Thursday, July 30, 2015

For Those in Peril on the Sea

I've had the Navy hymn on my brain during the past few days.  On Friday, two teenage boys from South Florida headed out to fish.  They have yet to return home.  Lots of people have been doing lots of searching, but the field is vast. 

Their boat has been found much further north, but no one knows how many life jackets were on board.  Could the boys still be alive?

I hold out hope.  I think of the South Florida grandmother, Tillie Tooter, who went to pick her relative up from the airport and both she and her car vanished for days.  She was forced off the road and over the edge of I 595, where her car landed on the tops of trees below.  She caught dew in her socks and in her steering wheel cover while trapped in the car in the sweltering heat.

I know that the boys face larger odds, as the ocean is even more harsh.  I hope they have water.

There's a Yeti cooler that's missing.  A trainer at my gym says it's a high-end cooler--indestructible and unsinkable.  Maybe they're clinging to it.  Maybe there was water inside.  Maybe a sandwich or two.  But they can go without food.  I don't keep my sunscreen in a cooler, but I hope they have sunscreen.

My short story class has been reading Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat."  That naturalistic depiction of the ocean seems particularly timely right now.

Many of my colleagues at work are aghast that two fourteen year old boys would be allowed to go out fishing all alone.  Even with what has happened, I still approve.  I suspect that those boys are fairly well-equipped to handle what's happened to them, since they've been on boats since they were very young.

Ordinarily the ocean seems a safer place than land.  Then an incident like this reminds us of the power of the sea.

I have no boat and no plane.  I can't join the search in any meaningful way.  And so I fall back on what residents of the shore have always done:  I hope and pray and sing the old songs to calm the anxiety.

Here's a beautiful rendition of the first verse of the Navy hymn, if you, two, could use some calm.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Saint Martha's Lessons for Those of Us Trying to Carve Out a Creative Life

Today is the feast day of Saint Martha, one of the few named women of the Gospels.  You may remember her from the story in Luke, where she hustles and bustles with household chores and grows ever more exasperated with her sister Mary, who isn't helping. 

For a theological approach, see this post on my theology blog.  But here, I want to think about Martha and her lessons for those of us who are trying to carve out a creative life.

At first glance, it's counterintuitive.  Martha is not living a particularly creative life.  How can she?  She's much too busy trying to manage and micromanage.  And therein lies the lesson.

Martha scurries around so much that she can't be present for Jesus. How often are our current lives similar? We often get so consumed by the chores of our daily life that we neglect to make time for what's really important.

Keep in mind that even though the story revolves around women, men are not exempt from this paradigm. All humans must wrestle with the question of how to balance the chores that are necessary to sustain life with the creative nourishment that we need so desperately. Unfortunately, often the chores win.

I can hear some of us shrieking by now: "Yes, but those chores must be done!" Really? Are you sure? What would happen if you didn't vacuum this week? What would happen if you wore your clothes an extra time or two before laundering them? What would happen if you surrendered to the dust?

Jesus tells Martha that she worries about many things, and the implication is that all of the issues that cause her anxiety aren’t really important. It's a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again--maybe every day.

We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. For some of us, charging through our to-do lists is a way of quelling the anxiety. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to take time to work on the creative aspects of our lives that matter most to us.

Give up one chore this week and use that time to return to your creative practice.

There's one other story about Martha that gives valuable instruction for those of us struggling to find our creative lives.  We also see Martha at the story of Lazarus, her brother, who has been dead in the grave for several days when Jesus comes.  She is convinced that her brother would still be alive if Jesus had gotten there in time.  And she's worried about the smell when Jesus orders the grave opened.  Here she is, about to witness a miracle, and she's worried about the social niceties.  She wants a miracle, but she wants it on her terms.

I see the same thing in many a creative life.  I've had chapbooks chosen for publication, but I yearn for a book with a spine.  When I get the book with a spine, I expect to yearn for something else yet again.  We live in a time where distribution of words is miraculously easy--and yet I often wish that someone else would do the hard work.

I've seen friends who finally get the book deal, and then they complain over items that seem minor to me, issues of copyediting which baffle me as I watch the battles from the sidelines.  I see so many instances of creative types trying to micromanage the miracles coming their way.

I have hopes that our creative lives will follow the model of Martha.  Even though she seems slow to understand the lessons of Jesus, he doesn't get exasperated and send her away.  He continues to try to shape her, gently and insistently.  He tells her that she worries about many things, but that her sister sets a good example.

