Friday, December 31, 2021

New Year's Eve Morning: "Leaving the House that Held the Asylum Seekers"

I have never been a stay up until midnight kind of gal.  I want to be.  I like the idea of dancing until the wee, small hours of the morning, but I have also never been a dancing kind of gal.  There are years that I want to stay awake to make sure they leave, but I do realize that time is an artificial construct in so many ways.

The Omicron variant reminds us of this essential life lesson, along with others, like a society can only be as healthy as its least healthy members, which is true of health in terms of disease, in terms of stratification, in terms of violence, on and on I could go.

I started this New Year's Eve morning by reading this article in The Atlantic, a piece by a neuroscientist who seems fit and healthy only to discover that he has a cancerous mass too close to his heart to operate.  It's a sobering realization that we may not have as much time here as we think.

In the past, I might have made lists and thought about goals and plans, but I wrote a post yesterday that explains why I'm not doing that this year.  It's hard to break away from that pull, though, isn't it?  I've traditionally spent the time around the turning of the year thinking about what I did right in the past year, what I did wrong, what I want more of, what I want less of.

This year, let me focus on the what I want more of that I can do.  I want to get back to writing more poetry.  While I would like more publications, I am aghast at the submission fees that seem fairly regular now, but I would like to keep submitting here and there, especially to outlets that have been important to me.

My happiest publication this year was being included in the Syracuse Cultural Workers Women Artists Datebook, which is sold out right now.  Two years ago, they accepted a poem of mine, and the fact that they accepted another one made the whole process seem less like a fluke.  

This poem seems perfect for this hinge moment as we move from 2021 to 2022, so let me repost it here.  Once that poem was called "Exercising Freedom."  Along the way, I changed it to "Leaving the House that Held the Asylum Seekers"; I wrote about its origins in this blog post.   Many thanks to Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria for their inspirations along the way to this poem's 2021 publication:

Leaving the House that Hid the Asylum Seekers

Once again, you find yourself
on the old revolutionary road
with the houses that once hid
the asylum seekers.

The long road stretches
before you, overgrown
with brambles and struggling seedlings.
You see the fires
ahead, burning cities
or perhaps the lights
of fellow travelers.
Smoke hides the mountains.

The road is lined
with the suitcases of immigrants
who abandoned all the essentials
they once lugged to a new country.

You have kept your treasures
sewn into your hemlines, heirloom
seeds and the small computer chip
that holds your freedom papers.
Your grandmother’s gold hoops dance
in your earlobes and twinkle
around your fingers.

You hear the voices of the ancestors,
colored with both reason and panic.
Go faster, they urge.
You are needed up ahead.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

All Mortal Flesh, Keeping Silence

It is strange to be here at this resort on Marco Island, strange to be 56 years old at a resort that is full of teenagers, strange to be at a resort that is so full near a beach that is so full, at this point in the pandemic, the beginning of the third year of a pandemic.  When we see disease spikes in the midwest, we could probably trace some of it back to this week of holiday travel.  It will likely not surprise most of us to know that people here are not wearing masks as they move about the resort.  I want to believe that's because we're all vaccinated and boosted, but I know it is likely not the case.

My family is taking precautions, but we've never been a meet strangers and party kind of intergenerational family.  My brother-in-law has a Ph.D  that gives him a deeper understanding of disease than most of us have, and my parents are older, and I've been doing lots of research about this pandemic (and historic plagues), so we're all fine with the precautions we need to take.  We get to our pool chairs early and pull them away from others.  If we go out to eat, we'll go at an odd hour, like 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when we'll be the only ones there.  So far, we've been eating in.

It is also strange to be here at the far side of midlife, surrounded by people who are just starting out.  They look so young, so unwrinkled.  Once, they might have inspired me to try one more weight loss plan; in fact, I found that kind of thought flickering through my brain:  "Maybe, by this time next year, if I lost x amount of pounds."  Then I banished that thought.  I could lose x amount of pounds, no doubt.  But I need the focus required to lose x amount of pounds for other projects, like seminary classes and surviving a pandemic with minimal guidance from my government.

It's the time of year when people make lists of what they plan to do in the new year, and perhaps some of us are making lists of what we accomplished or didn't accomplish in 2021.  The last 2 years have shown me the futility of those kinds of lists.  If  I look at my poetry submission log, I should be much more widely published, based on effort alone.  And my poetry is every bit as skilled as much of what is published.  

I am done with so many sorts of self-improvement plans, those plans that seem to suggest that we can do anything if we feel peppy enough, if we put in enough time, if we go, go, go and rarely look back.  One of the joys of midlife is that some of that yearning has dropped away.  I am not going to lose 50 pounds and keep it off.  I am not going to look like a 16 year old again, and I never looked like the kind of 16 year old that would be attractive to a certain type of wealthy, older man--thank goodness for that.  It is also strange to be here in this resort as the jury has deliberated the fate of the woman who recruited girls for Jeffrey Epstein, and by extension, for other wealthy, powerful, white men, all of them old enough to know better.

It is strange to be here at this resort, surrounded by so many able-bodied bodies.  I remind myself that they may not all be as able as I assume.  And at some point, we all face deterioration, although it won't be the same elements we all experience.  A resort can be a powerful reminder of that.  There's an older man who brings his portable oxygen to the pool, and I wonder what he makes of all of this.

Similarly, there's one non-white vacationing couple here, just one.  Even on the beach, the lack of diversity fascinates me, since it's so different just 2 hours away on the east coast of Florida.  On the east coast of Florida, my pale hair and skin are in the minority, as I watch the people making their way down the Hollywood Broadwalk or to the Atlantic ocean.  Not here.  My dermatologist would be horrified.

