Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Lessons of Palm/Passion Sunday for Modern Creatives/All of Us

Today churches across Christendom will celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.  Of course, the same crowd that cheers for Jesus will just a few days later be screaming for his death.  Many churches will cover the whole Holy Week story today:  Palm Sunday has become Passion Sunday. 

 This morning I woke up thinking about what the Palm/Passion Sunday story has to say to us as poets and writers.  As humans, we are susceptible to the desire for praise.  We don't feel like our work is important unless someone else says it is.  In some ways, this tendency is good.  We need the checks and balances of brains that aren't our own.  I've written many a harsh things in my younger years, much to my later regret.  How I wish I had listened to other voices that encouraged me to temper my tone.

But taken to its extreme, this need for praise can be damaging.  We stop believing in ourselves and our worth and the worth of our work unless someone important tells us that we're great.  And quickly, we start to determine which praise counts and which doesn't:  this journal is worth our time, that one isn't.  If we can't be published by the top 10 presses, we won't bother.  If my book doesn't sell x amount of copies, it's not worth it.  The danger is that we'll become paralyzed by all of this.  I'm all for shooting for the top.  I'll send my manuscript to W.W. Norton or Knopf.  But if they say no, I don't want to stop there.

The Palm/Passion story also reminds us of the fleeting nature of fame.  Don't get me wrong:  if I'm chosen to be Poet Laureate, I'll do as good a job as I'm capable of doing.  But I'll start every day by reminding myself that the fame is likely temporary.  The important thing remains:  the work.

The Palm/Passion story reminds us that we're characters in a larger narrative (as does the Passover story, which people across the world will be hearing this week too, both in Jewish traditions and some Christian traditions).  We will find ourselves in great danger if we start to believe it's all about us, personally. 

No, there are larger forces at work.  To put it in poetry and Scouting terms:  I'm put here to do my best writing, but also, to leave the poetry campsite better than I found it. 

How do I do that?  I work to promote not only myself, but other worthy poets, I work to make sure that the next generations know about the rewards of poetry, I envision the kind of world we would have if poetry was valued, and I work/play to make that possible.  I also work to have a balanced, integrated life:  my work in poetry cannot be allowed to eclipse other important work:  the social justice work, the care of my family and friends, my relationship with the Divine, the other creative work I do, the self-care that must be the foundation of it all.

I find many values to being part of a religious tradition, but the constant reminder of the larger vision, the larger mission, is one of the most valuable to me.  The world tells me that many things are important:  fame, money, famous/rich people, a big house, a swell car, loads of stuff.  My religious tradition reminds me of the moth-eaten nature of these things that the world would have me believe is important.  My religious tradition reminds me of the importance of the larger vision.  And happily, my religious tradition is expansive enough that my creative work can be part of that larger vision.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Spring Has Sprung

On Facebook, people are posting pictures of dogwoods and azaleas in full bloom.  I am feeling that surge of envy and longing that I feel when people post pictures of autumn leaves.

I miss dogwoods--and hydrangeas. People travel to see autumn leaves, but I would travel to catch the blooming of the dogwoods and the blaze of azaleas. My hydrangea tour would be later in the summer, I guess.

It's a shame I'm not more entrepreneurial. I could see flower tours as a business plan!  Some people plan tours of Paris, and I dream of gardens.

Once I would have sneered at people who visit gardens--oh, the hubris of youth!  And now, living in the land of concrete covering everything, I'm happy to go to any space that holds growing things.  It can be a planned space, a formal garden, a patch of weeds.

We have been growing tomatoes in pots, and we're getting our first tomatoes.  Down here in South Florida, tomatoes are a spring harvest.  Since we're growing them in pots, the tomatoes are small.  My spouse eats half in one large bite and hands me the rest.  Then we both weep a bit at the luscious taste we thought we might never have again.  We think of our gardening grandmothers who would not understand how hard it can be to grow a tomato.

It's strange to live down here where our seasonal indicators are a bit off much of the year.  Yesterday we had summer temperatures and steamy humidity.  This morning it's windy and cooler, a bit of autumn.  The yellow tab trees are amazing this year, but now with this wind, I imagine much of the blooms will be swept down the street.

I've been making lemon curd, and my hands smell of lemons.  It seems less a seasonal marker than an occasional treat.  Once I made lemon curd and scones on a regular basis.  Those days seem very far away.

