Friday, April 29, 2016

Passionate Kisses of the Young and Desperate

We have been having Internet/router and phone issues--hopefully the 3rd visit by Comcast today will fix everything for good.  I am trying not to despair by reminding myself that in the grand scheme of life, these problems are relatively easy--but exasperating as they happen.

So, let me capture a few of the events of the week that I want to remember:

--On Tuesday morning, I took my friend to the bus station.  Once I saw that he was safely on the bus, I went back to my car in the parking lot on the other side of my car.  Beside my car was a thriftstore-glamorous couple clinging to each other and kissing in that desperate way that one sees when one part of the couple is going to leave momentarily..

I thought about how seldom I see this kind of kiss these days, even though I've been traveling.  I didn't see it in the airports I've been to in the past month.  I don't see it in the parking garage of my school.  The other passengers in the bus station that day were not in passionate-desperate kissing mode.

--On Wednesday night I drove home after 8, as darkness was starting to settle in for the night.  A Queen song came on the radio.  I marveled at the great quality of the sound.  I stayed in the car in the driveway to hear "Somebody to Love" all the way to the end.  Has there ever been anyone else as talented as Freddy Mercury?

--Prince may not have been as vocally talented (see this story to understand why Mercury's voice was so amazing), but he certainly was more talented in a number of ways.  Last night, we had a spin class ride with the music of Prince.  It was amazing.

--I got an idea for a short story as we spun:  a woman who makes a life-changing experience based on the reactions to the song "When Doves Cry."  Stay tuned!

--I also thought of a poem based on that passionate-desperate kiss and watching old Prince and Duran Duran videos on the computer at work while eating my sturdy breakfast of yogurt, raspberries, oats, and pecans.  Men in make-up contrasted with a sensible breakfast.  Hmm.

--I hope to have a chance to actually write in the coming days.

--Last night, after my spin class ride, I pulled out my markers.  I need to get back to daily sketching, drawing, journaling with color.  You can see the influence of Prince:

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Straightjacket or Smorgasbord

On Thursday, I caught a ride to work very early with a friend; we got there so early that we had to wait for the building to open.  I sent some e-mails at 7 a.m., and I was amazed at how quickly my colleagues answered them.

I was there early because I was going to catch a flight to Richmond at mid-day.  Somewhere in there, Prince's body was discovered.  I didn't hear the news in real time, the way I have with other deaths of famous people.  We were waiting at baggage claim, and my mom asked a woman if they had figured out how Prince died.

I thought, Prince Charles?  One of Diana's boys?  And then it dawned on me.  I said, "Do you mean the musical figure, Prince?"  My mom nodded.  I did quick calculations.  Was he that much older than I thought?  Had he had some disease I didn't know about?  And I felt that blow:  one more amazing, creative person gone--will this year never end?

I was offline much of the time between Thursday and Monday, and I felt strangely disconnected.  I was fairly sure what would be posted on Facebook--the same kinds of things that my friends posted when Bowie died.  I missed that aspect of communal grieving.

I don't have any Prince albums.  I couldn't have spent the whole day revisiting the past that way, which is a shame.  The music of Prince, like the music of so many others, was a backdrop to many of my most formative years.  I remember a hot summer morning in 1984 when my boyfriend (who would become my husband) reached over to turn up the radio.  "This is the most amazing song," he said about "When Doves Cry."

I thought about Prince, who wrote what seemed to be the essential party song "1999," a year that seemed impossibly long into the future when I was in high school when the song came out.  The music and the movie from the Purple Rain period seemed a change in direction--and it was and it wasn't.

As a teenager, what both scared and intoxicated me about Prince, and about David Bowie, was that sense that they didn't buy into the dominant cultural message about how we must be men and women.  And I still find that aspect deeply compelling.  That undercurrent of androgyny in the 70's and 80's seems an important development to getting us where we are today.  It's also important to getting us where I hope we'll be some day--while we've made progress, many of us still find gendered expectations to be more like a straightjacket than a smorgasbord of choices.

In my later years, I've come to appreciate both Prince and Bowie as artists who never let the dominant culture tell them about how we must be artists.  That message, too, is one we sorely need.