Or maybe he would just shrug and say, "More money for me if people want to continue in behaviors that they know won't end well."  

Sadly, many folks might be saying that this year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Paper Straws in Plastic Cups and Other Metaphors of Modern Life

I've been at a resort with my family.  My mom is great at organizing these get togethers, and I am grateful.  This morning, let me record some thoughts which I don't feel like developing into a single blog post of deeper diving:

--The other morning I looked at the shampoo that the resort provides, shampoo which brags of the sea minerals that it contains.  Ten years ago, the shampoo bragged of the minerals that it derived from the seeds of apples and pears.  I am willing to bet that both shampoos contain exactly the same ingredients, but with different scents provided via some sort of chemical.

--This resort seems to have more daily activities.  Yesterday, my mom, sister, and I went to an event that was billed as "Abstract Painting on Canvas."  We had to choose our 3 paint colors in advance.  I had a vision of following instructions, like, "Choose a color and paint a line that reminds you of life's great sadness."  But it wasn't that at all.  We got 3 small cups with our paint colors, and the person in charge poured glue thinned with water into the cups.  We stirred them with popsicle sticks to combine, and then we dumped the 3 cups of paint into a larger cup.  We went to a trash can where we held a square canvas board over the cup and turned it over.  When we pulled the cup away, voila!  An abstract painting.  

--It was interesting to see the different shapes and swirls.  Is this similar to the Paint Pouring that so many of my creative friends have loved?  In fact, it is.  I'm glad to have experienced it, although it's too messy for me to do as a regular practice.

--We have been ordering drinks from the bar, in part because we're on vacation, and in part because it's easier than buying all the ingredients ourselves.  This resort uses paper straws, which means I get one good suck through the straw before it turns to mush.  I am not opposed to sustainable living and things made of paper which biodegrades more quickly than plastic.  But as I hold the plastic cup with a paper straw, I do have to wonder at the strange choices we're making.

--Of course, if I go down that train of thinking, it's hard to enjoy one's time at a resort.  So much waste.  Such a heavy carbon footprint.  Of course, the same is true of much of our lives.

--Paper straws will not save the planet, and I've known for decades that individuals can't do much on their own to reduce global warming.  The big corporations, particularly petrochemical ones, will need to step up their game.  Clearly we are doomed, so we may as well have plastic straws in our plastic drink cups.

--But maybe I'm giving up too easily.  I've been reading the songs of praise for Archbishop Tutu, and it's good to remember that sometimes, one individual person can make a huge difference.

--Do more famous people die at the end of the year?  Or does it just seem that way because I have some days off and time to contemplate?

--A week from now, if all goes according to plan, I will be at the onground intensive in Columbia, SC.  It will be the last requirement for my certificate in spiritual direction.  As this variant has surged, I have wondered if once again, we would pivot to online, but so far, we have both options.  I wonder how many people will attend in person.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Orion's Belt from a Different Vantage Point

Here I sit, at a different shoreline, 2 hours across the peninsula of Florida.  It is both different from Hollywood Beach, my home beach, and the beach at Hilton Head Island, which I may come to think of as my beach during the height of the pandemic, since we went there in September of 2020 and May of 2021.  Or maybe I will look back at those times and laugh at myself for thinking we were at the height of the pandemic.

If the pandemic continues to mutate and spread, it will be because of beaches like this one.  Yesterday my spouse and I went for an afternoon walk, the way we did at Hilton Head when we were there.  But unlike Hilton Head, this beach at Marco Island is absolutely packed.  We quickly went back to our timeshare condo at the resort, where we can practice social distancing from all these far-flung hordes of people.  

I felt similarly when we went out at Hollywood Beach, but we went to a restaurant at an off hour.  We went to the brewery that has outdoor dining that is elevated--from the passersby, that is, not food that is elevated.  It felt fairly safe for us personally, but not for the larger world, since so many people were mingling--both their breath and I suspect later, their body fluids.  I am so old, and grateful not to feel the need to be part of that scene.

It is good to be here, however, good to have a change of scenery, good to be with family.  I haven't seen my nephew in 2 years, since the last time we vacationed here together.  In some ways, not much has changed.  In some ways, so much has changed.

In the middle of the night, I looked out of the window to see Orion, so low on the horizon and so close that I felt like I could reach out and touch the stars in that iconic belt.  I wondered if I was dreaming.  It was different from the starscapes of childhood, where there were so many bright stars in the sky.  It was different than the night skies of Hollywood, where every star looks dull and distant. 

I am relishing the opportunity to be here, to have time to read, to decompress a bit, to get ready for all the next rounds that are coming our way.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Christmas Greetings

I woke up yesterday morning stiff and sore--I spent much of December 24 on my feet, in well-cushioned shoes mind you, but still, I woke up feeling sore from my midsection down.  So, I decided to go for a walk.  I knew it would be a slow walk, but it would be good to get the sore body parts moving.

It was 6:15, still dark, not many people out and about.  I walked past a car stopped at a red light with windows down, and a male voice asked me "Hey momma, what's happening?" 

I said, "Merry Christmas!" 

The male voice said, "We got weed."  I kept walking, and the man called out, "Wanna buy some weed?" The car pulled away, as I was saying, "No thank you."

In what universe do I look like I want to buy some weed from male strangers in a car?  My poetry brain immediately came up with a first line:

Do I look like the kind of woman who would buy weed from strangers in a car?

I thought about subsequent lines taking off parts of that line:

Do I look like the kind of woman who would buy weed from strangers?

Do I look like the kind of woman who would buy weed?

Do I look like the kind of woman who would?