I leave you with a rhyme from even further away.  In childhood, when we saw the first blooms of spring, my mother would recite an old Burma Shave sign:

Spring has sprung
The grass has riz
Where last year's
Careless drivers is.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Taxes and the Modern Writer

I don't usually wait so late to do my taxes.  I realize that I could have another few weeks, but usually, I'm done by early March.  Some years, I've been done by mid-February.

My taxes are not complicated--at least, in some ways they aren't complicated.  I don't deduct any part of my house or utility bills as part of my writer's expenses.  My writing is done in the corner of the front bedroom on a desk that's 2 feet by 4 feet--and the desk chair takes a smidge more space--that's not much square footage to deduct.  Plus the space is also used for online teaching.  It just seems like too much of a risk of an audit that would find me wanting in proof.

I do keep track of mileage.  I keep every receipt for every expense--and every meal.  That requires some calculating when it comes to tax time.  Sort the receipts, do the tally of each category--that's the bulk of my tax work as a writer.

I've thought about our taxes as a snapshot of modern life.  If I had been itemizing these expenses a decade or two ago, I'd have more postage expenses to deduct.  Now I do most of my submitting online--and thus, my office supply tally is less than it would have been in previous decades too.

I've thought about our taxes as milestones in other ways too.  This is one of the first years that I don't have several properties to think about.  That makes me sound wealthy, doesn't it?  No, just one of many who had properties they couldn't unload during the downturn. 

We have school expenses for the first time in years.  I hadn't thought about my spouse's tuition and books as deductible, and yet, they are.  They aren't huge expenses, as we pay them throughout the years.  But they add up.

Tax time is a good time to do this kind of assessment.  I go out with writers for a variety of lunches and coffees.  I find it wonderfully supportive.  But when I total all the receipts?  I still think it's worth it, but every year, I'm surprised that I've spent as much as I have.

I think about self-care in all sorts of ways, but I'm not sure I'm protecting future Kristin enough.  I could save more for retirement.  When I'm a little old lady, will I wish that I had spent a bit less on lunches out and wine at the end of the day?

I often talk about what I can and can't afford, and tax time spells it out starkly.  For all of us who think we can't afford a new laptop or a trip to a conference--well, perhaps we could, if we tracked our expenses a bit more carefully.

Or maybe we really cannot.  That's good to know too.  We can ask ourselves about our priorities.  Maybe it's time to think about prioritizing work that pays.  Maybe it's time to think about our career trajectories.  Maybe it's time for some changes.

"April is the cruelest month"--I'm thinking of the T.S. Eliot quote differently today!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Random Inspirations

--I am always on the lookout for inspirations for future poetry writing and this morning, I came across this blog post with this poem:

DUSK by Lisa Russ Spaar

Blue, I love your lapis palace,
your stair of melancholy that burns,
but does not consume my heart.

I love the heaven-shot and glinting stares
of all your tall and far-flung windows,
your shadowed sills, your roofless picnic of stars.

I climb your fabled tense of once
and upon a time, your fractured prayer:
that restless hinge: your voice, thick with thorns.

Molly Spencer, the writer of the larger blog post, gives this writing suggestion:  What color (or colors) could you write a direct-address poem to? Something to try, perhaps.

--I thought about all the colors I love:  blue and purple and green.  I thought about jewels and peacock feathers.  But I did not write a poem to a color.

--I read these lines written by Luisa Igloria in this blog post/poem:

The sales clerk said, helpfully: Sometimes
the size is different depending on the maker.


--I thought of factory workers and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  I thought of all the ways that workers rebel, the daily resistance, and how it can end in a blaze.  Or maybe it just ends in shirts of slightly different sizes.  I had a vision of factory workers cutting slightly off the pattern, but of course, that process must be mechanized.

--Maybe the machines rebel against the mechanized work, the relentless quest for conformity, the soul-stripping nature of their existence.

--I think of my good friend and her co-existence of a new machine.  She lies awake at night watching it watch her.  I asked if it was noisy, and she said no.  It's just a new presence in the bedroom.

--I think of this machine, and factory machines, and all the tiny machines we keep in our pockets.  How in thrall we are to them!  Yesterday I walked up the stairs with a colleague who could walk up the stairs and text at the same time.   However I was halfway down the hallway before I realized that I had left her behind.  We may be able to text and walk, but few people can text and walk at a quick pace.

--When my parents taught me about resisting peer pressure, we all assumed that I'd be pressured to smoke or take drugs.  Lately, everyone's been telling me how I need to join this century and get a smartphone.  But I already find it hard to be present with humans when I'm surrounded by other machines.  Why would I want to add a little despot of a machine to the menagerie?

