Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Protection and Safety

I was looking through photos from our sailing trip, and I came across one of a child wearing swim gear.  Those of us who are older may envision a swimsuit, maybe some sunscreen.

Oh no.  Children swim almost fully clothed these days.  There's a long-sleeved swim shirt to go with swim shorts.  On our recent trip, I saw swimming children with headgear.  The hat fully covered the head and forehead, with a bill, and flaps that covered the neck.  The children's exposed skin was slathered with sunscreen.

I've already had 3 skin cancers removed, so I do understand the dangers of the sun and how those dangers accumulate across a lifetime of exposure.  But I also wonder if we get so focused on some dangers that we forget to think about others.

Later on our trip, I saw those same children scampering on the side of a sailboat--no life jacket or personal flotation device.  I asked the father if the children could swim--no.

Earlier in the day, the parents had been more cautious.  But as they grew comfortable on the boat, they let the children remove the PFD as long as they kept their feet on the cockpit.  And then, it was only a matter of time before they relaxed that rule.

Which poses more danger to a child, sunlight or drowning?

But I am not a parent, and I'm not as interested in these issues as I might appear.  I'm really looking at the metaphor.

In our own creative lives, where do we need more protection?  Are we so focused on protecting ourselves in one way that we fail to see other dangers?  What are the best practices that we should be adopting?  Where have we gone slightly overboard?

I started thinking about swim gear as metaphor before the North Carolina Poet Laureate was chosen and then stepped down.  I have hesitated to comment, but I found myself disheartened by all of it.  Part of me was rooting for the less-experienced laureate, but I certainly understood her desire to remove herself from the meanness.  What ugly, ugly things people said about her.

I also see it through a lens of gender.  The ugliest things I saw were written by males.

And if I'm being honest, I thought about myself.  What if I had had a great turn of luck and gotten an honor?  People might have pointed to my lack of a book with a spine.  People might have said, "She has a Ph.D., not an MFA.  She writes about literature, not writing literature.  She's a nice lady poet, not a muscular poet, like we like.  She's much too accessible."

It takes me back to a comment that I got on a rejection slip years ago:  "Well, your poems certainly are accessible."  I heard the sneering tone.

And so, I wrote a poem.  I've posted it before, but I'll post it again.  This poem was first published in The Xavier Review, and was reprinted in The Worcester Review.


He says the poems are accessible,
as if it is a bad thing, as if loose
limbed poems spread open their legs
to anyone who gives them a glance.
Those poems don’t even demand drinks
and dinner first. Slutty poems. Ruint.

Perhaps he wants a sulky
poem, one that lets itself be petted, who pretends
to like him, but always holds a part
of itself back while he tortures
himself with evidence of his poem’s infidelities:
other people, plainer than him, who profess
to understand this poem when he cannot.

Perhaps he prefers poems that ignore
laws of accessibility, that barricade themselves behind bars
and up stairs and through perilous mazes.
After tunneling through to the heart
of the poem, he’s so disoriented
that he can’t hold his head upright.

Better yet, poems that speak a language
of their own creation; only a very
few in the world understand how the words
are strung together in this idiom.
Instead of seeing it for the dying language
that it is, he proclaims its linguistic
complexity and pretends to understand.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Haunted by History: A Floral Cure

Yesterday before spin class, we were talking about Russia and the commercial airliner shot down over Ukraine.  I said to the spin instructor, "You should have brought that 80's CD; it could have been the Return to the Cold War ride."

We're all older, so we laughed.  But I've been thinking about the similarities.  I remember in 1983 when the USSR shot down a Korean plane.  I remember the escalation of tensions; it felt like we all held our breath to see what would happen.

It seemed we all held our breath a lot during much of the 1980's.

I think of the flare-up of tensions between Israel and Palestinians; it's happening now, and it was happening then.  I think of Syria melting down into an unrecognizable state--lots of Cold War parallels there.

Lots of people wring their hands and insist that times are worse now.  That's both true and not true.  As a reader of history, I do know how quickly these flare-ups can turn into conflagrations that consume a whole generation (see World War I, World War II).  I feel edgy for that reason.

Maybe I should adopt Rachel's solution of being careful about exposure to news and social media; before she decided to take a break from the Internet, she wrote this wonderful post.

I like Beth's approach to this tension in this blog post.  I like the posting of picture of a bouquet of flowers, the acknowledgement that we will always be mourning the lost.  She gives us a quote from an ancient text:

And some there be, which have no memorial;
who are perished as though they had never been...
Ecclesiasticus 44:9

I like that she gives us beauty with the sorrow. 

And so, I, too shall post some pictures.

I don't have any bouquets, but I have seen beautiful flowers lately. 

These flowers are from our time in Maryland, at a marina in Deale.

I'm amazed that the marina takes the time to plant such lovely gardens at a facility whose sole purpose is to exist so that boats can leave.

Of course those boats do come back.  The flowers make it feel like a home, or the home I like to think I would have, if I had time to tend extensive gardens on a huge plot of land.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Infusing the Special into the Every Day

A week ago was my birthday; I'm still intrigued by how many people asked what special things I had planned.