Do I look like the kind of woman?

Do I look like the kind?

Do I look?

It's not an experiment worth sending out to poetry journals, but my brain enjoyed the exercise.  It may lead to a more substantial poem, so it seems worth recording the experiment here.

The basic question remains:  was I moving so slowly that I didn't look like a woman out for exercise?  Did my raggedy work out clothes make me look homeless or like a prostitute?  Were the men so stoned that they asked everyone that question?

I continued to walk, saying "Merry Christmas" to the occasional person I passed.  Some said it back.  One jogger removed his ear bud and said, "What?"  I repeated "Merry Christmas!" and he nodded and jogged along.

A flock of birds with curved beaks landed on the shore of the neighborhood lake, and when I whispered "Merry Christmas," they didn't fly away.  We stared at each other for a few minutes, and then I moved along, and they resumed their hunt for breakfast.

When I got back to my condo building, I said, "Merry Christmas" to the guard at the desk.  She said, "I don't celebrate.  It's Saturday."  I said, "Happy Winter Holidays."  That should cover it, right?

She said, "No.  It's happy Saturday."  So I said, "Happy Saturday," and she said it back.

We had a quiet Christmas morning after that, sorting and organizing and doing the end of the semester cleaning before the arrival of my mom and dad, whose flight we tracked.  When I picked them up at the airport, we said "Merry Christmas" to each other, and the day felt complete.

I do understand that not everyone celebrates the holiday.  To me, it's one of those holidays, like Valentine's Day, that has its roots as a religious holiday, but now is somewhat secular.  I realize that Christmas may seem more religious than Valentine's Day, but in some ways, it's also more secular than Valentine's Day:  stores close, banks close, the world shuts down for a bit.

And the real reason that I still go out in the world early in the morning saying "Merry Christmas" is that my dad and I used to take a Christmas afternoon run, and we'd holler greetings to everyone we saw.  It was the early 80's, before we realized that not everyone might celebrate, when we didn't consider that a "Merry Christmas" might be a source of pain.

We are more enlightened now, but alas, based on yesterday, it doesn't seem to have led to us being more loving or even civil.  And I am awakening to news of the death of Archbishop Tutu, which doesn't seem to bode well in a world that needs more leaders like him.  I'll likely write more about him tomorrow.  I saw him speak once, about 10 years ago, and it was one of the more profound evenings of my life.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Pivoting on Christmas Eve

December 24 was a work day for me--not a work in the office day, but a getting ready for Christmas kind of work day.  I didn't mind.  

The day was punctuated with trips to the grocery store.  I went to the grocery store 3 times; I did the big shopping early, before 8 a.m., when I would usually be the only one in the store.  Not yesterday, but I got in and out fairly quickly.  I got home to realize I forgot to buy lemons, so one more trip.  I made this delicious fish dip, which made me realize we would need more baguettes and white wine, instead of as much red as I bought.  I resolve to call my fish dips rillettes from now on.  Late in the day, I went back to the grocery store for more baguettes and white wine.

I met my pastor at 10 at the church.  I had offered to help get the worship space set up for Christmas Eve.  I arrived to a variety of poinsettias and red ornaments with no hanger to attach them to the tree.  We took off the blue ornaments and used the hangers for the red ornaments.  Unlike past years, we did not scamper up ladders.  This is not the time in the life of our nation to risk a fall and a trip to the emergency room.

The local grocery store had gotten our poinsettia order wrong.  We ordered all red; we got some red, some white, some pink/variegated.  We ordered big; we got 1 big variegated plant and the rest were the smaller plants.  The local grocery store felt so bad that they gave us 6 wreaths made with real greens.  Granted, they weren't likely to sell them yesterday.  But still, I liked the gesture, even as I wasn't sure where to put them.

I decided to begin with the easy task, the putting red balls on the trees and taking off the majority of the blue Advent balls.  As I did that, I thought about the poinsettias.  Often we've put them at the railing, but they were so tiny, I thought they might not be seen.

And so, we went with a different approach, and it was lovely.  From a distance, one couldn't see how puny the poinsettias are, and the non-Christmas colors of the paper wrapping the pots blended into the background.  We decided not to use the formal candelabras and just rely on the white candles.  

I would have been happy to spend the Christmas Eve service in silence and candles, just soaking in the beauty.  


But we had a service of readings and singing and a homily, and the Eucharist.  We had to pivot here, too, with soloists out because of sinus infections and COVID exposure.  I thought of all the weeks of drama about who would sing which song, and in the end, we had to switch some of the music.

I am not immune to the life lesson contained here: the ability to pivot, the beauty that is possible if we can let go of our preconceived notions of what the experience and the space should be.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Second Christmas Eve in a Global Pandemic

Here we are at Christmas Eve, a very strange Christmas Eve as a much more contagious variant of COVID-19 is ripping across the country.  As far as I know, our Christmas Eve service will go on as scheduled.  We can likely spread out across the worship space and keep the in-person crowd safe, and we'll livestream for the ones who need to stay away.

It's a very strange Christmas Eve, but humanity has had a variety of strange Christmas Eves.  In some ways, the message of Christmas Eve is even more important during times of stress.  Many of us hear the Christmas Eve message as something warm and cozy, but surely something warm and cozy was not the kind of message delivered by the angels to the shepherds.

Earlier this month, I made this sketch.  I hadn't intended to include the manger and the stable that appeared:

Do you see the descending dove in the picture?  The dove appeared before the manger.  I've returned to this picture often in December, meditating on the message it contains.  I'm also intrigued by the river rolling through the middle of the picture, the river that contains planets.  Or do we just see circles?