Too often, we let ourselves become experts in one art form, and we ignore the yearnings to try something new.  We tell ourselves we're poets, so we can't also write a novel.  We're writers, so why invest in fancy markers?  On and on we go like this.  And some of us might add the soul deadeners of "I'll never master this, so why start?" or "I can't make money at this, so why bother?"

Or worse:  I'm too old, it's too late.

In this year of deaths that startle me out of my lethargy, let me use this unsettled feeling to return to the work that is important--and to remember to play with abandon.  Let me do some of both each day.  And let me be delighted by both.

And let me remember that the work that is important may come disguised as play that has no apparent purpose other than joy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retreat Week-end

I am back from a week-end away that was both a long week-end and a whirlwind of a time.  I was helping to lead a retreat from Saturday morning to Sunday morning at Richmond Hill, a fascinating retreat center and intentional community, in Richmond, Virginia.   For more on the retreat itself, see this post on my theology blog.

It was my mom's group from her church in nearby Williamsburg, and so I took Friday and Monday off, so that I could spend time with my mom and dad.  In coming days, I expect to write in more detail about some aspects of the week-end, but for now, here are some quick impressions.

--I flew up on Thursday afternoon.  I have never had TSA agents examine my boarding pass and my license quite so intently as they did on Thursday.  And yesterday, in the Richmond airport, my carry on bag was searched.  Is it me?  Just the luck of the draw?  Is something larger going on, some "chatter" that most of us wouldn't know about?

--The weather was beautiful--perfect spring days, with one showery afternoon on Friday.

--We went over to Colonial Williamsburg, where my dad does volunteer work at the library.  He's digitizing various databases, as he did at the wig shop.  We wandered amongst the stacks of the library--what amazing resources!  While I didn't want to sit down and read most of the books, it made me happy that someone found the subject matter fascinating enough to write those books about all sorts of aspects of history.

--Friday afternoon I got a haircut and highlights.  The stylist was snipping tiny amounts, and I suggested that she cut off more.  She said, "If we even out these layers, I'll be taking 3-4 inches off the back."  I asked that she do that.  So now my hair is at my shoulders and less shaggy looking--perfect for summer.

--I had very little in the way of Internet access, which was fine with me--I got a lot of reading done.  I read Golden Age, the third book in the Hundred Years trilogy by Jane Smiley.  I liked it better than the second book, and almost as much as the first.  During a lovely, lazy Sunday afternoon after brunch, I read most of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents--and Ourselves by Jane Gross; I finished it yesterday morning.  And on the plane (and waiting for the plane), I read half of Jonathan Franzen's Purity, which I plan to finish.

--I didn't get much writing done, but I expected that.  I did wonder if it might be possible to work some of the ideas from my parable workshop into some sort of book:  devotional, self-help/enrichment, and part in-depth study.  Many people have already claimed the Living Parables title, but I could come up with something interesting.

--One of the more interesting ideas we talked about:  what if God needs us as much as we need God?  There's a parable about a fig tree that hasn't been bearing fruit and the conversation about whether or not to rip it out.  The gardener fights for the tree, asking for one more chance to save it by giving it more manure.  A standard interpretation:  God is either the gardener or the landowner who wants to rip out the tree.  But what if God is the withered tree and humans are the manure?

--It was great to have the hour long drive home to have some decompression time with my mom.  We talked about the retreat, which we agreed went well.  We talked about whether or not we could take our show on the road--me with Bible study, Mom with music, both of us creating worship and workshop opportunities.  But we agreed that it would probably take more time than we have right now.

--I know that if I ever get to a point where I have more time, it might not be the right time for my mom.  Will that make me sad?  I will remember to be grateful for the time that we had.

--We also agreed that we've done 3 retreats together for groups that we already knew and that it would likely be harder if we didn't know the group.

--It was a week-end of meeting lots of people, both at the retreat and at my mom and dad's retirement community.  And there was the jam-packed plane.  And our college friend came on Wednesday and leaves today--I drop him off on my way to work. 

I hope today is fairly quiet at work, or at least the morning.  I need some gentle re-entry time.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Happy Birthday, Robert Penn Warren

Today is the birthday of Robert Penn Warren.  Now he seems like a figure from the distant past, a generation born not long after the Civil War, a generation of agrarians, a generation who would not recognize the modern South. 