I couldn't resist.  I answered with a similar answer to the one I give about Valentine's Day:  every day should include special events to make me glad I was born.  Why do we only save this special mindset for our birthdays?

I realize that if you're the kind of person who does extra-special birthday events, like taking the day off, having a high calorie dinner, or planning a super vacation, you can't do this every day.  But you could do it more often than once a year.

Our lives would be more full of joy if we did more each day to remember that we're glad we were born.  We wouldn't have to wait for a birthday--or worse, a crisis medical diagnosis--to remember to celebrate.

And we shouldn't wait.  One day, and for many of us it will come all too soon, we won't be able to celebrate.

You might protest about the cost or the calories.  But think how many of your joys are relatively free:  rereading old books, discovering new books (with your public library card), spending time with friends, going to museums/galleries/readings/parks/____________.

So, don't delay.  Celebrate your birth today, and every day--even if it's 355 days until your next official birthday.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Quilting a Meeting

Yesterday, I took my time-sensitive quilting project to our church council meeting.   I've been on the lookout for chunks of time to work on it, and yesterday's meeting seemed perfect, with its start time moved from 10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.  I don't usually take copious notes so I thought I'd try quilting during our meeting time.

I've noticed that many of our members keep looking at their cell phones, so I didn't feel I'd be disrespectful by quilting.  In fact, I think I think checking one's cell phone is more distracting mentally than quilting.  One of our members has worked on knitting a prayer shawl, so there's been a precedent.

During my time at the Create in Me retreat, I crocheted a prayer shawl.  I worried that I might not pay attention if I was crocheting, but I found that just the opposite was true.  Having my hands busy quieted my mind.  And when I look at my notebook from that retreat, I find that I took notes too.

Yesterday, I found that the quilting calmed my mind in a similar way.  And when our meeting time went longer than scheduled, I didn't mind.  I made more progress, and that was good.

I wish I could take my quilting and crocheting projects with me everywhere, especially to meetings at work.  Alas, taking my projects to work is probably unwise--but perhaps I'll start thinking about meetings of other types as opportunities to get some quilting done.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Many Ways We Inspire

I felt such sadness hearing about the AIDS researchers who were on the Malaysia Air flight that was shot down over Ukraine.  This NPR story gave interesting details about one of them, Joep Lange: 

"Colleagues said Lange's success as an activist was largely a tribute to his personality. His humor was dry and a bit wry, but his manner was gentle. Stories of Lange's kindness abound.

He insisted on making Gayle's frequent layovers in Amsterdam comfortable, even though she would often arrive at dawn. Lange would pick her up at 6 a.m. and take her to his house for coffee, a stroll, a shower or quick nap. I'd always say, 'Oh Joep, it's too early. And he'd say, 'No, no, I'll be there.'

It will be hard for anyone to replace Lange, Gayle says. But she is confident that Lange's inclusive style will ensure that his work will continue, even after his death.

'The thing about a good leader is that they don't try to do it all by themselves,' Gayle says. 'They build teams. And Joep has built great teams wherever he's gone. So there are people who are poised and ready to take on the work that he started.'"

It was a quick story, but it said so much to me about what makes a good human and an enduring legacy.  I thought about what I'd like people to say about me when I'm dead, and that news story about covers it.  I'd like to have done important work, but not to have lost sight of the humans around me.  I want people to tell stories of my compassion and kindness.  I want to have inspired the people around me, so that there will be the will to endure in doing the important work when I'm gone.

There are weeks when I feel like I've done no important work at all, when I simply corral e-mails.  And then I have a day like yesterday, when I meet a friend for lunch, and she gives me a birthday card.  On this card, she wrote about what she admired in me.

Here's a choice quote that I want to record so that I remember that people are paying attention, and the way we live our lives does matter, even when we're unsure that it does:  "When I read your blogs or your poems, I'm reminded that to truly live one's creative life is a choice, and I watch you live that creative, extraordinary life all the time.  It's so very inspiring to watch!  Through your example, I am reminded that t creative life, lived honestly, is a true joy."

Wow!  What a great birthday present--and so very needed in my work week that consisted of cleaning up my e-mail inbox, which always makes me reflect on how so many of the e-mail exchanges are about very ephemeral stuff, not terribly important when written, even less important later.  It's been a week of paperwork and shifting deadlines and lots of angst from others that I cannot alleviate.

I needed that reminder that I am more than the sum of my e-mails.  And if I'm being honest, I had some of those moments this week at work too.  I helped students with schedule snafus, I helped to finalize some of the stuff from the move that remains unfinished, I tried to be present for everyone, even if I couldn't always help.  That quality of being present:  it may seem like the least important thing, but it may be the most important.

It sets a good example, and more people are watching than I realize at the moment.  May I always be an inspiration!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Our Bodies, Our Genders

I've been catching up on old NPR stories.  This story about transgender issues was on Fresh Air; it's worth a listen.

The three guests have written Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.  They modeled the book on the classic feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book written by lay people, not doctors.   It was full of information that wasn't available elsewhere.

