- The validity of someone else’s opinions/beliefs isn’t dependent upon my ability to understand them. Logic is the slave of Emotion. Treat what a person thinks with the same kid gloves you would handle how it makes them feel.
- Abstract hate is a self-inflicted wound. If you hate someone else for saying hateful things and for promoting and spreading hate-filled ideas, and you decide to publicly post about your hate of the haters, you just became the thing you hate. And worse yet, you just endorsed hatred as the appropriate response.
- There will always be people who can afford to escape to Cancun. There will always be people who can get a reservation at French Laundry.
- Sometimes it rains in Southern California and sometimes it blizzards in Texas. It is impossible to ascertain WHY bad weather happens to people who don’t own coats while the snow is still falling. Maybe it is no one’s fault. The same people who get red-face angry at religious people for tying up all narratives into a crisp, red bough of “all actions come with a consequence” and “sinners in the hands of an angry God” seem quite judgmental about environmental truth and consequences.
- You might hate AOC. You might loathe Rush Limbaugh. They are human beings with families of their own. What you say about them says much about you, how you were raised. Don’t embarrass your ancestors by lowering yourself to the standards of someone you have no respect for.
- Respect is an action, a decision. By demonstrating your capacity for it, you make the best argument. Sometimes silence sets the table. It’s where all the cooks place their best dishes. It’s where all the children want to eat. What if we all took a moment to chew our food and listen?
Lord, if you are moving, let me still myself.
Let me be a pauper of a vision to myself
so that all eyes–my eyes–stay steadfastly on You.
Sometimes I declare You give me words and I thrash
about. They are like unruly children with a fierce
energy and agenda of their own. Slow me way down, Lord,
like a low creek bed in a cavernous mountain. Create
a covenant in me, between us–the intimate bounty
You pay let me always remember. Let me always
cling to the truth of cost and sacrifice and that none
of it was me.
My husband and I have always been vagabonds. Every home we have ever lived in has always been negotiably for sale. We’ve lived in and renovated several homes in our 38 years of marriage, and now in our late, late 50’s we find ourselves in a 4,000 square-foot Tudor home, sitting on an acre of landscaped grounds with a pond in the back. It’s a home that feels both expansive and cozy at the same time. I love my home. It has been a bumpy ride, but I finally feel a sense of belonging and commitment to this home. It’s like the Cherokee in me feels finally connected to a deeper heritage, something deeper than myself. Perhaps it is all the wonderful memories. Perhaps it is the sound of my grandsons calling out “Grandma’s House.” Perhaps we are just getting older and less energetic and want to stay put.Whatever the reason, it feels good to feel like a permanent fixture. I no longer feel the need to apologize or overcompensate by buying everyone’s bbq at sibling gatherings because I am the one who lives in the small town. I think this house just happens to be the place where I have grown finally comfortable in my own skin. Today, I received the most amazing gift from a favorite college professor of mine who has graciously served as a constant mentor to me since my early 20’s. Two beautiful works of art now hang in my kitchen–gifts from him as he downsizes into a smaller apartment after the death of his beloved wife. What a treasure to have received this love gift from him. Hanging in my kitchen near my walnut kitchen island, I can only feel one thing–I am home.
Beautiful inauguration. Beautiful speech by our new President Biden. Wondrous to see a woman as our vice president. I just loved watching the body languages of former presidents and their spouses. Bill and Hill don’t look very connected. Laura Bush is so elegant. All those high-end pant suits and pretty coats. So nice to see the Flag and police and National Guard back in the high-life again.
Really refreshing to see all the optimism on my facebook feed. Let’s keep that up. From this point on, anyone that blames anything on Trump should be banned from social media. The person in the driver’s seat with the key fob in hand must take responsibility for his own driving. The road is fresh. Let’s start anew.
Let’s move on, liberal left. Speak his name no more.
2020 for all of her shutdowns, cancellations, and isolations, has seemed to create a frantic stir within my soul. My inner life has been off-kilter. What seemed to work, at least marginally, prior to 2020 no longer does the trick.
I realized this year that after our youngest son departed (prior to his return for virtual college in 2020) I was prime for, not a pacemaker (thank God) but a pace makeover. Yes, long after the baby had grown up and spread his own wings to fly, I was still consuming food, conversations, texts, relationships at the pace of an aging soccer mom.
Raising our four children had been the primary role of my life. I was scheduler, short order cook, cleaner, organizer, concierge, informal sports and life coach, spiritual life director, laundress, family fitness guru–and I loved my life, especially because these duties simultaneously overlapped for a few years with the new and exciting role of Grandma. And as an aside, I earned a masters degree and began a new adventure working outside the home as an English professor. And somehow through it all, I still had an amazing (albeit neglected and imperfect) relationship with my husband.