Heck, some days, I don't really recognize it myself.

But in many ways, Robert Penn Warren's work is timeless.  I remember reading All the King's Men in undergraduate school and being blown away by the poetry that crept into the prose.  I suspect that the character of Willie Stark, the corrupt governor, would still feel relevant.

I must confess that I haven't spent much time with the poetry.  You can get to some of his poems from this page at  I read a few when I realized I couldn't recall a single poem of his that I had ever read.  They are masterful pieces, but they remind me of a certain type of poem, popular at mid-20th-century:  somewhat distant, masterful in form, a bit like Greek philosophy. 

Let me try a different explanation.  These are poems made of stone, cold and carved and impressive.  But if I'm honest, I prefer poems made of colorful scraps of fabric or squirts of paint.  I prefer my poems to have bits of pie dough stuck to them and a whiff of decaying vegetable scraps.

Those of you who know about Robert Penn Warren's friendship with Cleanth Brooks will protest:  "Those aren't the kind of poems he was trying to write.  No fair."  That fact is true.  But those are the poems I want to read.

Those of you who are tired of doing literary criticism that is rooted in historical time periods or the biography of the author or feminist analysis or Marxist analysis or looking at what isn't in the work--and by now, maybe that's all of us to an extent--you might want to remember the New Criticism, which Brooks and Warren helped catapult into universities across the nation.  In the 80's, in undergraduate school, I was trained as a new critic.  My favorite professor let us look at only the work on the page.  We were not to bring in knowledge of biography or history or our personal feelings or anything else as we analyzed poetry from the past.

How heady to get to grad school and to discover feminist criticism.  How I delighted in applying knowledge of history to my analysis of the work.  How we debated what was most important in our understanding of poems--and it wasn't the form of the poem and rarely the subject matter.

And then, after teaching for a decade or so, I began to wish that students were a bit better at looking at the text that was right in front of them.  And now, my colleagues and I spend time thinking about all the different things that a text can be.  What would Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks make of a world of Twitter and Facebook updates and all of us writing such widely disparate kinds of work?

I imagine their ancient visages, wrinkled before they would wrinkle their faces in protest.  Or maybe death has granted them a completely different perspective.

I think of my favorite undergraduate professor.  She used to say that no one had written a good political poem.  Now I could intelligently disagree.  But now, I must confess that I do grow increasingly weary of strident political discourse.  When poems become strident, I look away.

What would Warren say?  Here's a quote from The Writer's Almanac site:  "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake."

It makes me think about our historic time and how we dwell in it.  Some of us will write strident political poems and some of us will write meditative poems about current events.  And some of us will turn away, back to earlier times.  Some of us may dream of becoming agrarian farmers ourselves, quoting classical poetry as we tend the vegetables, just as Robert Penn Warren's grandfather did.

It's interesting to think which poetry stream we swim in, although it may be hard for us to know, given that we're often paddling too hard to understand the nature of the water and the rest of the environment.  I thought of this idea a bit more when I came across this Harold Bloom quote at the the site:  "At their strongest, Warren's poems win their contest with the American Sublime and find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant, Emersonian tradition."  That's high praise! 

When you need a daydreaming moment today, think about what Harold Bloom would say about your work, and where it fits into various literary traditions. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Creating Parables

This week-end, once again I have left my spouse to keep our South Florida homestead running smoothly, and I'm helping to lead a retreat.  Today, we will be studying parables.  Perhaps we will even write some.

If you want to play along, here's what inspired me, at a retreat in 2009--but I think it will work well with different groups and for people who are alone:

First, you will need to make lists:

6 natural objects

6 humanmade objects

6 ordinary actions

6 art materials.

If you're working with groups, you could give each group member the responsibility of one of the lists. Divide into groups of 4. Person #1 makes a list of 6 natural objects, person #2 makes a list of art materials, and so on. They number the list.

The team leader pulls a number--1-6--out of a hat. Let's say it's #4. Each group member says what the # 4 item on their list is.

So, in my group, we had canvas, coffee mug, autumn leaf, and sleeping. We started with the creating prompt: "The Kingdom of God is like ____________."