But I digress.  Back to the Christmas Eve message, God incarnate, God wanting to know us so deeply that God takes on human flesh.

God come to be with us in person?  God choosing to be born to poor peasants living at the edge of a powerful empire?  What can it all mean?

Here's what Richard Rohr said in his daily post this morning:  "I believe it’s all a school. And it’s all a school of love. And everything is a lesson—everything. Every day, every moment, every visit to the grocery store, every moment of our so-ordinary life is meant to reveal, “My God, I’m a daughter of God! I’m a son of the Lord! I’m a sibling of Christ! It’s all okay. I’m already home free! There’s no place I have to go. I’m already here!” But if we don’t enjoy that, if we don’t allow that, basically we fall into meaninglessness."

That message, too, is not one that worshippers will likely hear tonight.  Perhaps worshippers won't hear a sermon at all or maybe it will be a Christmas pageant.  Maybe, like the Peanuts gang, we'll hear the story from the Gospel of Luke, no homily necessary.  Maybe we'll get our message in song.

I am grateful for times of quieter contemplation, so off I go, a Christmas Eve walk in the morning coolness, a time to think about the twinkly lights, the sun that rises every morning, and the ending of a year.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Erasure Experiments

Yesterday, I experimented with an erasure poem:

Last week, I saw this erasure poem here by Sarah J. Sloat (source text from a twitter exchange with her:  "this is a page from William Golding's novel 'Pincher Martin,' about a shipwreck":

I loved the simplicity of it.  I love her poems that combine erasure and collage, but my collaging skills often leave me frustrated:  finding the right image, cutting it correctly, gluing so that the image stays stuck to the page, but the page stays flat. 

Yesterday, after spending too much time staring at screens at work, I remembered this erasure poem, and reached for my bookshelves at work.  I decided to work with Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information.  I flipped to a random page, and I printed it on the copy machine and then enlarged it. I made a few extra copies, since I may keep playing with a text if the first approach goes well. 

So far, when I do an erasure poem, I look for the words first and then figure out what to do next.  Here are the words I saved.  Let me write them here and see if they work as a poem:

piece of land

groundwater's shadow


logic to the layout

tiny pond

tell their inhabitants

As I looked at the words, I decided to use blue and green markers to strike through the rest of the text.  Here's how it looked at the end of the session:

I may decide to do more with it, or I may decide to do a different draft with a clean copy or I may decide to move along to something else.

After my session of drawing horizontal lines in blue and green, I felt refreshed--hurrah for creativity.  I did this at the end of the day, when my poetry brain wouldn't have been able to create something if I just stared at a blank page.  It was good to have something creative to do, even when I couldn't create something brand new out of nothing.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Snippets from a Very Strange Pre-Christmas Season

My seminary writing is over, my grades are turned in, so why do I feel like I can't compose a coherent blog post?  Let me record some snippets from this very strange pre-Christmas season that I don't want to lose:

--My hips, wrists and fingers are sore today in weird ways.  I was on my feet a lot of yesterday, putting baseball caps into cellophane bags and twisting them with a twist tie that was half an inch too short, but usable if I squeezed hard enough.  It's a winter student appreciation event.  I am not a baseball cap person myself, but many students seemed touched.

--I sent this Facebook message to a colleague and friend, which seems to perfectly capture what I'm feeling these days:  "Up early enough to make chocolate cake for Mollie's b'day--budget your calories accordingly. Or, what the heck, we're going into year 3 of a global pandemic, so maybe we're not paying attention to calories anymore."

--I have yet to bake Christmas cookies or bread, so it seems strange to make a chocolate cake.  But I have milk that I need to use up, and cake seems more fitting for a birthday at work, and baking a cake from scratch is much easier than cookies or bread.

--Our condo building put a pool table and other games into the major sitting room downstairs, and my spouse and I have been playing the occasional game of pool and/or PacMan.  It's a fun thing to do for free that we wouldn't be able to do in other living situations.

--I've been enjoying seeing neighborhood lights as I walk each morning.  I feel like I should send everyone a thank you note.  It keeps me motivated to keep walking each morning, even though it's been unseasonably warm and humid.  The weather, too, is a disconnect from the season.  It always is.

--I made this tweet/Facebook post yesterday:  "Because life is not unsettled enough, we are under a gale warning until 10 p.m. tonight. Granted, I do not have a boat, but I don't remember ever having a gale warning in late December in South Florida."  Happily, the weather just seemed a bit breezier than usual, with a spat of rain here and there.  It could have been much worse.

--We've taken a different approach to an Advent wreath this year, since lit candles on a wreath don't feel safe in our rental condo.  We have a balcony, and on 4 rails, we've wrapped blue lights.  Week 1, we plugged in one rail's strand, two weeks = 2 rails, and so on.  It's been lovely.

--My mom and dad called me at work, and my first words after "Hello" were, "Are you sick?"  In this time of a new variant and cases skyrocketing, that's my love language, my way of saying, "Please don't die on me just yet."

--Most holiday seasons leave me wistful for the time when I had more children in my life and make me wonder if I should have had children of my own.  This holiday season, I'm glad that there aren't many children.  We are having trouble being festive, and I'm glad not to have the pressure of making magic for the children.

--Yet throughout the days, for the past few weeks, I have had the Magnificat in my head, the words of Mary:  "Surely from now on, all generations will call me blessed" (Luke 1:  48b).

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Taking Our Temperatures Again

I took my temperature for the first time since 2020. I wonder if future generations will understand the implications of that sentence.  Will they remember the original time of pandemic panic in March of 2020?  Will they remember the Omicron variant exploding across the globe at the end of 2021?  Will they wonder why we ever stopped taking our temperatures?