The sister, Mary, is fully present.  My hope for us all is that we, too, can be fully present to our creative life, to that which needs us to bring it into the world.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Poetry Tuesday: "The Fifth Demon"

I spent some time last week thinking about Mary Magdalene as her feast day came and went.  It's not the first time.  In this post, I come back to these thoughts:  "I think of Mary Magdalene and the ways her life was changed by her discipleship.  I wonder if she ever missed those demons or if she spent every day in deep awareness of how much worse her life could be and had been.  I wonder what happened to her once her brief time with Jesus was over."

I've played with these ideas before.  I've written several versions of a poem that imagines the demons of Mary Magdalene.  Here's the latest one:

The Fifth Demon

You moderns read about my demon
possession, and you think of The Exorcist:
gravel voices out of the mouths of schoolgirls,
mouths that spew gobs of green goo.

I tell you, it wasn’t like that. Each demon
had a unique personality, a tone
that only I could recognize. In the night,
the hiss of their suggestions soothed
me into sleep. By day, their constant
criticisms and complaints proved motivation.

And then I met Jesus. His voice
filled my head and crowded out the demons.
His stories left me slightly dizzy,
like I had spent weeks sleeping
on a sailing ship and returned to land.

I miss the fifth demon most.
I lost them, and then I lost
him, and now I have only the tomb
of my empty mind.

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Grandfather's Writing Process

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister, of the LCA variety (one of the branches of Lutheranism that merged into the ELCA).  He went to seminary during the Great Depression.  My grandmother kept the letter that the seminary had sent, the letter that encouraged him to stay on the farm because at least he would have food.

He ignored that advice, went to seminary, and spent the rest of his life as a Lutheran pastor in small towns in the U.S. South.  He saw a lot of changes and stayed faithful, as he understood that word.

Before he went to seminary, he was an English major at the University of South Carolina.  I still have a few of his poems.  I will always wonder how his poet's brain influenced his preacher's brain.

He died in 1984, when I had just turned 19, so I didn't have a chance to get to know him as an adult.  I will have to be left with a pieces of paper and the memories of others.

Last week, my mom and dad who were visiting, gave me an envelope with 2 of his sermons.  My mom says that he always started by taking a sheet of blank paper and folding it in half.  His sermons filled both sides of that paper.  My mom says that sometimes he'd make an outline and preach from the outline.

The pages that I now have were typed, and I thought about how long it's been since I held typed pages in my hands--pages typed on those old typewriters that actually pierced the page at various places--or did my grandfather type more aggressively than most?

I wonder if he wrote a rough draft by hand before typing?

The theology in the pages seems solid.  He's trying to teach his flock how to live a faithful life, but it's not the light, fluffy, God will reward you kind of preaching.  I can imagine listening to his sermons week after week and learning something or taking a nugget with me to sustain me through the week.

I could read these pages and not realize that my grandfather was a poet.  They aren't filled with symbolism or strange comparisons that a metaphysical poet would make.  They were written before some of the important archaeological finds of the 20th century, but even if they had been written in 1970, I imagine that my grandfather would have ignored the historical developments that give us a different look at Jesus.

Once that might have been a drawback for me, but these days, I admire what my grandfather was able to do:  to take some fairly advanced theology and bring it down to matter to the lives that people are actually living.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Artist Lives as Teamwork

One of the benefits of a busy schedule is that I rarely waste time on stupid movies.  Of course, I rarely find time to watch good movies either.

I have finally seen the movie Boyhood.  What an intriguing film!

I knew that I wanted to see it, as I heard interviews, which I've listened to again this morning (with the writer/director here, with the 2 lead actors here).  Those interviews are full of wisdom: about making a movie over 12 years, about living a life that's authentic, about the cycle of fame and how we're not always in the phase of life where anyone cares about what we say or do.

The movie, too, was full of wisdom, but the adult characters seem to take a long time to learn it.  Is it too late?

It's never too late, is it?

The interviews also have interesting insight into being an artist, and the small steps one takes towards that destination.  These artists have done a variety of interesting work, and it's interesting to hear them reflect back, especially since they are my age, give or take 5 years.  Clearly, they aren't yet done with their artistic lives, but they've reached a point where they have some perspective.

Listening to these interviews gave me a fierce yearning for more teamwork in my artistic life.  And yet, I do know that there are plenty of stories, perhaps all untold, of how teamwork wrecked an artistic life.  I think of writing friends who took years to get over bad MFA workshops, or perhaps they never did.

Let me be happy for what I have:  friendships with people who write and are creative.  And the internet, which gives me an opportunity I likely wouldn't have had to communicate with other artists and to create something I wouldn't have had without that.

One of my most recent poems is here on the Via Negativa site.  I'd been inspired by these 3 poems (here, here, and here), and on Tuesday, the poem just spilled out of me.  I sent it off to Dave Bonta, the curator of the site, and he posted it.

That poem is informed, too, by this older post of Dave's.  I'd never heard of coracles before this post, and I find them drifting into my writing in ways both surprising and not unexpected.