--I think of machines and how much music has been mechanized.  I think of how many elements of modern music annoy me:  the drum beat that never changes, the people who sing at full-throated warble, the people who don't sing but mutter, the sinister/thuggish undertones and overtones.  Some days I just want to avoid the gym altogether.

--But then I wouldn't overhear nuggets like this one:  "It should be against the rules to bring baked goods to the gym."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Incubating and Incarnation

Today is the feast day of the Annunciation.  What is that holiday?  Simply put, it celebrates the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, who would become famous as the mother of Jesus.  He gives her the vision that God has for her; she agrees.

For a more theological reflection, see this post of mine which is up at the Living Lutheran site.

This morning, I was lying in bed reflecting on earlier times when I knew more people who were pregnant, breastfeeding, or adapting to small children.  Twelve years ago, I wrote this line, "The world is awash in breast milk."

Thirteen months ago I was at a creativity retreat at Lutheridge, a church camp, at the same week-end where a camp counselor returned to get married.  All their friends came too.  They all looked so young.  All day on Saturday, I saw young people in their dress-up clothes, adjusting a tie here, a strap there.  I battled a rising sense of panic that once I went to weddings, and now I'll be going to funerals.

This past year has been a year of many types of cancers, none of them mine.  Now when I think of Mary and the period of waiting, of incubating.  I am resisting seeing the similarities to cancers.  Maybe an idea that I resist because it scares me and it feels sacrilegious--maybe I should explore that idea in tomorrow's poetry writing session.

I am far more comfortable with the idea of a long incubation of a creative work that isn't ready for the world yet.  I'm an older woman who has had visions for her creative work that haven't come to fruition yet.  No blockbuster novel that's been made into a hit movie--no, that hasn't happened yet.  I struggle to find time to create while also having time with friends and loved ones while also taking care of my day job responsibilities.

The waiting aspect of the annunciation story gives me the most hope.  God has a vision for the redemption of the world.  But that vision requires lots of waiting.  There's the waiting through the 9 months of pregnancy and then the waiting that it takes to bring a child to adulthood.

But I also know that one can get mired in the waiting.  I need to move into a place where I'm taking more action.

Like an expectant mother, I feel tired and overwhelmed at the thought of taking action.  How can I possibly get the nursery painted and the crib refinished and the baby clothes bought and the quilts made?  But stitch by stitch, the quilts will be made.  If I can't paint the nursery today, perhaps I can get some swatches and decide on colors.

In the next day or two, I will send a chapbook manuscript to Finishing Line press.  Everything is ready to go--now all I need to do is the uploading.

Perhaps in 9 months I will be welcoming a new chapbook into the world.

What would you like to see incarnate in 9 months?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Romero, Reagan, and Refugees

Today I have Archbishop Oscar Romero on my mind.  In part, it's because today is the 35th anniversary of his assassination.  In part it's because the economic injustice that he preached against seems ever more pervasive today.

When I was in college in the 1980's first learning about Central American politics, it seemed bizarre to me that so few members of a population could control so much of the country's wealth.  And now it seems that we've seen that situation take over the world.

I'm thinking about U.S. interventions throughout Latin America and the world.  I'm wondering if there's a way to intervene without making the situation worse. 

I'm thinking of all the Central American refugees of the 1980's, many of whom are still here in the U.S., some legally, some not.  I'm thinking of my first years teaching in South Florida and realizing how many of my students were here because of the Central American strife of my college years.  In my college years, I would not have been able to imagine how all our paths would cross.

I've had many encounters with refugees on the run from repression, which makes it hard for me to demonize all the people who are here illegally.  When we discuss proposals to make it easier for people here illegally to come out of the shadows and gain citizenship, the actions of the U.S. government through the years are never far from my mind.

I'm also thinking about Liberation Theology, a movement that many see as closely linked with Romero. In the midst of the geo-political arguments of the 1980's, where Ronald Reagan warned of Communists coming across the Texas border, I also got my first hearing/reading of liberation theology, a pattern of thought that would change my life. Liberation Theology introduced me to a radical Jesus, a Jesus who demanded justice for the poor and the oppressed, a Jesus who was crucified not because of my individual sin but because he challenged the Roman power structure. This Jesus was not one I had met in the suburban, Southern churches of my youth.

Those of us who have a vision of social justice must remember that the world is not set up to reward those of us who call for a more just world. Sure, some of us may get acclaim, but the world tends to reward social justice visionaries with jail or martyrdom. But the vision is important, and it's vital that we demand it. Think of how different the world would be if people like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Romero, Martin Luther King, the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic--if these people had just sat idly by and said, "Well, I have my nice comfortable life. I'm not going to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Let them help themselves."