Fast-forward to 2020. Fast-forward to tomorrow. Fast-forward to anywhere but now. My reptile-brain mostly functioned for many years in overdrive as I performed one task while planning the next. It was the only way survive. The strange thing is, I could still feel the edges of peace around my existence so I thought I was fine.
Until I quarantined for 12 weeks in 2020 and taught online classes for the fall semester. Not by choice, my life was shredded down to “bare bones” and it didn’t feel good to me. I reached out with my eager fingers for those soft edges of faith and inner nourishment and I couldn’t feel anything but the phantom limb of words I hadn’t attended to for so long.
So 2021 is going to be a year of replenishment for me, and specifically that will include immersion in the Word of God and writing about that, because, well, when I take in life force, that is what I naturally do. I don’t have big plans for 2021. I just want to sit around a fire pit and talk into the night with old friends. I want to be able to get within six feet of my precious students. I want to continue some of the positive effects brought about by staying home so much. For one: less Netflix. Has anyone else completely soured to the idea of watching television as entertainment? Cooking and eating in. Me, myself, and I around a table with my husband can still be a family meal. Driving less. Mediocrity at times is okay. I have always prized my ability to aim higher and do more than is expected of me in every facet of my life. For a new pace, God’s pace, to intervene and shape this year, I have to lower some of those personal standards and prepare for His higher purposes and attainments in my life. This is incredibly difficult to even write about, much less do. So…prayer. I’ll be praying more.
2020 has welcomed me with her thorny arms into an era of less-is-more. I can chew my food. I can linger over thoughts and conversations and books. I can spend time in quiet praise of all the wonderful I have almost drowned myself in, one drop at a time.
And….I’ll probably write a bunch about my daily failures and small successes along the way.
What about you?
You are not enough.
Your nose is too long.
Your hair is too short.
You have thunder-thighs.
You have toothpick legs.
You are too strict.
You are too soft.
You speak with a funny accent.
You take yourself too seriously.
You are so traditional.
You are so avant-garde.
You live in a small town.
You neglect your children, working outside the home.
You have checked out on the mommy track.
You don’t read your Bible every day.
You voted for _______!
You’re too quiet.
You talk too much.
You are so privileged.
You are so poor.
Your skin is so_____.
What would you add to this list?
God, sculpt upon my tongue
the quiet prayer, for a meadow
can be burgeoning with noise, a cackle
of ideas like so many grasses vying for the sunlight.
Let us stop pointing out what isn’t Christ and stare upon
the still photograph of a mother and her child or the humble outstretched hand of the giver, the attention of the powerless
on pushing forward some kind of greater good, however small.
For there is nothing less Christlike than pointing out what isn’t Christ in others, whether left or right. This kind of judgement isn’t forward-thinking or progressive in any way except to diminish or censor or damn. This kind of judgement conserves nothing, preserves nothing that is worth remembering.
How are any of us truly among the slighted? We have been saved by grace.
I think today, I will drink a glass of cool water and I will walk in quietude and stew over the fewest of words: the baptism of my soul into the unspoken waters of life. Delete my thoughts, Lord, and fill my mind with love. Make my brain a heart, apolitical, not logical, just so ordinary, part of the human race, where everybody gets it wrong.
The great commission must now haunt Your Church. There has only ever been one thing to do. Let us be about the doing of it now.
Today. Jan. 7, 2021. So far 2021 has not produced the peace and resolution we are all so hungry for on so many levels. I just turned off the news and my writer’s mind feels like a jumble of glass mosaic pieces, abruptly shattered by a giant, anonymous hand, like I am in the midst of a terrifying fairytale in a fictitious country, not the United States. Right now, in this moment, only words are coming to me, so I thought I would record those:
Guard. Guard your heart and mind today. Think of words, yours and others, as potential blades that can harm others. Anything that is not an act of kindness is an act of violence.
Consume. Be mindful of what you bring into your mind and body. This New Year I have resolved to improve upon the parts of life that I can control, so I am eating as healthy as possible.
Fringe. What exists on the fringes of my life, of my relationship with God? Are there hungry people who need bread? Hurt people trying to touch the hem of Christ’s garment. Am I standing in their way? Am I anxious because I am trying to protect parts of my life and lifestyle that I really don’t need? Whatever is lost that doesn’t cause me to be lost in the spiritual sense is not really a loss, is it?
