Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday Solitudes

Here we are at the day before Ash Wednesday.  Do you know this day as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday?  Or does it register at all?

Many of our Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday traditions come out of the need to use up the excess.  In medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items--because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and Shrove Tuesday pancakes, and the drinking.

Once, in 2002 or 2001, I made myself pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, but it wasn't the same, eating them in my chilly kitchen, all by myself.  But from that experience has come at least one poem.  I remember some failed attempts through the years before I wrote a poem that I felt really good about.

In 2014, I wrote a poem, "Shrove Tuesday Solitudes."  I dug out my poetry notebook this morning because I wanted to see when I wrote it, and I was struck by how the poem emerged.  I thought I would begin one way, but after several stanzas, I wrote what would become the first stanza:

"On this day before Lent begins, I had planned
to dig your ashes
into the ground where you can nourish
the hydrangea bushes. Will you turn
the flowers deep purple?"

The poem then winds its way through jewelry repair and bread baking:

"I poke the prizes
into the Mardi Gras dough:
a clove, a bean, a scrap of cloth.
No china baby Jesus;
we will not have that kind of luck."

In the past, I've made special bread; if you have time, this blog post will walk you through the process.  When I first started writing my Shrove Tuesday poems, I didn't have the cookbook (Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Holiday Baking Book) which gave me the recipe and the background of the bread.

The poem concludes this way:

"You have gone ahead—will you prepare
a place for us? I dream
of a day when you drape
baubles around my neck again
and greet me with a feast
made of all the luxuries
we need not reject
when we achieve the final resurrection."

I won't paste the whole thing here, because I want to get it published, if possible, and many journals still consider a blog to be publication. 

As I'm writing, I'm baking bread.  Well, it's not baking yet, but it's rising.  It feels good to put the dough together.  It feels good to make a week day special.

My friend went to see Patch Adams the other day--he counseled to be sure to do at least one thing each day that brings you joy.  Baking brings her joy, so she's doing more of it.  On Sunday, before our quilt group, we baked together.  We used to bake and quilt weekly, but our lives don't allow that anymore.  In some ways, it's that much more special when we bake together now.

Of course, in some ways, it's more lonely when we bake in our separate kitchens--very similar to my Shrove Tuesday blues.

It's an interesting thing to ponder, in this time of mid-life, how many of our joys are tinged with sadness as we compare them to the past times or think about people no longer present.

Ah, the wisdom of the Buddhist, who would encourage us to focus on the present moment, not to let the present joys be tinged by sadness.  I'm guessing that learning process will be one that I will need to attend to for the rest of my days.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Year of the Fire Monkey and Other Times of Transition

Today is the Chinese New Year, and it will be the year of the Fire Monkey.  The Chinese New Year is a time of cleaning, of sweeping out, of restoring order.  The year of the Fire Monkey is often seen as a time of completion, and it has the potential to be a time of prosperity.  But fire years, while giving warmth, can also be times of aggression, restlessness, and impulsive behavior.

How to celebrate?

This site tells us, "Anything and everything that is no longer serving your highest and best interest (aka, your soul) has to go. It is time to end any thoughts, habits, beliefs, people, places, or things that are no longer worthy of moving forward with you into the new."  The author then goes on to suggest lots of cleaning out of clutter.  Always a good suggestion.

We are in a time of all sorts of transition.  This week will see us celebrate Mardi Gras and finish our Carnival celebrations as we move to Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which is one of the somber church seasons, a time of introspection and penitence.

Many Christians will give up something for Lent, often something we should have been giving up all along.  A more recent tradition is to add something for Lent:  more devotional reading or a creative practice (for more suggestions, see this blog post on my theology blog).  I plan to do more coloring.  I like the resources on this site, the way it suggests we color a shape for each day of Lent.  That will be my Lenten discipline this year, along with my daily reading of Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Lent.  

For those of us who have fallen away from our New Year's resolutions, this week would be a good time to reassess.  Did we let go of them because they weren't serving us well?  Or do we want to try again.

