Wednesday, April 16, 2014

National Poetry Month: the Half Way Point and the Mountain Top

We are halfway through National Poetry Month.  How is your month going?

I have not been trying to write a poem a day.  In ordinary times, I would be happy to write a poem a week; this month, I missed a week, but I have hopes of writing some extra poems this week-end, since we have Friday off.

I did submit my poetry manuscript to Copper Canyon Press.  I thought I had submitted before, but I looked through my submission log to discover that I had not.  I like that I paid $35 and got not only permission to submit, but 2 books.

I will buy more books of poetry too, before the month is over, but I do that most months.  The trick comes in remembering to read poetry, not just support the poetry community by buying books.

In short, my National Poetry Month looks a lot like every other month.  In many ways, I think that's a good thing.

Some years, I've ramped up my poetry activity during April.  I often end up exhausted by May and not writing anything for a month or more.

And yet, I look back to those years with some wistfulness:  all the poems I wrote!  all the ways I felt fully engaged and alive!  the fact that I felt like I was doing what I was put on earth to do!

Could I capture that feeling without the full-tilt pace?  What are the ways to cultivate those highs in my daily poetry life?

Or are those years of full participation in National Poetry Month more like going on a retreat or pilgrimage?  The mountain-top-experience is great, but one must return from the mountain.

But must we return?  Can we not infuse the mountain top into our daily lives?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Celestial Signs

As I write this, the moon is coming out of eclipse.  It's stunning to see it shining again after several hours of muddiness.  I didn't see a blood red moon so much as a smudged moon.

The sight of the moon coming out of eclipse puts me in mind of Advent texts, not Holy Week texts:  "The people who have dwelt in darkness have seen a great light" and "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."

Of course, some will think of the Passover texts, of nature behaving oddly (because God orchestrates it or because of other reasons) and bending the will of rulers.  The moon this morning could have been confused with a moon marked by clouds, but I'm guessing it looks different at other points on the planet.

I got up at 3:30 and wondered where we were in the progress of the eclipse, so I slipped outside.  Yes, mostly eclipsed.  I'm always amazed at how slowly a lunar eclipse progresses.  I went back inside.

A bit later, the phone rang.  It was my friend and back yard neighbor who rents our cottage.  We met in the back yard.  As we stood there for half an hour, she told me she'd never seen an eclipse.  One does have to make an effort with most eclipses, so I guess I'm not surprised.  And even if the hours are right, it doesn't take much in the way of weather to disrupt viewing.

And it takes time.  The first time I viewed an eclipse down here, I sat and waited and got amused at my lack of patience.  Now I just return to viewing throughout the eclipse, as I rarely have the patience to watch for several hours.

I think of the year that the eclipse would come early in the evening and be beautiful at the beach.  We invited friends over, but everyone had the same idea we did.  We ended up watching the eclipse from the back yard.  It was early in the history of our friendship as 2 couples, and I remember thinking the friendship had potential, since we all seemed adaptable to a change in plan.

This year, I want to hold on to that vision of the bright light returning to the moon.  I want to see it as a promise that no matter how long the shadow lingers over us, we will not be obscured forever.  That is a sign I need in this season of disease and death that seems to have settled over so many people I know.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poem Possibilities in a week that includes Palm Sunday, Passover, and a Total Eclipse!

Some random thoughts as we leave Palm Sunday and head towards Passover and Holy Week.  All this, plus tax day and a lunar eclipse!

--Passover starts tonight.  I think of the Seder meals of my past, of the ways that Christians have tried to understand the Jewishness of Jesus and the shared roots of Christianity and Judaism.

--For wonderful insight into the Exodus story, see this episode of the NPR show On Being.  For a great resource that's very ecumenical yet rooted in Judaism, I highly recommend Marge Piercy's Pesach for the Rest of Us.  Lots of insight into the traditions and lots of recipes:  I think I'll bring it with me to work today.

--There's a lunar eclipse in the overnight hours.  I'll likely be up anyway between 3 and 5 a.m. in the Eastern time zone, so I'll keep an eye on it.  I'm always amazed at how much time a lunar eclipse takes.

--And it's tax day tomorrow.  I got my taxes submitted last week-end, so it's not a big day for me.  But the poet part of me wants to create a poem that weaves all of these things together.

--I've been thinking of a variety of poem possibilities.  I've got 2 Jesus in the modern world poems in my head:  Jesus goes to yoga class and Jesus shows up for the church happy hour.  Yesterday, I wrote down this line:  "I live in a universe of stray socks."

--I wrote this line down on the small refrigerator white boards where my spouse and I write notes to each other and to-do lists.  He gave me a quizzical look when he saw the line--but then again, he is used to lines that have potential showing up scribbled on all sorts of surfaces.

--I think of Palm Sunday again.  Will this be the kind of week where we meet acclaim from those who will crucify us just a few days later?

--I think of Passover.  Will this be the kind of week where we are set free from oppressions of all sorts?

--I think of tax day.  Have we paid what is due?