White. I don’t identify much as a white person but as a person of mixed heritage. Today my identity or identities feel fractured and bruised. Perhaps we need to, as a nation, recreate the Crayola box and designate some new colors. Disenfranchisement is a color. Those who feel powerless are a color. Anger is a color. Disbelief is a color. Unpaid bills is a color. Violence is a color. Addiction is a color. Educational inequality is a color. I want to heal our nation of these. Freedom is like Grace. She can’t be misused or she isn’t free. Unlike toilet paper in a pandemic, you can’t exhaust Freedom’s supply, but you must pay attention to both neighbor and self when deciding how to mete out the rights. Even after the playing field is made even (and I pray this happens) there will be some who are able to run faster and farther, who will succeed more than we do and we must refrain from the temptation to shame and blame. We can’t just rearrange the Hate. We must replace the Hate with Love.
Think small. Right now, think small. Rather than post–pray. This is both prayer and post. God says, embrace the hypocrite in YOU. Bring all of your layered and complicated social and intimate relationships to me this morning. Where there is brokenness, there is opportunity for great work.
It’s the week between Christmas and New Years Day and I find myself quarantining again in order to spend time with a grandbaby. My husband and I are in Beaverton, OR, where the weather is cold, wet and overcast, so we are spending an abundance of time indoors, where our rental duplex boasts a different space heater for every location in the house.
I don’t typically make New Year’s Resolutions; however, I do usually reflect upon my life, and this year–2020-has been one for the books, you know, the books no one wants to read that lurk in the back shelves of an unvisited library. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly at 10 p.m. (because I am lame) and say goodbye forever to this horrendous year.
I am not focusing on big changes for 2021, just smaller, incremental ones. I have too many passwords, and too many unread emails in my inbox. I want to de-clutter my life, simplify. I want more quality time with my loved ones, more presence. I want do continue my routine of drinking a cup of hot lemon water every morning. I want to continue this feeling of needing less, doing less with more intention. Less Netflix–more reading. Less talking unless I really have something important to say. Less expectations–more grace. Less guilt, more thankfulness. Less closed-mindedness, more open arms to beauty.
I wrote this poem several years ago when I was still on the active-parent list. My muse, our youngest child, was accepted into Georgetown Law School today, so this is, as always, for him:
How to Make Mason Jar Fairy Lights With Your Kids
Here’s what you need to get started:
· Glow in the Dark Paint
· Paintbrushes (preferably longer)
· School Glue (optional)
· Glitter (optional)
Enamor of the sort that ignores chiggers is necessary. Your life served up like sloppy-Joes
on a plate which marks in invisible ink the map to the secret whiskey. The ability to roll your eyes
then flick that bright attention necessary to make them forget.
Four-year-old fireflies can smell night like ancient hounds. Don’t bother trying to hide.
You’ll be so sniffed out once they’ve learned how to articulate their own directions. Snacks
and any kind of mashed potato concoction can mesmerize them long enough so that you can sneak out
of the paper Mache’ wings, but keep your bra on at all times. In fact, sleep in it. Fireflies
have this way of getting between in early-dawn moments.
Drink and pour water. Sprinkle it over their tiny heads. If the drops are as big as the heads, take immaculate care. Don’t force them into days where they are likely to become invisible. Listen as though you are Barbara Walters to the barely speaking.
Never wash off the places they have sullied you. If you do this one thing, glitter is optional for them and for you. Let them light upon anywhere they like without a coach. Remember, you are the one in the jar.
I don’t know about everyone else in Covid-land, but I have already found the NY Times online formula and plugged in my place in line for the distribution of the Covid vaccine in my county. As a teacher with some risk factors, I hope to receive the vaccine prior to the start of my spring semester. No judgment here for those who may choose not to be first in line to receive the immunization. I trust Science, but I also know my history so I get the fear of it all.
Personally, I cannot wait to return to some semblance of normal. I live mostly in anticipatory mode when it comes to major life changes, mostly because as an empath I don’t always face changes without some awkwardness and holding tight to the status quo. I am already making a list of what I want to do when I am free do do anything again. Here are a few of my first random ideas:
- Go to Target every day for a month because I can. Maybe buy far too many candles and new pajamas.
- Attend in-person worship again. This is so big for us, and the only reason it didn’t pop into my mind as the first, most important thing is that we have already been sneaking to in-person worship every Sunday that we aren’t in quarantine to gather with family. I think the first time I smelled the pews and botched the new Covid-safe communion wafer-and-juice-in-one-container was the day I realized how difficult 2020 has been for all of us.
- Exercise classes. Sweat. Locker rooms. Talking to other women while sweat drips from our faces. Sore biceps. Someone sneezes. It will be okay again.
- All my grandchildren in one room. Oh for the day when navigating visitations doesn’t feel like “Sophie’s Choice.”