Time moves relentlessly, and we're only here for a very short bit.  How do we want to use these precious days?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chocolate Season

--Last night we went to one of those places that has every kind of beer you could want, and they display every bottle on the wall.  I thought I'd streamline the process a bit and asked for a chocolate kind of beer.  The guy said, "Oh, you just missed those by 2 days."  I thought he was kidding, but he wasn't.  So I got a mocha stout instead. 

--But then I thought more about his statement.  Can there really be a chocolate season?  I realize that if I had a yearning for a pumpkin beer, I'd be out of luck.  But chocolate?  That seems year round and universal.

--For some reason, I've been thinking about the hot cocoa mix that my mother made every autumn as the weather started to change.  Strange to think about the days before you could buy little packets at the grocery store.

--I used to mix up a batch too, all through grad school.  But now it's easy to make hot cocoa in the microwave.

--I can hear the wind howling today.  We are forecast to have winds of 19 mph, which means there will be even higher gusts.  It will be a great day for hot drinks.

--If you want to be economical and make your own powdered cocoa mix, here's the recipe, in sizes from the 1970's:  8 qt. powdered milk (it's powdered, so the quart size baffles me--it's the smallish box), 1 pound box Nestle Quik, 1 pound powdered sugar, 6 oz. creamer (or as my recipe calls it, powdered cream).  Mix it all together.

--What I can't remember:  how much mix to how much water.  I feel like we used 1/4 cup of mix to a regular size of mug of water.

--I wonder if there's a way to health up the recipe a bit.  The Nestle Quik would have even more sugar.  Can one use cocoa powder?

--My quilt group comes over today.  We recognize no end to chocolate season.  We will be having a flourless chocolate cake.  If anyone wants to bake along, the recipe is here.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Loss of an Essential Element: Farewell, Earth, Wind, and Fire Founder

The last few weeks have seen many important musicians head off to that great jam session in the sky.  A few weeks ago, the death of David Bowie took us all by surprise.  Then it was the death of Glenn Frey of the Eagles.  And this week, the death of Maurice White, of Earth, Wind, and Fire.

I remember those first Earth, Wind, and Fire albums that I got, the amazing cover art that seemed to promise revelations from ancient cultures.  Like the band Chicago, Earth, Wind, and Fire was a HUGE band, with all sorts of instruments, and somehow, it all came together.  And it was the 1970's, when music didn't seem so compartmentalized, a time when white kids could dance to Earth, Wind, and Fire along with black kids.

Yes, I have romanticized the music of my youth quite a bit, but this essay makes it clear how groundbreaking Earth, Wind, and Fire was.  I particularly treasure this quote: "In the 21st Century, the pop culture landscape has become increasingly defined by Tarantino-inspired brutalism as evidenced by the way cinematic vengeance fantasies like The Revenant take home major film prizes. In that context, EWF's inextinguishable positivity vibe might today seem passé. But even in its mid-'70s heyday, EWF's music served a powerful social purpose. White concocted music that meant to shield us from a world constantly threatening to harden us and turn our hearts cold — a post-civil rights America defined by the Nixon administration's terror tactics against anti-establishment activists, by the devastating influx of heroin in inner cities and by the ugliness of organized white resistance to busing."

I think about my younger self, listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire albums, and then songs on albums by the Eagles, and scribbling in my notebook, and some of those plotlines are taken directly from song lyrics.  If I'd had a writing teacher to tell me to write what I know, I'd have pointed out that my life was boring.  I wanted to write about people who stayed out all night dancing and dabbling with alternative life styles that I didn't remotely understand as a white girl in the suburbs.  I listened to David Bowie on the radio (I wouldn't buy my first Bowie album until college) and wrote about strange characters on other planets and strange characters in a burned out inner city.

The 1970's was also a time, as I have written before, when radio wasn't as compartmentalized.  I could listen to our local station and hear songs by all of these artists in the same hour, along with old Beatles songs and a country song here and there--on and on I could go, but you get the idea.

