and it was delicious!  I begin each glass with equal parts sugar syrup, white wine, and club soda.  Then I continue to fill the glass with club soda once the glass is half full.  I've also been experimenting with frozen fruit in addition to ice cubes--it makes a beautiful glass.

Here's the recipe for the sugar syrup.  I mixed it with cheap Sauvignon Blanc from Trader Joe's.  In the future, I plan to experiment with different fruit juices--stay tuned!

Ginger Lime Sangria

4 C. water

½ C. – 1 C. sugar

Ginger slices (peeled)—to taste—I used 8 slices; I've also used powdered ginger.  It's not as fresh tasting, but it's good too.

Bring the above to a boil and let cool.

Add the juice of 4-8 limes (about ½ C.).  Chill.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Saturday Language Joys

This morning, I am listening to this interview with Colson Whitehead talking about The Underground Railroad on Fresh Air.  Friday night and Saturday morning I reread much of the book because I was hosting a group of readers who wanted to discuss the book.  We had trouble finding a time when we were all free--yesterday was the day.  I suggested that we meet at my house instead of a place that serves coffee because it would be quieter, cheaper, and we could linger.

I wasn't sure what to expect because I only knew one of the people who came to my house, a woman from church.  Her sister wanted to join us, and then her sister's friend from work.    I thought they'd all arrive in the same car, but the friend came first.  I was expecting a female friend, but he was male.  After a few seconds of confusion at the front door, all went well.

It was so great to be with people who are readers and who understand the importance of books.  We agreed that we were surprised by the brutality in the book, and that we were surprised by our surprise.  We spent a lot of time talking about the beauty of the writing.  My friend had actually written down the passages that moved her--and she read the book on her Kindle, so I find it interesting that she wrote down, with ink on paper, the parts she liked.

We talked about books too, books as physical objects (do we underline or not?) and books we listen to as we travel through the day.  My friend listens to a lot of books on CD.  She also recommended the website The Modern Mrs. Darcy.  We talked about the 2017 reading challenge, which two of them are doing.

We lingered for over two and a half hours--it was a rainy Saturday morning and so perfect to enjoy coffee, donuts, and fruit--and a deep conversation about a book.

I ended the day by thinking about words in a different way.  We went over to a different friend's house, and we played Scrabble after dinner.  It was a friendly game, and we talked about what makes a difference in terms of tiles.  Much of it is the luck of the draw, but it also helps to have a good vocabulary--and to remember how to spell.

It was the kind of day that left me grateful--and wishing for more.  Having friends after age 50 is so different than having friends in college.  I see people less often and almost none of my friends on a daily basis, the way I did in college, when we all practically lived together.  It's harder to find a time when we're free.  I want to believe that because our time together is limited we get to deeper conversation more quickly. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Friday Evening on the Porch

Last night was another lovely night on the porch.  We hurried to get our Friday night hamburgers grilled before the rain came, and then we relaxed.

We ate our burgers--sloppy because we had burgers bigger than our 2 remaining buns that were in the freezer.  And because they were sloppy, we cleaned up right away.

We made some more sugar syrup, since we're both enjoying the white wine sangria I've been making.  Luckily I was in a hurry and didn't let the syrup come to a rolling boil--when I poured it into the pitcher, some of it went on my hand.  When it first happened, I thought, oh boy, now I've done it.  We treated my hand with aloe gel and ice, and this morning, it hardly hurts at all. 

We went back to the porch, where the rain had gotten serious.  I held ice cubes in an old sock in my hand and started rereading Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad--I waxed so enthusiastic about the book when I first read it that a friend from church read it too, as did her sister, and her sister's friend.  They asked if I'd meet them to talk about the book--of course!

It's taken awhile for us to find a day when we're all free, so by now, it's been awhile since I've read the book.  I thought I would just skim it, but it's so compelling that I immersed myself in it.  What an amazing book.  In terms of admiration for what the author is attempting, this book may be the best of this year. 

It was a lovely evening, one that I needed.  We had Monday off, but the rest of my work week left me feeling tired, including a late night Thursday at a wonderful Allied Health Professional Advisory Committee meeting.

It occurs to me that I'll have book folks arriving soon, so let me bring this post to a close and get started on the morning.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Lighter Carbon Footprints

Compassionate people have no shortage of outrage provoking events this week.  I feel sorrow at Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, even though I felt that, as with most climate agreements, it was too little, too late.  Still, as my German friend points out, it was a treaty with 200 nations agreeing to specific actions, and that was no small thing.