- Teaching. Really teaching again. Leaning over a student’s paper and offering hands-on revision instructions in the moment in the classroom. Breaking students into discussion groups where they are actually close enough to converse. Hearing the sweet chaos of ideas and relationships.
- Traveling. My husband will once again be hoisting my overpacked suitcase onto trains and airport baggage check-in stations all over the world.
- Here might be the sweetest revelation for introverts everywhere: staying home and eating in will once again be a curated choice, not an edict from above. I”ll still be reading books and writing poems, only happier.
- March Madness. This one is probably truly #2 on the list right after Church. Rock Chalk.
- Dinner parties, concerts, coffee dates with friends, lunches, Bible studies, showers, weddings, poetry readings.
What is on your list? Share in the comments section, please.
I laugh a little when I ponder the reality that every time one of my daughters makes a parenting or a consumer or a home decorating decision, they must contend with the ever-present Mom-in-their-heads. As their mother, I am the standard, one that they often surpass and rise above, and sometimes one that they feel they fall short of. If they hit or miss the mark, I am that mark.
They both selected white Fiestaware for their wedding gift registries. They both like neutral paint colors. They both demonstrate terms and gestures of respect that could only have been taught to them by a southern grandmother (mine). They are naturally inclined to practice attachment parenting. They always have at least six boxes of Jiffy cornbread in their pantries and they hoard toilet paper even in non-pandemic times. They read their Bibles and they began reading to their own children from the time they brought them home from the hospital.
They’ve got a healthy dose of Mom-in-their-heads. When I parented them, I tried to impart values more than I tried to harp on the specific applications of those values. I wanted, more than anything, for them to feel a sense of fresh air freedom as they painted the walls of the homes they would make with their spouses. I knew that my imprint would be a lifeline in their own fingerprints, but I wanted them to be able to define love by me and through me but also apart from me. I wanted to be, as the poet Christian Wiman writes of God, both “a part” and “apart” from the miraculous creation of their families.
So I told them stories, not so they would feel the need to repeat my mistakes and triumphs, but so they would fall in deep love with the prospect of someday creating and retelling their own.
As pastors and teachers and advisors and neighbors and social media friends–oh, that we would take this lesson to heart, that Christ is less interested in steering our own hearts like a pilot in the midst of a nosedive and most interested in simply and fully inhabiting us while still allowing us to be us. Leadership is less about telling people how to vote and how to feel about vaccines and where to buy our clothes from and who to vote for, and it’s everything about sharing with others the specific touch we felt when a word from God or a vivid remembrance of beautiful discipleship and mentoring influenced us to act out our understanding of obedience at a given time. Don’t tell me to act in the way you felt led. Tell me how to position my mind and heart so that I, too, can be led. There is a weariness that comes with the selfie-ness of
our senses of justice and journey these days. It’s all application when the world is so famished for the source.
Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.
You know you are in for a novel experience at Christmas time when you can’t even fully explain your family’s holiday- Plans A and Plans B- to your sister over the phone. I was smack-dab in the middle of my futuristic narrative last week when I was abruptly cut off. She claims her phone died. I think she felt lost in the hopeless boredom of watching a mouse in a maze as I spouted the if-then-but scenarios.
This must have been what Mary felt like (along with a greater degree of physical discomfort) as she bopped and bounced on that donkey on the way to Bethlehem. She must have felt estranged and empty at times of anything but blind faith in a vision which made her sound crazy when she tried to recount it.
I can’t honestly tell you what Christmas is going to be like in my house on December 25, or how a family that usually shares bites of food and hugs when we move from one room to another will handle wearing masks and socially distancing from one another. I am not at all confident we will manage not to pass our Christmas baby around, although we are fully committed to all of these safety protocols going in.
I don’t honestly know how many of us will show up for Christmas. Coronavirus is on the rampage in our state as it seems to be everywhere right now. Every day I learn of a new friend in our small town that is suffering from this virus. I am fearful of becoming ill, but I am also filled with concern about the longterm affects of coping with this pandemic and the measures we have all, in good faith, been forced to participate in. I pray that our four grown children and our four little grandchildren will be able to hold to memories of the zany indoor snowball fights and spread of touchable food on my kitchen island and game boards and puzzles spread across card tables throughout my house.
It’s been a dreadful year this 2020. And now, we have all these RULES for Christmas. What I find most helpful amidst all the unknown is that I must now forage for simple blessings, that to be honest, I gave up noticing many years ago.
I find myself in Christmas quarantine ten days before the event that I have no control over, finding comfort in small things: sharing a lunch with my husband, text messages from my Bubble wishing me a happy isolation, the hanging of pictures on the walls of my home, where I relish the new faces of the babies I hope to hold.