Yesterday afternoon, I was feeling warm with a throat that felt tight/scratchy, and at church on Sunday, I had also had a feverish feeling moment.  So yesterday, I reached for the thermometer that used to be part of our campus entrance table. My temp is normal, so I'm guessing the sweatiness is from December days with high temps above normal, in the high 80's.  Plus, our AC in the condo we're renting isn't working correctly. My scratchy throat is likely from remodeling dust or paint fumes, since I have it at work where the remodeling is happening and not this morning at home.

Yesterday the AC repair person came and found a pinhole leak; he'll return on Wednesday to fix it.  I wish I could say that I'm reveling in being a renter at this moment, but since I'm both a renter and a home owner, I'm not feeling the reveling just yet.  Hopefully we will close on the house before Jan. 5.

This past year, even more than 2020, has been so topsy-turvy, so full of pivots.  My campus will close when the lease runs out, but maybe, instead, programs will move to the campus, construction will happen, and the future will be unclear for different reasons.  The real estate market is red hot, probably hotter than it will ever be again, we've gotten more contracts on the house than we thought possible, but getting to the closing proves more difficult than we thought, because a red hot market driven by investors is very different than the real estate markets of our parents.  We move to a condo that looks like the height of luxury only to discover that the roof top pool is closed for repairs--and it still is.

Some elements of 2021 have proceeded as I envisioned, namely my seminary journey.  Let me also list a few more.  I decided that a 2 bedroom rental made sense, keeping a guest room in case we needed to quarantine in case a new variant proved to be able to work around vaccine defenses.  So far, our teaching lives haven't changed much in 2021--hard to predict what 2022 will bring.  While I wish I could say that we've finally conquered our cravings in the most positive ways, we can only do that in short bursts at a time.

When I think about the progress of the year, however, the whiplash returns.  In January of 2021, I had no idea this would be the year I would start seminary. I saw vaccines rolling out, and while I knew it wouldn't be a quick end to the pandemic, I am still stunned at the twists and turns; when I got our appointments for our first shots, I reacted like I had won a lottery prize, and in a way I had.  Back in January of 2021, I knew that my school had been sold, but I would not have expected all the twists and turns of varying enrollments and approaches to the building plans.  At church, we've done in person church and shifted back to distance church, then gathered in person again, and now I am wondering if it is wise to gather for Christmas Eve.  In January of 2021, we talked about home improvements, but not because we planned to sell the house; the housing market had yet to gather that kind of momentum that has left so many of us thinking that it is time to sell our houses in South Florida.

So here we are at the winter solstice, the time when we add a bit more light to either side of the day. In this year of whiplash, I like any shift that enters slowly and gives us time to get used to it.  The shifts of the past year may have taken a season or longer, but they have felt wrenching nonetheless.  I hope that January of 2022 brings me closure on some of these projects, a gentle closure, not the slamming/wrenching kind of closure.  

Monday, December 20, 2021

Bubonic Plague, Respiratory Diseases, and Time Travel

This past week-end, I read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.  I had read it before, in October of 2014; one of the benefits of keeping a blog is that I have a record (to read my first impressions of the book, see this blog post).  During this rereading, I entered into the book much more quickly.  It's interesting to read this book in a time of pandemic resurgence.  The book takes place both in the future and the past, with new diseases sweeping through the population:  a new strain of flu in the future and the bubonic plague in the past.

I was much more interested in the future flu than I was the first time that I read.  I was surprised by how much Willis got correct about that.  During the first read, I just wanted details about the bubonic plague.  This time, I was interested in the correspondences--and in the science.

I've been thinking about the times when my teaching corresponded with outbreaks of plague--in the history and the literature, for the most part.  I remember teaching the first half of British literature and explaining how the bubonic plague made the Renaissance possible.   I remember asking my students, "Imagine that if half of the people in this class died suddenly, half the people in the U.S. died in a season.  What questions would that inspire?  How would it affect your belief in government, your belief in God?"

I taught those classes and those questions in the early 1990's.  I didn't imagine how I would see them play out in my life time.  I would not have been able to imagine the lack of faith that people have in their government right now, the lack of faith in government with perhaps a faith in God that allows people to refuse a proven vaccine.  I have occasionally wondered if my students remember those classes as vividly as I do.

I remember teaching Keats which always led me to talk about TB, about Keats' experience of coughing up a part of his lungs each morning, which would remind him that he didn't have all the time in the world to write, that he wasn't likely to make it to midlife, much less old age.  How did that impact him?  How would it impact any of us?

I remember talking about how hard it is to control the spread of a disease that's transmitted by coughing or even simply breathing.  I remember talking about how easy it is to contain a disease like AIDS, which requires such intimate contact, that mingling of fluids.

As I think back to my younger teacher self, I think about how much I knew--yes, indeed, it is hard to control a disease that spreads through the air.  I have often thought about AIDS and condoms and people refusing to wear masks--no wonder it was so hard to get people to wear condoms regularly.

I have spent most of my life expecting an apocalypse, but I didn't think it would be a new respiratory disease.  I've watched new bird flus come and go, and they've lost their power to terrify.  I've worried about diseases like Ebola or some sort of bubonic plague that might kill us quickly.  But a disease that's fairly contagious, more so than flu, and virulent for parts of the population but less virulent for others?  A virus where some of us barely know we have it while others die a horrible death?  That wasn't part of my apocalyptic expectations.

As I read the last part of the Willis book, the part where bubonic plague has taken hold, I recognized the exhaustion, the disbelief that any of this is happening, the return to exhaustion.  I have gone through this on a small scale with my mother-in-law in the last 4.5 months of her life.  I can't imagine going through it as a whole town dies before one's eyes, with no one left to ring the bells to get the souls to Heaven, as the medieval priest believes is necessary in the Willis book.