My writing in those middle school and high school years was also influenced by my reading:  science fiction like Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, and women who weren't then seen as canonical like Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers.  I wrote about religious scenes I would never experience as a mainstream Lutheran.  I have a vague memory of writing a story about a young person who returns to the scene of his full-immersion baptism, who lets the river sweep him away as the full moon beams down like a communion wafer.

I have to wonder if I actually wrote that or if I read it somewhere and then appropriated it.  I'm also wondering if I'm remembering those notebooks correctly--I haven't seen that writing in almost 40 years.  I also may be getting the stories I wrote in my college years confused with earlier writing.

But I digress.  Back to the cluster of deaths of great musicians.  I realize that I'm on the alert for these stories.  I realize that these are artists who meant something crucial to me, at formative times, which is why I feel so pierced by their passings.  I realize that I'm sad about the loss of creative output that only they could produce.

And let me be honest:  with each death, I do the math.  Once I read biographies to see when artists had published their first work, and I would either comfort myself or berate myself with that information--was I on track or had I lost the race already?

Now I make a different calculation:  how old at death?  How old am I?  How many years do I have left?

It's time to do the important work.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Nature of the Soul and Other Insights from a Week of Classroom Observations

This week has been a week of many classroom observations.  One of my favorites was an Introduction to Literature class, which was discussing this sestina by Charles Algernon Swinburne.  It begins this way

"I saw my soul at rest upon a day
      As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,"

We then had an interesting discussion about how we view the soul:  as a bird in a nest?  Does the soul exist.  The teacher called on me, saying, "We have a poet in the room.  Kristin, how do you see the soul?"

Oh, the pressure!  So I answered honestly.  I said, "I see the soul as being somewhat trapped by the body, which will break down in all sorts of ways."

We talked about the body as a sort of cage, and I hastened to say that I wasn't really comfortable with the theology behind it.  I wanted to make a speech about the dangers of Gnosticism, but that would have required hijacking the whole class.  I also wanted to talk about the dangers of dualism, about the new philosophies of the mind, about all sorts of stuff that would have been tangentially relevant, but not particularly helpful to the interpretation of the poem.

In the end, I reminded myself that I was in the room to observe, not to take over.  And I was glad that I practiced the spiritual discipline of being quiet.  It was great to listen to the students have a spirited (soulful?  how many puns could I make?) discussion about the soul, about the ways we live a good life or recover from our mistakes--and I was interested that no one really mentioned God in a traditional way.  I could tell that the students who spoke had some sort of spiritual life--or at least, a yearning or two that had been acknowledged.  I couldn't tell you much about their specific beliefs or practices.

I admired the way that the teacher wove the conversation back to the line by line analysis of the poem.  I was happy that most of the students stayed with her.

But more than that, I was thrilled to see that students are still thinking about spiritual and philosophical questions, like "What is the nature of a soul?" 

In a way, I hate doing classroom observations.  I feel like I'm invasive, and I worry that my presence will change the dynamic.  It takes time to do them:  the planning, the observation, and the write up.

But I always remember an encounter I had with a colleague after I did her observation, the first of many that I would do.  She mentioned our former chair who had never done an observation and how hurtful that had been--she had interpreted the lack of observations as a lack of interest.

I, who had been a faculty member at the same time, had been relieved never to have an observation.  It was a good lesson for me, and I frequently remind myself that we're not all the same.

It's also good for me to go into classrooms to be reminded of the good work that we're doing in our school.  I often know more than I want to know about the wide variety of problems that pop up in any given day/week/month/year.  It's good to remember that most students are good and hard working.  It's good to remember that faculty want to guide them towards a better future than those students likely would have had without higher education.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Jane Eyre" vs. "Wuthering Heights" and Other Literary Analytics

Yesterday I had the kind of soul nourishing conversation with a colleague friend that I so crave and cherish.  We are reading Hard Times together, and we talked about our fear of being those characters--who would want to be Mrs. Grandgrind or Bounderby?  Or any of those characters?