The first Christmas was fragile like this I think–a garment with an un-hemmed potential for hope and faith. I am rediscovering those words and their meanings in Scripture this December. We all have the chance to choose thankfulness for whatever happens this season. To be “loved with an everlasting love.” To have been “drawn” with an “unfailing kindness.” (Jer. 31: 3).
Christmas 2020 is already complicated. I am choosing to keep my mindset simple. Read it and Believe it, my friends. Merry Christmas.
Peace doesn’t have to be simple, but it can be.
Peace can be a self-acceptance that we extend like a grace-garland
to others. Peace can be a place where we finally name ourselves
“Who-I-Am-in-Christ.” Peace can be movement or still-life.
Needing less. Doing less. Filled. Vessels without our own agendas.
Lingering for a Christmas moment on the precipice of obedience.
Not someone else’s formula for me and not my own. Peace
can be walking while listening. Harnessing that power.
We sleep in fits. We pray in dreams.
We cannot seem to find our way
this year. You have returned to us simplicity
and quiet praise of long charades. It is December
and we go through motions of an automatic dance.
We cling to the lungs of faith, a faith we have not given
breath. Help us, Lord, to find our thankfulness as a warm
repose, as a reminder that this solitude, while stark,
can rewire our attention spans for You. A candle burning
cinnamon, remembrance of friends’ laughter and the multitudes of stepping among crowds and gathering in front of shops and trees
and altars, of passing babies and sharing food. I hold these thoughts close to me this season. I do not welcome evening dark, but neither will I shun her lessons to me. In this stillness, Your presence
shines so real to me, Lord. For this I am thankful.
I am challenging myself to use writing as reflection during the upcoming holiday season. More quiet time…less fussiness. These are free-writes–no editing and revising. Christmas prayers to start my day.
My gift to the Christ-child this season, but more accurately it is my gift to myself.
11/22 Christmas Prayer
I like to find all my broken parts
smoldering scars inside
hurts from long ago to yesterday
waking up in ice and white loveliness
strewn like boot prints across snow
This is the season of love
Healing is a fluid drink
Ingested over time
warm to touch and soothing
mosaic pieces of words and smells
This is the season of taste
Everything slows down
The Gospel sleeps among us
perfect in wordlessness
There is time for silence to approach
our humble narratives
May I create beauty around me this Christmas,
rather than worry about my own lack.
May I revel in burned cookies
May I celebrate with children for whom
this season reaches with embrace
You came yourself as a child.
I was the 4th grader in the front of the room who cringed as the student two desks away was removed from the classroom by Mr. Reynolds, the school principal, for a tough-love form of corporal punishment.
I was the little girl who was mostly motivated by trust and love, reaching for approval like a tree-climber who spies redder fruit on a distant limb. My grandfather disciplined me with whispers and the changing tones of his eyes. I needed nothing else.
I was the young adult who found the need for thickened skin to be the most challenging task of any job I might undertake, any relationship I might enter into.
While most people struggle with vulnerability, I am a poet who is most comfortable in the quietude of authenticity, all the masks and roles discarded around me, their colors creating a prism on the floor.
I don’t small-talk or sound-bite very well, although I can debate with the best of them, mostly because sensitive people really listen and absorb the ideas and feelings around us. Ideas and feelings don’t really become our own in the same way this happens to others.
I don’t argue with people to persuade them to change their minds, but get them to open their minds to complexity. To be vulnerable is to be uncomfortable, to be right about nothing. A word always fills the glass of one by taking water from another. Unless it is a poem.
Words are masks, and as a person whose life is to create with words, I believe myself a sort of unwilling expert, able to verify the truth of this statement by my own brow lines.
If we listen to the chants and callings from the divided and divisive sides in this nation in 2020, if we read the social media posts from left to right from Left and Right, not as Talking Points coming from Talking Heads, but as severed heads rolling toward us on a hill of Ireland-green grass that immediately turn brown when touched by the breath of their collective rhetoric, then we begin to empathize with the fact that he who lives by the word, dies by the word.
In this time, during this pandemic, it is time to listen to the sensitives and to adjust the timber of our tones, as my grandfather did, as though sensitives are always listening. Because they are.
We must remember that tone is not as easily canceled as diction. What is offensive and reprehensible to say about a minority in this country is also offensive and reprehensible to say about Donald Trump. For it is in the saying of it that we keep the potential of vicious oppression alive.
Right now, these words are everywhere like the germs of a virus ready to penetrate us, ready to isolate us from one another to ensure that what has been great about this country (in the midst of so much that is terrible about this country) dies alone on a vine that our own Tweeting (not someone else’s) keeps us from being able to reach.