So, for those of us feeling despair, let's remind ourselves of actions that we can take that will help the planet.  We know what to do, right?  Reduce, reuse, recycle.  Here are some ways to do that:

--If we're feeling despair because we know the power of large groups, let's remember that an international treaty is not the only way to harness that power.  We can join a local group that works on these issues.  We can give money to groups that work to save the planet.  The poet Matthea Harvey asked her ecologist sister for her recommendations for some of the most effective groups:
      --Union for Concerned Scientists (which does a lot of policy work and tries to get the government to take scientific information on board) 
      --Environmental Defense Fund (which does a lot of climate change work)
      --World Resources Institute (which does a lot of forest conservation and climate change work)
      --Conservation International (where she works)

--It's amazing how many plastic bottles end up in the trash, and then in waterways and washing up on beaches.  Buy a reusable bottle, and fill it with water from your tap.  Most of us have perfectly acceptable tap water, and the water that comes in those small bottles is likely from a tap from a far away state.  If you don't like the taste of the water that comes from your tap, let it sit in a pitcher overnight, or figure out a way to filter it, if necessary.

--Similarly, lots of plastic bags end up in the trash.  You could bring your own bags to the grocery store.  Even if you like those plastic bags, which I understand, you could bring those and get several shopping trips out of them.

--Buy items that come with less packaging if possible.

--Before you buy, ask yourself if you really need the item.  I try to check out more books from the library, for example.

--Every item that goes into your trash can is likely going to sit in the earth for a long time.  Most of us know that landfills don't let items decompose.  Try to put less stuff in the trash can.

--My grandmother buried her food scraps, which led to the most rich soil I've ever seen.  Even when she no longer needed it for the garden she could no longer create, she did that.  We can compost in any number of ways.  For example, I often put my cut flower arrangements out in the yard to finish decomposing--no digging necessary.

--If we don't want to get our hands in the dirt that way, we could plant.  I find it very healing to plant things, especially if they're fairly independent plants who won't need me after the first few weeks.

--Think about the ways that we use electricity and water--can we use less?  Let's start with basics:  turn off the lights, turn off TVs that no one is watching, turn off computers when we're not using them.  Don't let the water run when you brush your teeth.  Take shorter showers.  The hardcore among us already do this:  no need to flush the toilet after every use (if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down).  If no one's going to be home for hours, do you need to cool/heat the house as if people are there?

--If we own our houses, we could think of ways to make them more energy efficient.  Now might be the time to invest in solar panels.  We could install water saving shower heads and toilets.  If we need to replace our water heaters or appliances, we can get the most energy efficient, instead of the cheapest, if we are blessed with enough money.

--In everything we do, we should be aware of our carbon footprint.  Can we combine car trips?  Most of us drive alone in cars that pollute, even if they're hybrid vehicles.  Use them less.  Can we eat less meat?  Cattle production leads to more methane in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.  The next time you're on a packed airplane, rejoice:  your carbon footprint is lighter.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dystopias, Real and Imagined

Careful readers of this blog might realize that after Trump's election, I, like many readers, have been revisiting various dystopian novels.  But this week, I read one of the most insightful pieces about what literature can teach us about our current time.  Ron Charles, in this article in The Washington Post, states, "By now it should be clear that the Trump administration is nothing like the ruling power of Orwell’s Oceania or — another common claim — like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The repressive governments of those imagined hellscapes are marked, primarily, not by their vast deception but by their absolute order. Flawless message control and meticulous image manipulation are the foundations of their sovereignty. Nothing could be further from the continuous upheaval that Donald Trump wreaks."

What does Charles suggest instead?  King Lear, which makes astonishing sense, even before I read his argument.

I spent part of this week reading Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.  It's a larger exploration of the lessons that Snyder first published on his Facebook page just after Trump's election (published as an article here), and it's excellent.  I underlined a lot of it--and I learned about Churchill too.  I had forgotten (or did I ever learn?) that Churchill stood up to Hitler when it was widely expected that England, too, would accommodate and be taken over.

But I have spent the most time this week reading Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way.  As I've said before, I'm surprised by how relevant it still seems, especially when it comes to people (women especially) making a tenuous living:  "It occurs to Alix that if she loses her various part-time jobs, she will be eligible for next to nothing in the way of redundancy payment, having worked, as women do, so episodically, in so piecemeal if persistent a manner.  And where, at her age, would she find another job?" (p. 191).  It's the plight of every adjunct I know, in this time of tightening budgets at almost every school in South Florida.

Even those we think are safer will not be:  "Esther Breuer's connection with market forces has always been tenuous, but even she is a little affected by the magnetic shift.  The series of public lectures in one of our public galleries which she had intermittently graced with her erudition is discontinued.  As she was only paid 12.50 pounds a lecture, this ought not to make much of a hole in her budget, but as her budget is rather small, it does" (p. 192).

Rereading this book is bittersweet:  seeing the passages I underlined when I first read it in grad school, discovering the phone message note that I used as a bookmark along the way which tells me that the VCR can be fixed for  $36.00, thinking about the woman I am now, appreciating the prose of Drabble (did she coin the phrase "fierce cups of tea" or is that standard in Britain?), worrying about my own future.   How interesting to think about how those worries about the future are similar to the ones I had when first reading the book (worries about social policies, worries about decline, worries about my aging relatives and my own aging body)--and yet they've got different shadings now.

We think of dystopian novels as those like Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, a book which still seems eerily predictive.  But how interesting to look at dystopian novels that are also realistic, like Drabble's.