--I think of total eclipses.  What remains behind when something shiny is obscured?

--Yes, lots of poem possibilities!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Blueberry Cake and My Attempts at Transformation

I have a blueberry coffee cake in the oven.  It's a cross between an ultra-healthy blueberry cobbler recipe from Jane Brody's Good Food Cookbook and my longing for cinnamon streusel. 

I had some blueberries in the fridge that needed to be used.  A week ago, a friend brought all sorts of fruit to our backyard cook-out.  My spouse assured me he would eat the blueberries, but he hasn't yet.

I thought about all the recipes I have for blueberry coffee cakes--but my weight is up this morning, so I didn't want to indulge.  Still, those blueberries shouldn't go to waste!

So, I remembered this recipe, which is more like a cake than a cobbler.  I added a streusel, to make it more like a special week-end coffee cake.  I'll give the recipe here; you can leave off the streusel if you just want a cake.  It's good with ice cream, if you need a quick dessert.  And it's easily doubled.  Everyone should have this kind of cake in the file.

An update, post baking:  I made far too much streusel, more than the yield below.  I didn't want to waste the streusel, so I used it all.  The resulting cake was more like bread pudding or chewy, warm granola--very tasty, but not what I was trying to create.

Am I simply using a cake batter that can't support streusel?  Or would it work with less streusel?  Will I try again?  Stay tuned!


Blueberry Cake

2/3 C. flour
1/2 C. sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 C. skim milk
2 tsp. butter (melted in advance, if you don't have a microwave)
2 C. blueberries (works with less)

Melt the butter in a 9 x 9 (or 8 x 8) pan in the microwave--or a 1 or 1 1/2 quart casserole dish.

Make the batter by combining the first 4 ingredients and pour it into the pan.  Sprinkle the blueberries on top.  If you just want a cake, go to the baking instructions.

For the streusel, cut with a knife or in the food processor, the following, adjusting as you'd like:  2-4 Tablespoons butter, 1/4 -1/2 C. brown sugar, 1/2 - 1 C. oats or flour, 1/2 c. nuts (if you like nuts),  a sprinkle of cinnamon.

You can sprinkle on the top, or if you have extra, swirl some of it through the cake and then sprinkle the rest on top.

Bake at 350 for 40 to 45 minutes.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Day of Self-Doubt: Despair and Submission

Yesterday was a day of self-doubt, which is very strange.  What happened to my younger self, who blithely mailed off poetry packets and manuscripts to every sort of publisher?  What happened to my younger self who applied for jobs that she had a slim chance of getting?

Well, she often didn't realize how miniscule her odds were.  That helped her be fearless.  And even when she realized, she didn't care.

The day of self-doubt began on Thursday, when I looked at the Copper Canyon catalog to determine what books I'd want to receive when I paid my manuscript submission fee.  I noticed how few women poets they had published.  Sigh.

Then I started that dangerous pattern of thought, the what's-the-point downhill slide.

I put off submitting on Friday morning, as I had planned to do.  I called a librarian friend who has gone on to work at our local community college.  She talked about their recent round of interviews for a new librarian and the presentations that they had done.  She talked about presentation platforms with which I'm not familiar (haiku deck???).

I had felt proud of myself for learning Prezi.  But if I'm being honest, a Powerpoint is still a Powerpoint to me.  I've seen very few that add much.

Then I started feeling despair, like I would never be asked to give a presentation if I couldn't figure out a way to use this software.  My despair got worse:  how would I ever find another job if I couldn't interview and use fancy software at the same time.

Yes, it sounds goofy in the light of a different day.  I suspect I'm not the only one who is not impressed with software.  I suspect I'm not the only one who has seen how presentations with slideshows can go terribly wrong.  People like me are likely to be part of committees who choose amongst candidates for jobs, for presentations, for opportunities of all sorts.

Still, on Friday afternoon, I didn't send my manuscript to Copper Canyon.  The despair was still in force. 

I came home and told my husband about my despair and my temptation not to submit.  He snorted and said, "Absolutely you should send in your manuscript."

And so, I shall do that.  And I'll continue to try to stay current with technology, although I think I'm fighting a losing battle.

The only comfort:  we're all fighting a losing battle when it comes to keeping up with technology.  I talked to one of my younger colleagues, a woman who is 30.  I was cheered to find out that she still uses Powerpoint.  She said that she hasn't seen a compelling reason yet to make the switch. 

And like me, she's a big believer that fewer slides are better. 

But for today, it's back to old technology:  printed words on pieces of paper.  I'll spend the week-end giving my manuscript one last check.  And Monday morning, I will send it out.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Elementary Lessons in Gratitude

Here's how we know that I'm a new volunteer at the elementary school where I'm a Reading Pal.  Yesterday I got a phone call to invite me to a volunteer appreciation breakfast next week--and I was thrilled.

I do feel undeserving of a breakfast.  I show up once a week, and I try to help one, single first grader to improve his reading skills.  How do we do this?