I don't think we're headed to that experience with this new variant, but I do think it's going to be a tough winter.  Happily, there will be books to get us through, and I had already decided to continue seminary from a distance.  Will there be an onground intensive face to face in January?  Time will tell. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Celebrating School Endings with Candy and Car Repairs

Yesterday I decided to take my car in to the shop.  I had been hearing a scraping kind of noise when I turned the steering wheel in a hard left.  I confess that my first inclination was to avoid making hard lefts, but I also have some travel by car coming in the next few weeks, so to the shop I went yesterday morning.  Happily I was able to leave it and walk back home.

Sure enough, my car has issues, including lots of rust.  In a way, I'm not surprised.  It's a rare week that I don't drive through flooded streets down here.  And the car is 7 years old.

You're going to ask me what I had replaced, and I'm not sure.  It's not the tie rod, but it is something that's part of the system that keeps the wheels attached to the car.  And for good measure, some shock absorbers for the back tires.  My spouse listened to the call with the mechanic, so I don't feel like the mechanic was taking advantage of my lack of knowledge.

It's a huge bill, and my first thought was absolutely no way am I putting that kind of money into an old car.  My spouse was the voice of reason; he said, "If you want to keep it, we need to make the repair."  And knowing what we know about car shortages across the land, a huge repair bill is still cheaper than replacing the car, even if we could find one to buy.

It's not how I planned to celebrate having grades for my online classes turned in and papers for my seminary classes done.  Happily, we did that on Friday night.  We went to the brewery at Hollywood Beach, and we went early, before the crowds.  I like the brewery for many reasons, but during this time of surging pandemic, I like it because it's outdoor dining, but it's raised above the crowds.  The people walking by on the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk are below our feet, so it feels a bit safer in terms of disease transmission.

Despite an unexpected car bill that's unexpectedly high, I feel fortunate.  We have money set aside for just this possibility.  I know so many people who are dealing with such a variety of health issues (none of them COVID caused), so I know how much worse it could be.  I am often reminded of words of wisdom in one of Anne Lamotte's early books, when one of her friends said that a problem solved by an infusion of cash is not really an interesting problem.  It's especially not a problem when one has the money.

Even with car issues and just this morning, AC issues, it's been a delightful week-end.  I've been reading Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, a book about bubonic plague and flu and time travel and Advent and theology; I've read it before, and I'm even more impressed this time.  We watched some Christmas cooking shows while sorting through paperwork.  I had a lovely conversation with my mom and dad on the phone.  We ate chocolate from a present that arrived on Friday.  I took a nap, and even with the map, I went to bed early.

I feel lucky in so many ways.  May it continue--for me, and for us all.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Six Weeks of Sketch Responses to "Crisis Contemplation"

Today I will turn in my last paper for my first semester of seminary.  It is written, but I want to take one last look at it.  But today, I want to write about a different class that I did for the past 6 weeks.  I joined a group organized by the artist Vonda Drees.  Together we read Crisis Contemplation:  Healing the Wounded Village by Barbara A. Holmes and did journaling, which was often in the form of sketching.  We had a once a week meeting to discuss the book and the journaling that we did.

One of my compatriots rearranged her sketches on a tabletop so that they were no longer in chronological order, and interesting patterns emerged.  My sketches are in a spiral bound book, and I don't want to destroy it.  But I think that putting the sketches here, with the quotes that inspired them, will yield some useful insights.  In past journaling groups, I wrote the quotes on the sketch, but this time I didn't.

I began by posting a picture of the markers I would use:

A first sketch--first I was undecided about having a blue marker, but I remembered the power of blue to create green. This morning, I added the bowl of flame shape, as I tried to see how deep an orange I could create. As I was creating the image in the bottom left, I was thinking about arrows and arrowheads, broken treaties and different directions, but I haven't started the book yet.


This afternoon, on p. 13 in the Preface Practices, how we came to know our family histories. For me, it wasn't in the genetics or DNA, but in the stories we tell or were told, the connection to both farms and mountains, the faith that gets seeded (or lies in fallow soil) for each generation to sprout/grow/harvest in new ways:


Here are two sketches that I worked on at the same time, inspired by this quote on p. 12:

"Once the unthinkable crisis has us in its clutches, we have no choice but to let go of our false sense of control and ride the waves of destiny. On the other side of this wild ride awaits extinction, resurrection or rebirth."


I don't have a sketch to go with this quote, but here's what jumped out at me from my lunch reading; her words from the acknowledgements demanded to be written down and shared: "When I look back on a lifetime of teaching and learning, I am thankful that I earned my degrees later in life. By then, I understood my gifts and my shortcomings, my call and my communities of accountability. Although I recognize the dynamic nature of the word 'understanding,' my point is that I pursued graduate studies when it was far too late to indoctrinate me into systems thinking" (p.16).

I am at a Lutheran women's retreat at a conference center by a lake in the middle of the Florida peninsula. This morning's walk brought spider web after spider web, some small, some draped across several surfaces, all spectacular. Then I read the first few pages of chapter 1 and thought about "freefall through our carefully woven safety nets of 'normalcy'" (p. 20):


"Rather, we are reminded that human beings are a part of a community of inspirited life" (p. 27). I love the word inspirited (one picture with flash, one without):


"The truth of the matter is that we live on a mysterious planet, with other living beings, whose interiority and spiritual realities that are just beyond our cognitive reach.

If life, as we experience it, is a fragile crystal orb that holds our daily routines and dreams of order and stability, then sudden and catastrophic crises shatter this illusion of normalcy" (pp. 19-20).