As a writer, I have learned the power in manipulation of words. I can change, delete, re-arrange on a blank page and with the same 25 dictionary-approved signs, tell a myriad of stories, with my own hiding in plain sight.
It doesn’t matter who started the fight, we are all headed to the principal’s office. It is our country’s backside that is going to emerge battered and bruised, stoic and tearless, toughened and ready to endure more licks with the paddle.
While the sensitives avert our eyes and wipe our tears with our own sleeves, feeling as though we have done more wrong in feeling the tragedy than those whose mouths have constructed and perpetrated it.
It isn’t about who holds the paddle. It’s about abolishing this kind of governing. It’s about returning to ordinary, to behaving again like ordinary Americans. We can refuse to listen to propaganda. We can stop reacting to what others are saying and start listening carefully to what we say.
We can, when we speak, when we tweet, when we choose our media, realize that we, too, hold a paddle in our hands and it is our choice what we listen to. One person, even at the very top of this country, can’t force me to be hate-filled. That is my choice, my right.
Actions must speak louder than words in politics: our words. The kind of tolerance that is dangerous is not a tolerance of those with whom we disagree (and their words), but a tolerance of those with whom we agree whose rhetoric is just as bad.
In 2020, I disagree with everyone. Every news anchor on cable television who doesn’t talk to me like Mr. Rogers did. I am hiding in the classroom supply closet behind next year’s textbooks, waiting for our President to wash out his mouth and hand the soap to Whoopi Goldberg and Mika. Stop crying on national television because your prayers have been answered and start caring about the ones whose prayers have not. Here’s how you can show you care: stop telling entire groups of people across this country that their prayers are irrelevant, that their beliefs don’t contain the wings you ascribe to your own.
We are a country of ordinary, awkward prayers, buoyed by this sometimes misguided belief in our own resiliency. There are moments in my own life when I don’t want to be known as American, sometimes because I don’t understand, really, what that means, and sometimes because I clearly do.
Before there is power, there are words that we equip with that power, words that we condense into slogans and brands. Then we stand on the sidelines and watch who will carry the flame, who will attempt to douse it. We pay very little attention to the people who say nothing, until it becomes time to award the blame.
Perhaps a month-long shut down is in order for this particular virus that seems to live in all generations. Let’s all collectively sit down and shut up, perhaps read a little Shirley Jackson, and practice intent listening. Let the ratings plummet. Let Facebook have some alone, mirror-time to put on her makeup and make herself presentable. Let us pay attention to deeper voices, well-chosen words, kindness and respect toward everyone, and by everyone, I mean everyone–even old, white men.
Here is a poem I wrote several years ago. I have always enjoyed the rhyme in this poem because I seldom rely on rhyme as much as I have here. I was steeped in Irish poetry when I wrote this. The green grass that has erupted on our lawns this past week brings hope, and when I feel hope, I always realize the cradling hands of faith. These are religious words that have been misused and sometimes overused to the point that we often ask ourselves in our most challenging moments: What do they really mean? What does it mean to have faith? Sometimes I write poetry to try to explain that to myself and for myself.
It is a beautiful nourishment to see neighbors, friends, and even strangers act in faith.
God loves those who hang by a thread
over fallen lights, whose grip on the slim
of the unknown is a slice, who hang on,
but do not have words for it. God sees
the articulation of that resolute silence,
that beautiful thing, as a drop on a sliver
of green, just eyes averting to the blue upward,
just a heave of nothing but the upturn of a lip
that can’t sing. God listens anyway
though no one else does to the rhythm of a dangling
silk on the sleeve of a dream and He calls that
a faith, the faith of a seed in a famine of noise,
a posture of white knuckled, no-matter-what
holding on–tendering abandonment to soft string.
-Kerri Vinson Snell
I briefly homeschooled two of my four children (who are now adults) for different reasons, with each homeschooling stint lasting an academic grade for each child. Each time I homeschooled I received amazing support from our local school district and local homeschooling community so I was never alone in the endeavor. As someone who has always had an interest in homeschooling, the idea wasn’t thrust upon me as the only option, which is what many parents today are facing. I had already read many books about homeschooling and had sort of settled on my educational approaches (Montessori and Unschooling were my philosophical methods choices). I hope you are receiving good support from your school districts wherever you are.
I felt no qualms about teaching physical education, history, literature, writing and reading; however, math and science were another matter. For math and science, I needed HELP. My hope with this blog post is to provide parents who feel as though you are floundering with writing assignments with some ideas and options.
