Thursday, January 29, 2015

Poetry Thursday: Angels before Sunrise

The liturgical time of Advent to Ash Wednesday always sets me to thinking about angels.  I am a good English major, and so I am well aware that more of our theories of angels come from Milton than from the Bible--or worse, from people's desperate desires, and the purveyors of sentimentality who prey on those people.

On the days when I believe in literal angels, I believe in them as a species separate from humans, living or dead.  When I die, I will not join the angel choirs.  Those choirs are for angels.  Humans do not die to become angels.  Angels were in existence long before humans.

I like the idea of angels moving amongst us, but not in the same way that most people do.  I don't believe in guardian angels who are there to step in and save me from myself.  But I do like the idea of angels who take an interest.  I do like the idea of angel messengers, although I suspect that most of us are deaf to the message.

Long ago, after the exhaustion that comes from explaining medieval ideas of angels and their place in the universe so that my Brit Lit students could understand Milton, I wrote the poem below.  For many decades, I've been writing poems that imagine Jesus moving through our modern world (see "Heaven on Earth", "New Kid," and "Strange Communions").  Occasionally I play with similar ideas with angels.

Here's my take on guardian angels.  I wrote it after hearing voices I couldn't identify outside my window in the wee, small hours of the morning.  Readers of Milton's "Paradise Lost" will notice some echoes.

Strategies Before Sunrise

The neighborhood angels congregate
outside my window. It’s very late,
3 a.m.—and they know their charges sleep
safely under the covers in darkened homes.

The angels make calls
on their interstellar cell phones to check
stock prices, check on family members. Sell,
buy, a career change, the futures
market, sleep, snack: their arguments
filter into my dreams.

These angels drink light beer
as they play checkers, strategizing
while waiting for sunrise. They’d prefer
a more challenging game, a better beer,
a darker blend, foamed with honey
and the yeasty blend which bespeaks bread.
But only rebel angels partake of chess, lagers
and all the forbidden conspiracies which tempt
the good citizens of the celestial spheres.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Our Books of the Dead

Last night I put the finishing polishes on a story that I wrote a year ago.  I sent it off to Glimmer Train.  I think it's one of the best stories I've ever written--but I know that Glimmer Train gets bushels of short stories every day.

This morning, I thought about how perfect it would be if Glimmer Train accepted this particular story out of all the ones I've sent to them.  I wouldn't have had this story without my friend Shannon telling me about her mother's mental decline, and I wouldn't know about Glimmer Train if Shannon hadn't brought a copy to work in 1996.

The story covers some of the emotional terrain I covered in a poem of the same title.  In the story, I flesh out the story with additional family members, with scenes from work, with a bit of hopefulness at the end.

I took the story to a writer's lunch when I first wrote it.  Here's the part that spoke to my friends who read the first draft:

"In the early stages of her mother’s disease, Kay thought of all the ways she hoped her mother would return to her. She missed her mother’s cooking, her needlepoint projects, her decorating for Christmas. She even missed her mother’s sharp tongue, all the ways she criticized."

Or was it this part?:

"At some point, Kay hoped her children would move out and start families of their own. Kay hoped that she wouldn’t have to crash-land in her children’s later lives the way her mother had. But for now, she savored the evenings when they all gathered around the piano to sing together. She saw them as building a language that they might or might not need for the future."
And here's the ending, which tries to redeem the bleakness of parts of the story:

"At some point, they would all be names in the book of the dead. But for now, they had voices and they could end the day with singing and a bedtime prayer. At some point, they would be nothing more but bone and ash. But for now, they could be together."
And here's the original poem, which was published at the gorgeous online journal, Escape Into Life. My poems are paired with intriguing fabric art; go here to read it and the other poems chosen and to enjoy the art.

Book of the Dead

Even though her mother lives,
she writes her mother’s name
in the monks’ book of the dead.

She writes her mother’s name
in this giant book and steps
away before her tears
can blur the ink.

She walks to the bank
of the river and watches
the mist dance its last
movements. A runaway
slave or a Native American
soon to be slaughtered
would not be a surprise.

She drives back to the hospital
and slices the fruitcake
bought in the gift shop, baked
by monks in a far away monastery.

Her mother, who used to mock
fruitcake, who used to count
each calorie, this stranger gobbles
every last crumb. On the window sill,
seabirds eye the scene. She tries
to remember the smell of salt.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Once We Had a Fish Tank

I've been singing "Once We Had a Fish Tank" to the tune of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."  The original goes, "Once I had a railroad, I made it run, I made it race against time.  Once I had a railroad, now it's done, brother, can you spare a dime?" --at least, that's how I sing it in my head.

Let me see, "Once we had a fish tank, right in our wall, . . ." and then my song-making skills stop.

Yes, we had a fish tank.  It came with the house that we bought in the summer of 2013.  It was part of the wall that divided the hallway and the dining room.  We loved it when we first saw it.

My spouse has been keeping fish since he was young, but we haven't had a tank since we moved down here.  We had thought we'd set up the tank that came with the new house we bought.

But to get into it (like, to feed the fish), we'd have had to stand on a ladder.  And more worrisome, we couldn't be sure that it was watertight.  It's a big tank:  8 feet long.  That would be a lot of water spilling into the house if it wasn't able to hold water.  And because it's a narrow tank, my spouse decided that the fish that he wanted wouldn't really be happy.

We moved on to the next phase:  what to do with the tank?  I'll speed up this story.  My spouse put an ad for a free tank on Craig's List and watched the phone lines light up.  He was quite clear in explaining how heavy the tank is.

One guy showed up last night and sounded like he would take it.  His buddy showed up.  It was clear that he couldn't move it with 2 people.  They decided to wait until morning.

The next batch of people showed up:  four college guys--but not the burly variety of college guys.  They tried to move it, and then they called for reinforcements.

So, we waited and waited.  I got all my grading done for my online classes.  Finally, they showed up, along with our neighbor and his two adolescent sons.

So, how many guys did it take to move the tank?  Nine?  I confess to being unsure, because I just couldn't watch.  It took a lot to get it unwedged from the stand and the wood and the wall.  And then there was the turn onto the porch and then onto the yard.  Then my neighbor got some 2 x 6 pieces of wood to help lift it onto the trailer.

I'm still amazed that they did it.  I expected to be spending days sweeping up glass.  I wouldn't have been surprised to have an aquarium lodged in a doorway.  My morning has been very different from what I was afraid it would be.  I've had a peaceful morning of writing and making sure that my online classes are going smoothly.  Insert sigh of satisfaction here.

How will these college guys get the tank from the trailer into the house?  They were talking about a keg party where the keg didn't get tapped until everyone helped.  Ah youth.

My spouse overheard them talking about the tank becoming a "chick magnet."  I find it oddly heartwarming to think of them wooing women with a cool fish tank.  There are worse ways to woo a woman.

At one point last night, I got a glass of water for one of the college guys.  He said, "Thank you, ma'am."  I thought, I've gone from being one of the crazy college kids to being the middle-aged woman who brings water and sweeps up after the antics of the crazy college kids.

You know what?  That's fine with me.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Setting an Example for the Next Generation

--My sister sent me a picture of my 8 year old nephew flossing his teeth.  He chose the kind of floss that I use, so that he can be like me.

--It just goes to show that we set examples to the next generation in all kinds of ways.  While I hope he's also going to model my healthy behavior when it comes to other areas, I'm glad to be a model of good dental hygiene.

--I am not a careful flosser, so I floss each tooth multiple times in the hopes that I'll get the job done.  I zip through the top row, then the bottom row, then back to the top, then back to the bottom, at least 3-5 times for each row.  My brother-in-law once said that if ever they think that an imposter is in their midst pretending to be me, they'll be able to tell by the way she flosses her teeth.

--What else do I hope he emulates?  I hope he remembers how much fun it was to cook together and enjoy great meals.  I hope he remembers the times we made books together.  I hope he remembers all the other creative things we did.  I hope he remembers that we'd play a game or do an activity, even if we weren't necessarily good at it.

--I hope that he remembers us as people who say "please" and "thank you" and "good job." 

--I hope he remembers that we loved each other fiercely and never let go of that.

--My sister and nephew will be coming to visit at the end of February, if the weather permits.  We've been snowed out of February visits before.  I wonder what kinds of examples we'll set during that week-end?

--I also think of how much better behaved we'd all be if we remembered that someone is always watching and learning from the examples we set.  I shall move through the day with the thought that a youngster may be paying attention!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dreaming of Spring in the Garden Center

A bit of chill in the air--nothing like the rest of the country, but still, 50 degrees.  So I decided to ditch my plans to run and to stay put, working on online classes and writing projects and baking pumpkin bread.

One of my writing projects is a blog post for the Living Lutheran site, which I said I'd have ready be tomorrow.  It's about the feast day of Candlemas, celebrated on February 2.  Astute readers will recognize the collision of several different holidays from a variety of traditions:  Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc and Oimelc.  Many of them celebrate the turning of winter to spring.

I realize that major winter weather is forecast soon for much of the country.  Surely Spring is far behind?

Yesterday I got a taste of spring when we went to Home Depot.  We were buying shrubbery, but I was struck by all the flowers:  such variety and such vibrant colors.  What a treat.  I can't say that my eyes are starved for color:  I live in the tropics, after all.  But I don't usually see them all clustered together.  I see a palm tree here, a bougainvillea bush there, an occasional hibiscus flower, my poinsettia plant which is just now getting more red than green.

We bought our shrubbery, some podocarpus plants which took up the whole back of the car.  I felt like I was driving a forest mobile.  I had no vision out the rear window, which was oddly soothing.

I am tempted to buy masses of flowers and plant them in pots and move them all around the yard.  I think of myself as killing plants, but I don't.  They might not flourish the way they would if my spouse was taking care of them or my grandmother.  I'm the type who will remember to water, although it may take several days. I keep herbs going for years before a mysterious disease wipes them out.  I divide pots of mums and kill half of them, but half of them survive. I thought they were crowded.  I didn't realize they'd die of loneliness when I spread them out.

It's time to think about the front porch, but the pumpkins from fall still haven't rotted.  I have visions of pots of petunias, but have yet to find them.  But half of the transplanted mums survive.  For now, I'll just let it all be. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Snippets from a Writing Morning

--More than once, I've been revising an essay for my memoir/book of essays, and I've remembered a different version--only to find I've been revising an earlier version of an essay.  It happened again this morning.

--In a way, it's an interesting exercise, since I still also have the earliest rough draft.  Did I make consistent decisions?  Yes, I did.

--So, this morning, I said, "Kristin, this is just ridiculous.  Organize these files."  I obeyed that voice of reason.

--I also thought about this episode of the Diane Rehm show which talked about ransomware and the importance of backing up files.  So, I did that too.

--I also wrote another page of my short story prompted by a monthly word--my challenge for 2015.  This month's word:  spell.

--I thought of writing a poem based on something I found out about a friend:  she has just one knife, which she uses for everything:  cutting meat/cheeses/vegetables, spreading butter, and all the other things you'd use a knife for.  Seems it should be a metaphor for something.  But I don't know what.  I'll let that idea percolate.

--I wrote this blog post for my theology blog.  It's a photoessay (more photo than essay) that talks about how we perceive life's calling.  It's got theological language, since it's for my theology blog, but it could just as easily be talking about the call to be creative.

--All in all, it's been a good writing morning:  a nice way to start the week-end!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Poetry Friday: How We Think About the Muse

Thursday's post put me in mind of poems that I've written that address this subject of prodigals returning to practice.  Here's one of my favorite first lines of all the poems I've ever written:  "The muscles remember what the mind forgets."  It's from one of the few successful villanelles I've ever written, and you can read it here

That link will also take you to a poem that imagines the muse as Penelope, waiting faithfully for her artist who goes wandering off.  I've posted that poem several times already, so I won't post it again here.

I was thumbing through my old poems, thinking about how I think about the muse.  I don't really believe in writer's block, in the muse abandoning me.  No, it's me who doesn't make time for lunch with my muse.

In my old files, I found this poem which was never published.  I still like the images in it.  It intrigues me, this mix of fairy tales and modern science:  germ warfare and ancient archetypes!  I think I wrote it during the time when anthrax was being mailed to various people.  Still, I think it works.

The Call of the Crows

My muse leaves me a trail
of breadcrumbs. Just to be safe,
she mixes in all my favorite
kinds: the sourdough of experience, the sweet
cinnamon bread of memory, the rye
of humor, the hearty grained passions.

Alas, poor muse! She doesn’t know
of these crows that guard
me always, the caws of callous
criticism always in my ear.
They see what my muse plots
and they pluck away the crumbs
as quickly as she can scatter them.

But my muse is a crafty girl, well-schooled
in mazes and cunning escapes. She selects
cords in many colors, velvet ribbons
and festive silks to help me find my way.
The crows use these to line their nests.

Luckily, my muse is not so easily deterred.
She forgoes the subtle approach, the seductive
ways of getting my attention. She plants
landmines in my gardens of guilt,
mails bombs cleverly disguised
as friendly letters, which scatter infectious
agents of creativity throughout my day.
She infuses me with bacteria that will infect
each cell, viruses that will root in my very soul,
recombining my DNA, transforming me in fevered
fires into a woman who no longer comprehends
the call of the crows.