These words, along with the ones I wrote down earlier on Saturday, about safety nets and spider webs, were ones I was thinking of as I created this sketch. I was remembering the quote mistakenly, thinking that life was held in a fragile crystal cup, an image I also like.

I, too, was haunted by this idea:
"Slowing down is...about lingering in the places we are not used to. Seeking out new questions. Becoming accountable to more than what rests on the surface. Seeking roots. Slowing down is taking care if ghosts, hugging monsters, sharing silence, embracing the weird...the idea of slowing down is not about getting answers, it is about questioning our questions. It is about staying in the places that are haunted. " Bayo Akomolafe, p. 39
Process Note: My first idea was for a haunted house and I would put all the regrets that haunt me on the boards of the house. But I made the house too big, with no room for all the ghosts and monsters that I envisioned circling the house. And then these other aspects appeared: the woman on the side of the house, the stuff going on in the attic (not exactly sure what's going on there), the plants and pumpkins and cats and the table inside that's ready for tea. So instead of writing regrets on the house boards, I wrote parts of the passage.
I'm posting 2 versions of the same drawing, one with flash and one without.

I have not made much progress with my reading. But this sentence did leap out at me: "In the darkness, we can gather in Spirit and be filled by this Source" (p. 44).
It's not the sketch I saw in my mind when I started, but it has some appeal (same picture, one with flash, one without)


". . . we fall headlong, together, into the power of divine intention and the mystery of an inner and outer cosmos" (p. 50).
Solar systems, the mind of God, inner wisdom, what the mind knows, what the body knows . . .


I was short on sketching time and short on connectivity last week. I did work on this sketch, which is less of a response to a specific passage from the work, and more what emerged as I thought about wounds and what it takes to heal (stitching, partners on a path, a way out of no way, protection of our soft spaces):


I haven't made it far into chapter 4--the first sentence made me reach for my sketchbook: "It takes a village to survive" (p. 83).

Although I hadn't read any further in the book, I needed to keep my hands busy and my face neutral during a boring/aggravating meeting yesterday. So I worked on this sketch. This morning, as I read this quote, the sketch seemed to fit: "The child has recently come from the realm of the ancestors and the grandparents are on their way. There is much wisdom and special knowledge to be imparted between these generations" (p. 85).
I also see some Advent themes: unlikely wombs incubating improbable miracles, marginalized women saying yes to God's invitation.

I confess that I was once again sketching without having a specific response to the text in mind. Today, as I looked at the sketch and text, this sentence jumped out at me: "Art opens a portal to new realities" (p. 98).

I created this one as I was thinking about lament. Before I started filling in the circles with color, my thought was that each circle would represent a lament. I also had in mind a tear (as in the drops one cries, not a torn spot) to the right of the page. The sketch went in different directions than I planned, but I still think it's an interesting response to the idea of lament.


"Although relief seems to be an impossibility, we know that we are embedded in a quantum world with nothing but possibility" (p.118).
"A liminal space is the time between the 'what was' and the 'next.' It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us" (Jon DeWaal and Shonnie Scott quoted on page 128).

"What is called for in times like these is a deep dive into unknowing, a trusting, and a liminal float in spiritual depths that sustain our collective wellbeing" (p. 129).


"We leap, trusting the glory of ancestral guidance, the blessed hope of the dawning of a new world order, and the promises of God" (p. 137).
The leaping didn't turn out the way I envisioned it, but I offer this sketch because the quote really speaks to me--what a way to close the book!

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Losing Fascinating Thinkers: RIP bell hooks and Anne Rice

Like much of the world, I felt stunned yesterday to hear of the death of bell hooks and how strange that it happened in the same week as the death of Anne Rice.  Oddly, I started reading both of them at the same time, for only a brief time, in the mid 90's.

Yesterday I saw everyone's grief spilling over on social media, everyone posting their favorite quotes and remembering the first time they read their favorite hooks book.  I felt that odd, left out feeling:  by the time I discovered her work, I had read other important works of intersectionality (race+gender+capitalism/clss), so her work didn't seem that radical to me, even as I understood that if I had discovered her when she was first published, I would have seen her as boundary breaking.  I remember buying a few of her books, underlining some passages, but later culling those books when I did one of my periodic purges.

Similarly when Anne Rice died earlier this week, I thought about how much she meant to so many people I know: Hank Stuever wrote a wonderful tribute article in The Washington Post that covers this territory so beautifully. I thought about how she challenged us to think about gender and sexuality in different ways, and how she will likely not get credit for that feat by scholars and critics in the way that say, Judith Butler gets credit.

Perhaps as time goes by, bell hooks will get more credit for her the ways that she explored intersectionality.   Yet she, like Anne Rice, explored popular culture, and in academic circles, that's a sure way to guarantee that one will lose out on some of the rewards that can come with serious academic study.  I realize that there are many reasons why bell hooks was at Berea College in her last years, but she didn't have a position in the Ivy Leagues, the way that some of her colleagues who explored similar territory (Cornel West, Toni Morrison) have had.

As I have watched the tributes pour in, I have been struck by how bell hooks continued to give back to a variety of communities, many of them underserved.  She probably could have had an Ivy League teaching job, but she went to Kentucky.  I love the pictures of her reading to children and the fact that she wrote books for children.  

I'm also struck by her willingness to follow her passions and interests outside of what various communities surely must have told her she should have.  It doesn't take much searching to find her writing on various music icons, but those are less interesting to me these days.  No, these days, I have loved reading about her encounter with Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, in this text.  