In later years, graduate students who want to write a dissertation about these influences in my work will have plenty of material from which to choose.  Here's a poem that came to me during the weeks following Ronald Reagan's death, those weeks where I found myself thinking, are we remembering the same president?  It was published in The South Carolina Review:


Lying in State



On the day that Ronald Reagan dies,
in the shadow of the Interstate, I offer
a homeless man a loaf of banana bread
which he grabs, as if afraid
I’ll rescind my offer.

Reagan’s body flies across the continent
to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda,
that branch of government which made policies
he tried to evade.
I report to work, teach English to the children
of families who fled Reagan’s foreign
policies, Cold War containment and interference.

On the day of Reagan’s funeral, I plant
a tree and remember his claim
that creatures of this leafy clan cause pollution.
I think of ICBMs fertilizing far away fields
and Adam dead of AIDS these twenty years,
his bones blending into the earth.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Rearranged Time and the Big Cyprus

Friday afternoon, I wrote this chunk as a Facebook status:

"I have just rearranged my dermatologist app't for a week later than the original Monday appointment, so that I could be in the sun this week-end and have time for my skin to return to a lighter, more dermatologist approved color for an appointment the last week of March. Yes, I will use sunscreen, but I will I reapply it religiously? Past behavior suggests that I will not."

But the week-end did not go exactly as planned. 

I thought that Sunday would be different.  I thought I'd need to spend time grading extra credit essays from my students, but very few of them elected to do it.  I thought I'd need to spend time submitting grades, but the portal was down all week-end.

My spouse had planned to take a motorcycle trip to Marco Island with his brother.  But his brother's bike was still in the shop, so he couldn't go.  My spouse tried to decide whether or not to go on his own.  I suggested that we take a smaller trip together.  We decided to go on the Tamiami Trail to the Big Cypress visitor's center that's halfway across the state.

The last time I went was on a school field trip in mid-September.  I remember the road as being deserted.  It was not deserted yesterday.

I didn't remember all the airboat ride places on the side of the road--hurrah for the Native Americans who have figured out how to give tourists what they want--but it made for a congested feel.

We never made it to the visitor's center, but we had a nice ride nonetheless.  I always love the vistas of the Everglades, that look of prairies.  We saw a lot of birds, but I didn't see any alligators like my spouse did.  Like last week, we saw a lot of motorcycles on the road.

We turned around because we didn't want to risk running out of gas and because I thought the portal would be up, and I would need to submit grades.  In retrospect, we could have gotten gas and kept going.  Oh well.

We stopped at a place that I thought might be Mexican or Japanese:  it was called Wajiro's, and it had a Mexican hat in neon.  No, it was a Cuban place.  We had great pork dishes, grilled plantains, some boring steamed veggies, some potatoes.  I had the best lemonaid ever, with crushed ice for a slushie-like approach, and the rim of the glass rolled in sugar.

When we filled up with gas before the restaurant, my spouse asked me if I had a credit card.  I said, "I have nothing but a chapstick and my good looks.  That won't get us very far."  But it did get me a lemonaid.

Did the restaurant mean to give us a free lemonaid?  Because of language barriers, we couldn't clarify.  We decided to just accept it for what it was--an unexpected treat, in a day of lots of unexpected treats.

We got home with enough time to relax in the pool.  It's still chilly--78 degrees--but after a hot ride, it was great to unwind there. 

Today I'm taking the day off because some of my friends who are public school teachers have this week off for Spring Break, and we want to get together.  I thought they had Spring Break next week, so I originally took the wrong Monday off.  Luckily, it's easy enough to reverse.

But it's symptomatic of this whole week-end, where plans changed suddenly, and I found myself having to shift gears, which I think takes me longer than other people.  I get an idea fixed in my mind about how a time period will go, and it's hard for me to adapt to changes.

Some of the things I thought I would finish yesterday, I will need to finish today:  grades, posts to my Living Lutheran editor, poem prompts to the Create in Me folks.  Some of the things I thought I might do yesterday turned out to be overly ambitious, like our taxes.  But I did get all the paperwork organized, which is much of the battle.

And there will be time for lunch with friends today, a treat I thought I would have a week from today, but today is actually a better day to take off.  The knowledge of some unstructured time today gave me what I needed to suggest a shorter Sunday trip, a treat of a trip. 

I'm sorry that my spouse missed the longer trip, because he was looking for it, but I'm glad that we had a chance to go together.  I'm glad for rearranged time.