It's hard to remember those days, when information wasn't available via the Internet.

I remember discovering the book in my college's library. It felt like a dangerous book to me. It talked so openly about sex and female bodies. It talked calmly about all the things that could go wrong and how one might right those things. It approached the human body from a health and wellness perspective. It had pictures. It had that 70's sense of earnestness and honesty that was immediately appealing. At first, I only read the book when nobody else was in the library--I didn't want to be caught reading it. As the year progressed, I grew in maturity to the point where I was able to actually check the book out of the library and read it openly.

I thought of that book when I listened to the authors talking about puberty and the betrayal of their bodies.  I, too, felt betrayed by my body in adolescence, but I don't feel like a male trapped in a female body.

I'm more medieval.  I just feel trapped in a body, as if I'd be better off, if my soul could break free of this earthly vessel.  I suspect I'd feel that way if I'd been born male too:  appalled by all the fluids and fleshly issues that are so distracting from the real purpose of life.

I understand how problematic that world view can be.  The book Our Bodies, Ourselves helped me make enormous progress in accepting my body.

And middle age has taken me further.  In this age when so many of my friends are stricken with bodies that are no longer healthy, I've found a new gratitude for mine.  I no longer spend much energy on how my body would be better if ______________ (so many ways to fill in that blank!).  Now I'm grateful to be free of disastrous disease, to be able to breathe freely, to be able to bend and stretch and make it through the day with energy and enthusiasm most days.  If I weigh more than I wish I weighed, well at least that flesh is healthy.

I do wonder, too, about the transgender people who finally get the surgery.  Are they happy or are they surprised by elements they hadn't considered?

One of the Fresh Air guests said, "Of the trans-women that I know, who have gone through transition, those who have had the softest landing, who have succeeded in that transition, are those who were feminist before, when they were men.  . . .   You understand what you'll be up against.  You can't build a life around stilettos and sponge cake.  The person who goes through transition thinking that being a woman is a big gender party is probably in for a big disappointment." 

I find myself, though, wondering about our insistence on a binary categorization.  We're male or we're female.

But what if there are more?

 I've often said that gender is a spectrum.  I have a BA in Sociology, so I will also say that I think that where one lives on the spectrum is deeply affected by our society.  I will also admit that recent advances in various scientific fields make me think that our biology has as deep an effect on our gendered lives.

How would our lives be different if we saw gender as a spectrum?  How would our societies be different if we thought less rigidly about gender?

The issue of gender, especially transgender issues, may come to be seen as one that's as important as the Civil Rights struggles of the 50's and 60's. And books like Trans Bodies, Trans Selves will likely be very valuable as we have the discussions we need to have.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Quilting and the Hours

Yesterday, quilting threaded its way through my day--a delightful thread!

I started the day with a Facebook message.  My cousin's little girl went to get a blanket from her closet, and she pulled out the quilt that I made when she was born.  She asked her mom about quilting, and her mom said that maybe I'd show her some day.

I was immediately thrilled and thought of projects we could do, if she asks me sooner rather than later.  I wondered about all the old-timey things that my spouse and I know how to do (sewing, canning, candlemaking, quilting, playing our own instruments, cooking), and I wondered how I feel about being seen as an expert or a resource.

Of course, I'm happy on the one hand, but also sad that so many of these skills have vanished from the larger population.  I thought of the time I asked my grandma to show me how to quilt and she was baffled about why I'd want to do that when I could buy a perfectly good blanket from Wal-Mart for so cheap.

I thought of Alice Walker, the writer who made me want to learn to quilt.  I thought of the quote that I found this morning in an essay* about how she came to write The Color Purple:  "And so, I bought some beautiful blue-and-red-and-purple fabric, and some funky old secondhand furniture (and accepted donations of old odds and ends from friends), and a quilt pattern my mama swore was easy, and I headed for the hills."  And finally, her characters felt more free to speak to her, and she wrote and swam and quilted. 

My spouse was at choir rehearsal, so I spent the evening working on a time sensitive quilting project.  I like to have something on while I quilt, so I popped in my DVD of The Hours.  I did my first big quilting projects when that movie came out; I remember getting the DVD and watching the movie with the commentary off and then with it on, along with every special feature while I made serious quilting progress.

I thought about first reading the book.  I was commuting to the University of Miami and reading it on public transit.  I wanted to tell all of my fellow commuters about the book.  I had just finished reading Mrs. Dalloway, and I was blown away by what Cunningham did.

The movie was an interesting choice, given the amount of death, disease and loss that this year has brought.  I found it hopeful, despite its depressing parts.  Part of the movie was filmed on my street, and it was thrilling to recognize the houses.

Maybe I will read the book again this summer.  Maybe I'll return to Alice Walker.  I've enjoyed rereading some of her essays this morning. 

And of course, both Alice Walker and The Hours reminds me of my own work that I need to get done as an artist.  I want to believe that there will be plenty of time, but this year has shown me that there may not be.

*"Writing The Color Purple" in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens