Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Relations and Buddhist Teahouses

--Labor Day dawns:  it's the earliest day that Labor Day can come, on this first day of September.  It will be a scorcher down here at the southern tip of the U.S.

--Will you spend today putting away your white clothes and your sandals?  I will not.  I wear sandals year round, and I have one white skirt that I'll wear until October or November.  But I am old enough to remember a time when we were not allowed to wear white to church after Labor Day.  It was just not done in the traditional states of the U.S. South where I spent my childhood--even though the hot weather would continue well into September and October.  Back to school meant that feet went back into closed shoes--no more sandals.

--Perhaps you will spend today thinking about labor relations.  No, probably you will not.  I got an e-mail from a very high up person in our organization thanking us all for being such good employees and wishing us all a happy Labor Day.  I thought about the origins of Labor Day and wondered if the higher up knew any of it.  I wondered if the higher up thought he was just sending a thank you e-mail because that's what bosses should do on Labor Day.

--Or was it a clever way of co-opting the workers?  A way of buying our gratitude without spending a cent? 

--No, I suspect it was just considered good form.  I will spend the day being grateful that my workplace is generally safe and that my work is not too onerous.

--I will also spend some time wondering if I'm doing the work I was put on earth to do.  Of course, that presupposes a purpose of sorts.  Maybe it would be better to ponder the ways I could make life better for the workers around me.

----It's interesting to me that I feel that I only feel I'm doing meaningful work if I'm making an important difference each and every day.  And if I'm being honest, I want it to be an important difference like the kind that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks made, the kind of difference where future generations will be better off because I walked the planet (and yes, I realize this could sound like monstrous ego, but it's also fueled by a fierce yearning for social justice).  Did Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King feel that they made a difference each and every day?  Probably not.  It's only in retrospect that it's clear.

--I'd like to move towards the Buddhist teahouse approach of meaningful work.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen.  It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road.  Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea.  She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, "This is the Zen teahouse."  All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it.  No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words:  A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).

--How can we infuse this Buddhist teahouse approach into every aspect of our lives?  What would change?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Homemade Granola Bars

On Friday, I went back to an old recipe.  One of my favorite spin class instructors was driving to North Carolina to start a 3 month time away, and I wanted to create a care package of sorts, something to eat during the trip.  But my spin instructor only eats healthy food, and doesn't eat dairy--so a lot of my cookie recipes wouldn't work.

I thought of the breakfast bar type cookies I used to make, from a recipe I found in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu.  It's infinitely adaptable, very portable, and keeps well.  If you like crisper bars, you spread the batter more thinly across the cookie sheets.  If you want something more like a cookie, you use a thicker spread.

It's one of those recipes that can be made quickly, a bonus for the busy days that leave us longing for something homemade, nourishing, and portable.  And if you're cooking for a crowd, it's easily doubled.

Homemade Granola Bars

2 C. oats
1 1/2 C. whole wheat flour
1/4 C. wheat germ and/or flax seeds
spices, like cinnamon, to taste--1 tsp. or so
6 T. brown sugar (can be increased, decreased, or left out)
1/2 C. of nuts (can be increased, decreased, or left out)
1 C. apple juice, orange juice or water
1/2 C. vegetable oil (can be olive oil; can be partially apple sauce)
1 C. raisins or cranberries or other dried fruit, chopped--can be left out
A handful/sprinkle of coconut--or not

Mix everything together and spread across a greased cookie sheet.  Bake at 375 for half an hour.

Cut into squares while still warm.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Frankenstein Finishing School

Last month, I read Luisa Igloria's Facebook post which was actually Dean Young's "Romanticism 101," which you can find here. I thought about my morning's blog post (I had spent the morning having great fun writing the post that gave life lessons from Wuthering Heights) and wondered if it could be constructed as a kind of poem.

As I cut and pasted, then I thought of a series of Life Lesson poems from Romantic literature, so I decided to do the same thing for Frankenstein

 I pulled Frankenstein off the shelf, just to double check my memory. I had forgotten that the book is so full of such lonely people, people who are isolated even when they're with others.

I thought about Mary Shelley's life of abandonment: mother dead in giving birth to her, father preoccupied with new family, husband who will always be fascinated with others before an early death, dead babies, life on the run from creditors, . . . oh, Mary Shelley!

Since today is Mary Shelley's birthday, I'll celebrate by posting life lessons from Frankenstein:

--Some pursuits are not worth the price.

--It’s wonderful to recycle, but beware the impulse to animate.

--If you mistreat your creations, it will not end well for you.

--Name your creations, lest they be named after you.

--We’re all looking for a family.

--Do not underestimate the rage of the rejected.

--If you’re warned about someone’s destructive nature, pay attention.

--If, in an alien landscape, you see a man on a sledge, do not get sucked in.

--Yes, you’re lonely in an ice-encrusted sea.  Do not hail the stranger.

--You thought that nature would be your solace.  It may be your curse.

--Some pursuits are not worth the price.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Jane Eyre Deus Ex Machina

I was talking to a friend about the likelihood of winning the lottery.  When my spouse took statistics, he learned that if you booked a flight to Beijing and flew there on the same day and got off the plane and saw your best friend from high school in the airport in Beijing--that scenario is statistically more likely than the winning the lottery scenario.

I haven't bought a lottery ticket since.

"Where is my trust fund?"  I wailed.  But I have friends who have warned me of the danger of the trust fund--so many trust funds result in so many ungrateful recipients.

I said to my friend, "I wish I could get an inheritance.  Wouldn't that be a nice surprise?  But from a distant relative who dies, not from anyone I love dying.  A distant relative whom I didn't even know existed."

My friend winked at me.  "You mean like in Jane Eyre?"

I didn't even recognize that plot device until she said it.  But it's true.  Why yes, I'd like a distant uncle.  I'd like a small inheritance, one that's big enough to share, but not one that's big enough to be ruinous.

I recognize that I've been shaped by 19th century literature, by how many of those books I loved rely on this kind of deus ex machine deliverance of just enough money--but often only after some struggles.  It's enough money that the mail character doesn't have to keep doing whatever soul-deadening (and in some cases life threatening) tasks that must be done to keep bread on the table.  And that bread is often minimal, and on a very rickety table that's under a leaky roof.

The small inheritance allows them to live the life that will allow them to blossom--but it's not enough money that they can live recklessly.  For Jane Eyre, she can return to Rochester, the man she loves.  The money means she won't be dependent on him.  And his injuries from the fire make them true equals.

It's an amazing book, in its exploration of how gender and class inform issues of power.  But so many 19th century novels show this awareness.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte shows the corrupting power of money.  I'm in agreement with her.  So, no lottery winnings--but a small inheritance from an unknown uncle would be nice.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Prophetic Writing at the Periphery

Paul Elie has a fascinating blog post about Flannery O'Connor.  He's been traveling in Africa, and he sees that region, the Global South, as very similar to O'Connor's South, the U.S. South of the middle of the 20th century, so different from the U.S. South of today.

This part will stick with me all day.  First he quotes himself from an earlier lecture that he gave:  "Her work will make sense when the “Protestant South” is the territory of Central and South America. It will make sense when the admirable nihilist, the practitioner of a do-it-yourself Christianity, is an oilworker on a derrick in Nigeria or a “house Christian” in Beijing. It will make sense because she looked forward, not back—looked forward imaginatively through the “realism of distances,” another term for prophecy."

And then he continued:  "Well, to travel in southern Africa is to know that this is true already – or rather, that it has become more true in this part of the global South while it has become less true in Atlanta and Louisville and New Orleans.  The coexistence of races, and the separation of the races; the busyness and disorganization and drama of public life at streetside and open market; the do-it-yourself churches with their creeds handpainted on the walls outside; the constancy of poverty; the sense that life is precious, because life is dangerous, and one’s own survival is not assured – all these are recognizable in the big cities, the villages, the townships of South Africa."

He talks about writers who speak to the periphery and how the periphery is larger than we imagine.  I have spent much of my life thinking about writers who either choose to depict life in the margins/periphery or writers who have been marginalized, which can be a different group.

I have been thinking about writers who are trying to create work that builds bridges between cultures who haven't often talked to each other.  I've thought about my own work, as I've been creating a query letter for Phoenicia Publishing.  Could my work, that's coming out of a Christian tradition, appeal to my atheist friend?

I don't always think of myself as writing from the periphery, but I am working at a for-profit school, a marginalized place in some ways for people from a traditional academic background.  I am a Christian in a world that feels indifferent to faith--and I feel fortunate for the indifference, as I am well aware that in many parts of the world, I wouldn't be just marginalized but under threat of death.  And I am also an artist making my way in a capitalist world, an immigrant/pilgrim of a different sort.

In a way, I feel I'm claiming a title that I don't deserve by claiming my status as writing from the periphery.  After all, I'm solidly middle class, with resources that many middle class people don't have.  I have multiple degrees.  I exercise and eat sensibly most days.  I have a rather boring life, where I go to work every week day and return at night to a loving husband. 

Can this be the world where prophetic visions are birthed?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jackhammering in the Holocene Extinction

This morning I'm very tired, a Friday kind of tired.  I had to be at school for an 8:30 conference call, and I stayed until 5:30, when I left to end the day with a church council meeting half way across the county.  It was a good meeting, more like dinner with friends, but it still put me home later than I'm used to.

And my work day was exhausting.  My school is now next to a construction site, as yet another plot of land gets transformed into parking garages and high end shopping and condos.  Yesterday, right under my office window, the workers were breaking up concrete for most of the day.  The loud jackhammers made my desk vibrate slightly, and my head vibrate mightily.

My head would have been aching anyway.  We're beginning the task of getting the files into order for the accreditation visit in 3 weeks.  It must be done, and I'm paid good money to shepherd the task.  But it means paying attention to minute details, which is not my strong suit.

I know, you think that because I majored in English that I must be great at proofreading.  I am not.  If you wanted me to fill the files with figurative language and intriguing symbolism, I could do that.  If you wanted me to do literary analysis of the syllabi, I could do that.  But to find every last error?  Not my strong suit.

In a way, it's a shame, since assessment, institutional effectiveness, and compliance are some of the fastest growing areas of higher ed.  But I just can't imagine spending every day of my work life doing what I've been doing yesterday.

But I'm lucky in many ways, not the least of which is that I'm not the guy jackhammering concrete in 95 degree heat all morning and afternoon.  To remember that, let me post a poem:

Life in the Holocene Extinction

I complete the day’s tasks
of e-mails and reports and other paperwork.
I think about which species
have gone extinct
in the amount of time it takes
to troll the Internet.
I squash a mosquito.

He drives to the grocery store
to pick up the few items he needs
for dinner: shark from a distant
sea, wine redolent of minerals from a foreign
soil. He avoids the berries
from a tropical country with lax
control of chemicals.

As she packs up her office,
she thinks about habitat loss,
those orphaned animals stranded
in a world of heat and pavement.
She wishes she had saved
more money while she had a job.
She knows she will lose the house.
She wonders what possessions
will fit into her car.

This poem first appeared at the wonderful online journal, Escape Into Life.  I encourage you to go here to see the wonderful image of a fiber collage that's paired with the poem.  And while you're there, enjoy the other poems and images too!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cozy, Not Scruffy, Hospitality

It's the time in my administrator/teacher life when tasks loom large:  the last revisions to get ready for the accreditation team, the start of a new semester of online tasks, the yearly performance reviews that will be due just after the accreditation team leaves. 

So, of course my brain wants to start thinking about new creativity projects, new books to write!

This blog serves many purposes to me, one of which is to store ideas to which I might return at a later, less busy time.  So let me record my idea that came from a "conversation" on Facebook after I posted yesterday's post with pictures from Saturday's gathering. 

One of my friends said, "I would call it COZY!"

I replied, "Cozy Hospitality does sound much better than Scruffy Hospitality--writing that down in my list of possible book titles--now for time to write those books!"

It may be one of those ideas that's only good for a shorter project.  I see far too many books with an idea that would have made a great article, but for some reason, gets stretched to something longer.

Still, I love the idea of Cozy Hospitality.  I have 10 minutes.  Let me think about the possible chapters.

--What's the minimum amount of cleaning that needs to be done?

--What to do when you can't seat everyone around the same table.

--The Progressive Dinner!  Let's bring this idea back.

--10 easy menus that you can whip up in an hour.  10 prepare ahead dishes.  10 menus that require pitching in.

--Questions to ask to keep the conversation lively but not divisive.

--What to do when everyone's dietary restrictions clash.

--Take the cozy hospitality outside.

--Creativity and Cozy Hospitality--can we all gather for a  craft project and a meal?

And now it's off to get a spin/strength class in before my day of many meetings and revisions.  It sounds sort of Prufrockian, doesn't it?  A modern way of measuring our life with coffee spoons?

But I shall dream of other projects and the kinds of experiences, like gathering with friends, that make all of this worthwhile.