- Writing during times of national and personal trauma (i.e. a pandemic) will be like no other time. It’s difficult to be creative when you are in the midst of “fight-or-flight” responses. Rather than assign writing in the traditional way with a single, large project looming over your child’s little stressed out brain, provide prompts for “free-writing.” Let them write without worrying about punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Teach them that this is what real writers in the real world do. We write our first drafts with reckless abandon. This is first-draft writing. No censor. No right-and-wrong response. No worry about when to break a paragraph or how neat the penmanship is. Refrain from marking all the mistakes with a red pen. Let the student keep a folder of these first drafts. After there is a good selection in the folder, have your student pick her favorite. From here you will teach the slower, more tedious process of revision.
- And a word about revision. Most writers wait days/weeks/months before we are able to look at a first draft with the fresh eyes of an editor. Give your writer time and space before you expect them to know how to make the first drafts better.
- Always have several prompts prepared for each writing activity. Most students need a narrowed and creative approach (prompt) which provides them the structure they need to walk through the writing door. You can always instruct students that it is fine for them to write from their own ideas if they choose.
- You want to challenge your student writer without too much frustration. Remember, to prize the IDEAS over perfect spelling, grammar, topic sentences, etc. I teach college writing and I can’t emphasize enough that critical thinking is developed through freedom of expression and love of learning, not diagramming sentences and perfect subject-verb agreement. Teach your student how to correct spelling and revise paragraph order as REVISION work, not as the thing which qualifies them as a creative thinker and writer. The goal here is to develop a love of writing. The rest will come.
- Let your student experiment with writing nonfiction, fiction, poetry and hybrid forms. When I was a young child, I wrote poetry to understand my own questions and previous knowledge about subjects I was learning in school. The child who hates essay-writing may adore the ABC-derian poem.
- Develop writing assignments that provide students with a built-in audience. Write letters to nursing home residents. Let them keep a blog about this time of quarantine. Let them create a Book of Questions as they watch current events unfold before their eyes. Let them draw more and write less if they prefer. Let them listen to music if they find this helpful.
- If giving them a page limit is causing frustration, let them write to a timer. 15 minutes of writing without stopping for any reason followed by a 3-5 minute break. The Pomodoro method works for writers of all ages and abilities.
- Be sure the student has had an adequate amount of exercise/play before writing class begins. I have developed the ability to sit for 4-6 hours at a time and write if need be, but not until I have completed an hour of high intensity exercise.
- Finally, write with your child and always include a time to share writing with one another.
Parents across the country find yourselves joining the words “home” and “school” as a real thing in your lives for the first time. If that seems like a bad joke or an oxymoron (the way #alonetogether does), you may be scrambling for resources–something to accomplish after your kiddos complete their toilet paper roll art projects.
Here is a writing project for you.
An Aubade is a poem or song that welcomes the dawn or laments the ending of night (or both). An Aubade can also be a song. According a March 12, 2018 explanation in the New York Times, the word was first used in 1678 and was adopted by the French from the Spanish word “alba,” meaning sunrise.
Two of my favorite Aubade poems (for older students) are “Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong and “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah https://poetrysociety.org/features/in-their-own-words/tarfia-faizullah-on-aubade-ending-with-the-death-of-a-mosquito.
For younger students, here is an example of an Aubade poem that I composed with you in mind this morning, using Prompt #3 below. I have bolded the words which answer the questions in Prompt #3:
The sun rises in the east to the sound of a drip–
black coffee and oatmeal on my spoon–
I talk to myself stringing thoughts together
like tiny daisies on black silk pajamas.
I could still sleep to this light.
Writing Prompts: Listen to the following “Morning Song” and watch the video footage of a sunrise as you listen.
- Write down the words that come to your mind as you watch and listen. Use these words to write a poem that welcomes the dawn or laments the end of night (or both).
- Are you a morning person? A night owl? Write about yourself and the ways that you either celebrate the morning or lament the end of sleep.
- Write down 3-5 words taken from your morning routine. What kind of toothpaste do you use? What do you usually eat for breakfast? Who is the first person you usually talk to in the morning? What patterns are on your favorite pajamas? You can devise your own questions about morning to answer and use in this prompt.
- (More challenging) Write an Aubade poem in which a sunrise is a symbol for the end of one season of your life and the beginning of a new phase (graduating high school or college, ending a relationship, living after loss of a loved one, the end of your school year and beginning of home education, for example).
Starting up this blog about My Writing Life feels like reconnecting with an old friend, perhaps someone I once labeled as “best” in some way when I was a girl, someone with whom secrets were shared. Now there is a vacuous space between us. This opening sentence actually reminds me of someone–my only sister–and in all honestly revisiting my blog feels like a hospitable pursuit as compared to attempting to mend burned relationship bridges because even if I have not written here, in this particular space, I have written somewhere.