We have a book, a different one each week, and I encourage him to read to me.  I sing his praises while he's reading.  When he gets tired of being the one doing the reading, I read to him.  And then we color while we discuss words and the book we've been reading.

The coloring is not part of the official program.  I've brought in blank paper, so hopefully, I'm encouraging creativity.  I do fear that my Reading Pal sees the coloring as a reward for the work he doesn't enjoy much, the reading. 

He has improved.  Will he continue to improve when we're no longer reading together?  I have no idea.

I'm hoping that our time together gives him pleasant memories of reading, and that he'll not be as opposed to reading as he would have been if he hadn't been part of the program.  But I really have no idea if it will work that way.

As I said, I come in one day a week for just one hour.  There are plenty of volunteers who do far more than I do.  They deserve a breakfast.

Still, I'll go, even though I don't do as much as I wish that I could.

I'm sure that my sense of happiness yesterday also came from being amazed that the school is saying thank you.  My regular work life doesn't have much in the way of please and thank you these days.  My grown up school seems to have forgotten the basic lessons that so many of us learned long ago in our elementary school days.

I try to remember to thank my faculty for the great work that they're doing.  I hope they don't feel that I never say please or thank you.  Every week I resolve to say those words more.

Happily, my volunteer site hasn't forgotten those basic lessons of please and thank you.  And so I will go and be appreciated.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Student Loans

NPR has been running a series on student loans.  Morning Edition had a story featuring an interview with 3 young women who have staggering amounts of student loans.  It made me reflect on how lucky I've been.

I went to Newberry College for my undergraduate degree.  Newberry is a small, Lutheran, liberal arts school.  At the time, it had a hefty price tag, especially compared to state schools.  But I got lots of scholarships, and so my family paid very little, and for 2 years, the price tag was zero.

I married a man with student loans, and his loans worried my grandmother, although she liked the man.  Now the amount of the loan seems laughably small:  roughly $2000.  We paid a little bit more than we owed each month, and it didn't seem onerous.  It wasn't.  It was a loan from the golden days of student loans:  it helped a struggling student, and the payback plan was fair.

We both went to grad school at the same time, and we were determined not to take out more loans.  We had great assistance from the school, so our tuition cost very little, with none of the fees that schools pack on now.  I paid $150 for tuition each semester, and that amount could be taken out of the pittance that I was paid for my teaching assistantship.  Yes, $150--that's just one zero at the end.

A few years later, my spouse returned to school, and we took out the maximum amount of student loans possible so that he could pay for tuition, fees, housing and living expenses in a different place 90 miles away from our home base.  We could have taken 15 years to pay off those loans, but we paid them early when my spouse sold a tech stock at just the right minute.

I used to joke that maybe we'd continue to take turns going to grad school and taking out student loans and deferring old ones.  I have since met people who have bumped against the upper level possible as they've taken out every student loan possible.  At the time I made my joke, I didn't realize there was an upper level, and I couldn't have foreseen how quickly one could take on loan amounts that would get people to the $225,000 limit for grad school student debt (my memory of the specific amount of the limit may be faulty).

I used to classify student debt in the same category as mortgages, debts that would be worth it, in terms of how much further ahead you'd be with them than without them.  Now, I'm just not sure.

Now I think in terms of a car--I first read Kelli Russell Agodon say this, in a post of hers I can't find right now.  She talked about her MFA costing the same amount as a Toyota sedan.  If you would feel comfortable taking out a car loan that costs that much, then taking out that much for a graduate degree could be similar.

I want to believe that an additional degree will open all sorts of doors that wouldn't have opened otherwise, but I'm old enough to know better.  Many of those doors can be opened in other ways, after all, ways that don't require any debt.

But to be honest, the student loans that worry me most are the ones who go to the students who never finish a degree.  If a student finishes an undergraduate degree with a bit more debt than society would like, that student will likely find better employment opportunities throughout life because of that degree--the loan will eventually pay for itself, if you look at labor statistics, although it may take a lifetime.

But the student who finishes a few years of college and then disappears?  Those are the ones carrying more loan debt than they can ever manage.  We hear about college drop outs like Steve Jobs, but most college drop outs these days will be lucky if they get jobs in fast food or retail.

In the coming months, I predict we'll be hearing a lot about remaking the student loan system.  Some will want us to look at graduation rates or at jobs at the end.  I would want us to set up a system that intervenes much earlier.

I'm all for giving people multiple chances, don't get me wrong.  I'd have a mostly open admissions policy, but I'd have a review at key points.  If you're entering with evidence that you've struggled in the past, we'd check your grades after a term or two.  If you're not doing well (doing well would be grades of C or better), you'd need to take some time off and come back when you're better able to focus on school.

Or maybe we should just do this for every student.  We don't let people take out mortgages if they can't make the monthly payments.  Maybe it's time to be more proactive when it comes to student loans.  As a taxpayer who is funding these loans, I want to set students up for success, and intervene if we have evidence that the money isn't being put to good use--and intervene before struggling students have been able to take out tens of thousands of dollars of loans.