I find myself thinking of other communities of writers:  the Lake District that nourished the Wordsworths and Coleridge and a host of others and the Bloomsbury group and the pre-Raphs.  If I was a grad student, it would be fun to see what similarities exist between our online communities and those.

But I am not--I've spent the morning grading rough drafts of research essays with the promise of writing and time with my quilting group to keep me motivated.  I am done with those rough drafts.  There's more grading of other classes that could be done, but I must make a cranberry orange bread and tidy the house.

It promises to be a creative day with like-minded creative--my favorite kind of day!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Late Summer Markers

I know that by the calendar, we're only at midsummer--barely at midsummer, since the summer solstice was a month ago, and we've got two months until the autumnal equinox. 

But in terms of weather, it feels like late summer:  it's been hot for months, with no end in sight.  Our yards are getting crunchy, in this year of rainy season drought.

In terms of the school year, it's late summer:  one batch of my online students is weeks away from finishing.  Our public school teachers will report for work in a few weeks, with students not far behind them.  We only have a few weeks of summer left, according to the school year calendar.

On my way from work to week-end, I stopped at Total Wine.  The pumpkin beers are on the shelf.  If I went to the big box stores, I suspect I would be seeing displays of Halloween candy--Halloween is only 100 days away after all.

We went to Penn Dutch, a store that specializes in a variety of meats at cheap prices, and we stocked up the freezer as if our hurricane season is over.  If a hurricane comes in the next few weeks, we'll have a heck of a cook-out! 

Last night I made some barley with feta cheese to go with our lamb chops.  I thought back to when I had bought the barley, back near Memorial Day, when I had so many summer plans, like eating more lentils and barley and eating more melon.

There's still time to eat more melon, but this summer, like other summers, I find the act of cutting up the melons into chunks to make it easy to take to work--I find this chore overwhelming at times.

After dinner, we planted radishes.  In our strange South Florida growing season, it will soon be time to plant tomatoes, while the rest of the country plants their winter squashes and cabbages.

This morning, I have tried to return to good writing practices.  I scratched at my poetry notebook.  I have some ideas, but nothing came together.  I was taking some ideas from a past poem about the fibers of our existence and thinking about various fibers:  thread, spider webs, quilts, those rainbow rubber bands that kids use to weave long bands together.

I put the notebook aside with that familiar frustration of returning to metaphors that I worry I've already used to extinction, their usefulness gone because I overuse them.  This weariness, too, is a mark of late summer.  I'm ready for a cool breeze to reanimate my writing.  It may be many weeks away, and so, I trudge ahead.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday Fragments

It's been a week of moments both surreal and serene.  Let me record some of them:

--Last night as I was driving home at dusk, which is late on these summer days, I saw a nun walking down my street.  There's a motherhouse (right term?) 7 or 8 blocks away, but they're not usually walking down my block.  I parked the car in my driveway and walked towards her.  We had a charming encounter.  For more, see this blog post on my theology blog. 

--A week ago,  I heard a colleague address the baby in a different colleague's womb.  I've been making a quilt for the wrong gender baby!  Or I should say, I've been making a quilt for a girl, and she's having a boy.  The fabric for the back is much too girly for a boy (pastel butterflies and a glittery sheen).  Happily, I have a different quilt top almost done.  After a quick trip to the fabric store, I now have fabric that's much better for a boy.

--I've been loving the pictures of Pluto and Pluto's moons.  It seems more complex than it once did.  Will we promote it back to planetary status?

--A colleague and I were brainstorming about writing a self-help book, a Who Moved My Cheese?--but without any animals.  We're both tired of animal metaphors being used to explain humans-in-office-captivity behavior.  I suggested:  Who Demoted My Pluto?

--I've heard "Spirit in the Sky" several times.  What a great song!  When I start my mandolin punk band, that will be one of the first songs we will cover.

--I'm also hearing Billy Joel belt out "Piano Man" at every turn.  Why is this song playing so many places?  I used to love it, but now I'm growing weary.

--I am oddly sore this morning.  On Wednesday, we had a different kind of spin class.  We were on the bike for 8 minutes, then we did some light weight work for 8 minutes and then 20-40 push ups or planks.  Clearly, I should do this more often, judging by the soreness.  I'm not working these muscles much.

--It has been a week where I missed more spin classes than I attended.  On Monday, I went to a last breakfast at the beach with Mom and Dad.  On Tuesday, a meeting with Math faculty went long.  Last night, I went out to celebrate the career of a colleague who is retiring.  Next week I'll get back to a more disciplined exercise life.

--Speaking of spin class, it is time to get myself together and out the door.  Hard to believe that it's Friday already--and hard to believe we're almost to August.