Now, we didn't need to use all the items on the list, although that might be a fun follow-up activity. We just started talking. "How is the Kingdom of God like a blank canvas? How is it like a painted canvas? How is it like a coffee mug?" We talked in our groups, then we talked as a larger group.

We had fun with this activity, and it was a great way to get to know each other. This activity would work better after the large group had looked at one of Christ's parables. Jesus took every day things/situations/activities and transformed them into stories that would help us understand God and God's purpose. We forget how strange those parables would have been to the audiences who first heard Jesus. But it's that strangeness that gets under our skin and makes us think.

We can do the same thing. We can create parables that will help us think about God and Kingdom building in new ways. We can create parables of wondrous strangeness that will get under people's skins.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Last Day to Order Chapbook and Influence the Size of the Press Run

Today is the last day for pre-publication orders of my forthcoming chapbook.  Have you ordered yours yet?  If not, go here to order your copy.  It will ship in June, and you'll have a lovely summer treat.

You may ask, why not wait to order until it's ready?  Because the press run is determined by how many books are ordered in this time period.  If the sales reach certain levels, more books are published, and since a second printing is unlikely, it would be great to make it to some of those higher levels.

Here's a poem to whet your appetite:

Sustainable Habitat
Since she has stuck to her diet for several days, she rewards
herself with extra cashews
for her meal of yogurt and raspberries.
She prepares a new pot
of shade-grown, fair trade coffee.
She thinks about the miles travelled
to bring her breakfast to her.

She sorts through a pile of manuscripts,
children’s stories, one of the few types of books
her publishing company will still print on paper.
She notices how many of them
are based on stories from vanished
cultures. She makes notes about illustrators
and thinks of her own paints
now gathering dust.

Later, she orders Christmas presents
for the children: plush
toys that turn rapacious predators
into cuddly comfort. Her purchase
supports a fund to sustain habitat.

She orders a holiday treat for herself:
a sparkly jewelry set crafted
by a woman several continents
away. It will perfectly complement
her holiday outfit that was constructed
in a factory on an island that will sink
under the rising seas by the end of the century.

To see how this poem interacts with others, order my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction, here. You'll find other poems of consolation and hope, poems that explore what elements of modern life give us hope in the face of all the stresses and calamities we face both individually, as a culture, and as a planet.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

All of Our Cells

Tomorrow is the last day for pre-publication orders of my forthcoming chapbook.  Have you ordered yours yet?  If not, go here to order your copy.  It will ship in June, and you'll have a lovely summer treat.

You may ask, why not wait to order until it's ready?  Because the press run is determined by how many books are ordered in this time period.  If the sales reach certain levels, more books are published, and since a second printing is unlikely, it would be great to make it to some of those higher levels.

Here's a poem to whet your appetite.  It first appeared in The Innisfree Poetry Journal
I got the idea for this poem when I was at Mepkin Abbey. I read a brochure that asked us to consider turning our cell phones off--not just to vibrate, but completely off. The word cell leapt off the page, and I immediately thought of the biological definition. Since I was at an abbey, I also thought of the definition associated with monasteries and abbeys. This poem was one of those that came easily to me. Enjoy!

Some monk once said that we should return
to our cells, that our cells
would teach us everything we need to know. 
She thinks of that monk
every time a cell phone interrupts
her class, that jarring, reproduction
of a ring tone, the student's rush
to return to the hall to take a call,
leaving the class behind to try to gather
the fragments of their scattered attention
to return to the task at hand. 
She thinks of that monk
as she tries to declutter.
She chooses a different closet
each month.  She tries to be ruthless
as she sorts, but she lapses
into sentimentality and maudlin tears.  
She thinks of that monk
each month as she returns
to the doctor to do battle
against her own traitorous cells.
The doctor shows her scans of her invisible
insides.  She sees the clumps that will kill
her.  She thinks of terrorists plotting
their dark revenge, of a coven practicing
dark arts, of all the ways a cell
can go bad and destroy all it touches.  
She returns to the church lit by candles.
The smell of wax and chant
of Psalms sends her back to childhood,
that original cell, still so much to learn.

To see how this poem interacts with others, order my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction, here. You'll find other poems of consolation and hope, poems that explore what elements of modern life give us hope in the face of all the stresses and calamities we face both individually, as a culture, and as a planet.