We then talked about Wuthering Heights which character in that book we'd like to be.  My friend voted for the servant, who knows everything.  I said I hated them all.  We then discussed my theory that the world can be divided between Wuthering Heights people and Jane Eyre people.  I am solidly in the Jane Eyre camp--give me solid sturdiness any day, over the characters in Wuthering Heights who run away with the man who murders their puppy.

We agreed that a man who hangs your puppy is giving you clear warning of what lies ahead (for more thoughts along these lines, see this blog post).

Our discussion then meandered to Shakespeare and our favorite plays.  I would have said that my favorite was Macbeth, but I was startled to realize how long it had been since I've actually read the play. 

Once I would have said that King Lear was my favorite, but now it terrifies me, that portrait of aging and the descent into madness on a rain-driven cragginess of earth.  My friend tried to console me by reminding me that I would never divide the kingdom.  We then laughed at imagining our department at work as a kingdom that no one would conspire to control.

The kingdom of paperwork and e-mails--perhaps I'll write a poem at some point.  This morning I wrote a poem based on these lines from yesterday's blog post:  "But the process of sending work out into the world is a kind of light seeking too.  Let my poems find a good home, where they will reflect the light of the creative work around them, where they will then go out in larger groups to bring light to readers."  I wrote a poem using images from the early church, the poems as the early apostles sent out into the world. 

But I digress.  Yesterday's conversation over tea delighted me in many ways, but I particularly loved to feel the literary analysis part of my brain firing again. 

Then it was off to do 2 faculty observations and then home much later than usual.  I decided to keep the critical faculties firing, and so I finished Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts.

I first wrote about this book in this blog post--I am happy to report that she does talk more openly about her spouse's gender transformations.  The book continued to inspire me to think about topics that don't normally occupy a large space in my brain anymore--at least not on a daily basis.

Once I did a lot more thinking about gender as a spectrum, about what's heteronormative and homonormative (although I wouldn't have used those terms), about how we can use our art to illuminate these issues.  This book was a bit like visiting my 30 year old self--it was both wonderful and sadness inducing.  I thought of friends who have been lost--both to death and household moves.  I thought of the critics I no longer read.  I thought of my daily work, which now involves much more constraints than it once did.

And yet, there are the consolations too, as Wordsworth told me long ago in "Tintern Abbey"--the consolations of having survived that turbulence of youth, the consolations of finding others who have rooted themselves in the same texts, the consolations of good conversations and a cup of tea.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What to Say when the Agent Says No

Sending out query packets to agents is a bit like applying for jobs.  I usually hear nothing back, which I assume means no interest, but it does occur to me to wonder if my materials got there at all.

Yesterday, I got an honest to God rejection e-mail from an agent.  I just sent the query on Saturday.  For a minute, before I clicked to open the e-mail, I let myself imagine that the agent was so enthusiastic that she had to respond right away.

Nope.  Sigh.

I think of my own experiences of receiving resumes and queries--so many seekers, so few positions for us all.  And so many resumes/CVs/letters that seem to be applying for a job other than those I have to offer.

But let me not get headed down that spiral of negativity.  Let me remember that some of my favorite journals, the ones that have published me before, are now open for submissions.  It's been a hectic week in terms of work--lots of initiatives unveiled, initiatives that make me despair, as I don't have adequate staffing and won't have adequate staffing.  It's taken some time and some energy that other work weeks don't require.

Let me carve out some time in the next 48 hours to make some submissions to literary journals that might say yes to my work.  Let me take some steps towards the future that I want to have. 

It's a bit like hanging glass baubles in the window to attract the light.  The baubles (the poems and other submissions) delight me as works of art.  That in itself would be enough.

But the process of sending work out into the world is a kind of light seeking too.  Let my poems find a good home, where they will reflect the light of the creative work around them, where they will then go out in larger groups to bring light to readers.

It's an interesting metaphor.  It's a plan to stay light-filled.