The world needs more of these kinds of interesting thinkers, like Anne Rice and bell hooks.  Let me sharpen my metaphorical pencils and get to work.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A Continued Song of Praise for Public Libraries

Last night I left the public library emerging into the sunset light with an arm full of library books.  I thought, well, this is familiar.  I meant it in two ways:  I often leave with an arm full of books, but also, my seminary semester is coming to a close, and I'm going to seize this chance to read books for pleasure.

I thought back to the first time I was in grad school, and the public library in Columbia, South Carolina.  This was before the city built a gorgeous new building for the main branch in the mid 90's.  I'm remembering a much smaller building closer to Baptist Hospital, the hospital which has a new name and corporate sponsorship now.  

I am remembering all the authors I discovered as I browsed the new books section, and if it was a good book, I'd go upstairs to the stacks where the general fiction was crammed into every bit of shelf space.  I'm remembering reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams as a new release and then devouring The Bean Trees, such perfect books.

That public library used to let patrons check out framed works of art.  I'm sure they had no value, but they enhanced our grad school apartments. The downtown Ft. Lauderdale branch of my current public library has an impressive trove of sheet music. 

My song of praise for public libraries must end here.  Time to go to work and then to finish up some seminary writing this evening so that I can start to read from the treasure trove of books from the public library.

(note:  I've tilled this fertile territory before--for a longer blog post, go here)

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Unlikely Advent Places

Here is a quote that spoke to me today.  I found it in James Lumsden's blog post, which is worth reading in its entirety.  The quote is from Henri Nouwen, a favorite theologian across all of my ages.

We expect God to show up in “spectacles, power plays, significant and extraordinary events” that will change the course of history in their grandiosity. We, ourselves, are often taken-in by wealth, prestige, and sparkling things that glitter and shine. We can be so easily distracted. Perhaps that is why God chose to come to us as a small child of Palestinian peasants in an insignificant stable surrounded by animals and shepherds. This way we see that God’s kingdom is humble, simple, small, and very vulnerable. One of the gifts and surprises from Jesus is that he shows up for us in the most unlikely little places – and if we refuse to look for holy in what is small, we will likely give-in to despair.

And here is a sketch I've been working on for the past week.  I didn't begin with an intention to draw a stable and a manger.  Those appeared as a surprise, distressing at first, because the page wasn't what I envisioned.  But as I've worked with it, it's become one of the highlights of my week:

Now it's back to finishing grades for my online classes and finishing papers for my seminary classes.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

December 13 is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath, for the head or for the table.The feast day of Santa Lucia is one that’s becoming more widely celebrated. Is it because more Midwestern Scandinavian descendents are moving to other climates? Are we seeing a move towards celebrating saints in Protestant churches? Or is it simply a neat holiday which gives us a chance to do something different with our Sunday School programming and Christmas pageant impulses?

In a time of ongoing global pandemic, I wonder how people will be celebrating this year. They will probably celebrate the way that I almost always have, in their own houses, with their own family members.

But it wasn't always this way.

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still.

I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders--I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.

It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried.

A picture from that cover story

What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong. I also decided that I didn’t care.

I still bake that bread every year, and if you’d like to try, this blog post will guide you through it. If you’re the type who needs pictures, it’s got a link to a blog post with pictures.

As a feminist scholar and theologian, I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with virgin saints, like Santa Lucia. Most sources say we don’t know much about her, which means that all sorts of traditions have come to be associated with her. Did she really gouge out her eyes because a suitor commented on their beauty? Did she die because she had promised her virginity to Christ? Was she killed because the evil emperor had ordered her to be taken to a brothel because she was giving away the family wealth? We don’t really know.

The lives of these virgin saints show us how difficult life is in a patriarchal regime. It’s worth remembering that many women in many countries don’t have any more control over their bodies or their destinies than these long-ago virgin saints did. In this time of Advent waiting, we can remember that God chose to come to a virgin mother who lived in a culture that wasn’t much different than Santa Lucia’s culture: highly stratified, with power concentrated at the top, power in the hands of white men, which made life exceeding different for everyone who wasn't a powerful, wealthy, white man. It's a society that sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Or we can simply enjoy a festival that celebrates light in a time of shadows.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles to light up the darkest days of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere).

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Breaking Grammatical Convention and the Ones Who Stay True

Yesterday I was reading some of the micro-reviews of one of the best books of 2021 articles in  The New York Times, when I came across this sentence:  "Kitamura’s sleek and spare prose elegantly breaks grammatical convention, mirroring the book’s concern with the bleeding lines between intimacies — especially between the sincere and the coercive."  I will not be reading this book anytime soon, for many reasons, but the main one would be this review.

I have read James Joyce; I am done with authors who break grammatical convention.  It's these kinds of authors who make me understand the value of grammar rules that we all agree to follow.

I thought of that review this morning when I saw that Anne Rice has died.  Happily, she was not one of the authors who broke grammatical convention, which might mean she was taken less seriously as a writer.  I came to her later than some of my friends, and I didn't read her the same way.  I didn't read the whole vampire series, although I read one here or there.  It was fascinating to read Memnoch the Devil while teaching Paradise Lost.  I also read a novel that she published under a different name, but I can't remember which one.  At some point this century, I stopped reading her work.

I have had friends who were much truer fans of her writing, but I was always a fan of the way that she lived life.  She seemed to support the communities that supported her, both the ones where she lived and the writing communities.   In her statements about her faith, I appreciated her ability to talk honestly about various issues.

She was 80 years old, which in some ways, is a long life.  In other ways, I was shocked:  shocked that she's 80, shocked that it's already 2021, shocked to realize that I stopped reading her along the way.  Our world was richer for her being in it.