My Writing Life has morphed most days into My Teaching Life. While some inklings of drafts have abetted my belief that a second manuscript could be forthcoming, most of My Writing Life and that newness I seek as a writer has come to me in the form of new courses, new books, new plans, new faces, and new writing opportunities that, behind the scenes, I have helped to make happen for my students. Teaching is such a reward, yet it is exhausting in ways that don’t always keep the flame inside my mind constant and ready to pursue my own projects.
I am attempting to do something about that this semester. Mondays during my office hours will be reading days, and by reading I mean reading for my own pleasure/inspiration. My brain needs nutrition and Ann Fadiman again. This blog will become my place for regular writing again. I can’t tell you the thrill of anticipation: the unknown, the blank, the sprite uncontrolled, the exploration, the atmosphere. The open page.
Here is something (or perhaps here are somethings) I have learned (rather I haven’t learned but that I keep learning anew over and over again: writers are weird. Writers in all of our weirdness-glory are simultaneously excruciatingly ordinary and singularly misfitted in that “All happy families…” Tolstoy-an kind of way. It’s a matter of perspective and understanding and it’s often a matter of choice for the writer and for the audience-spouse-friends-church-acquaintance-reader-reviewer-editor of the writer.
I was reminded of this recently. It’s not so much that I am clinically manic (I’m not) so much as it is I am constantly butting up against people who aren’t interested in the complications associated with peeling the layers of getting to know the artsy-creative-type. When you write, you specialize in the nurture of listening, really listening. Listening to subjects and eliminating objects of all kinds. Listening to self. To silence.
The act of writing an unshared poem is an act that 100 percent of the time will upset the internal equilibrium of the writer even if the writer is the only person who ever imagines/reads the work. The act of writing a poem and sharing a poem contains every emotional, psychological, creative, political component of revolution (albeit once-removed) whether the poem is political or seemingly refreshingly simple and pastoral. Poems are box-cutters. I wrote my first one at the age of six. I’ve been bouncing out of others’ boxes ever since. This has been my life. I think it is probably everyone’s life, even those unaware of it (which is the majority of people I believe).
Here is why publication of one of my poems matters so much to me. Not the positive affirmations, though pleasant enough. Not the fact that a publication means even four people are ever going to seriously read and consider my poem. Not the money…ahem. Publication validates me as I continue to bust through confining boxes. I can cut the tape, chew the cardboard and spit it out. I can dust off my dirty feet and move on. I can stop listening to what bores me. I can fiercely flee ideas and the speakers of those ideas when the ideas seek to silence my voice. Poetry as an end can’t seek to categorize, rate, demonize or prioritize any experience. Poetry can only re-enact, bring forth a separate and more distant beauty that compares in some intangible way with the emotion of the experience it seeks to render. A poem is word married to wordlessness.
The reader leafs through the pages and sometimes finds the love-child. The writer remembers vividly the conception. Listening, always listening, home is constructed with what might compare to this–the work, the sacrifice, the willingness to hold.
“ECT” and “Here is How” were published in Sept. 2015 in Foothill: a Journal of Poetry. “Here is How” received a Pushcart Nomination.
The metaphor works. I’ve often used it myself as a sort of crutch device to explain the writer’s life to non-writers. I sometimes refer to my finished poems as my babies.
My poems, which are mostly not confessional in the technical, poetic sense of the term, do have my DNA smeared all over them. Poems are “birthed” in a sense. Read Sylvia Plath. When I read her poems I feel I am a midwife-in-training or sometimes a helpless bystander as she spreads and stuns me with words.
But while I totally “get” the metaphor and contribute to its legitimacy myself, I think it is most helpful to me to remember that writing poetry is in many ways NOT the same experience as actual childbirth and parenting. Poetry is not rocket science either. It’s not the cure for actual cancer, just looming invisible cancers of thought perhaps, crises of belief perhaps. For me, poetry is as physically essential as eating and sleeping, yet I think that many of us who are teachers, plumbers, stock brokers, pastors, salesmen could claim the same enrichment in our lives from pursuing the work we were created to pursue.
Poets aren’t special or closer to the birthing experience than other people are. We remember the smells, the sounds, the lights that were too bright, the faded yellow floral print on the rocker-recliner that our husbands slept on. We might have more aptly named the fear we felt as our own bodies lifted out of themselves and delivered a son or a daughter. But we are as tied to the communal nature of most of our actual life experiences as bakers of cupcakes or sweepers of streets are.
And the work that we do, is more like, well, actual work, than it is a mountaintop threshold of pain or joy. It’s a work that teems with insignificance and the ever-dwindling audience. Insignificance is not the same thing as lack of confidence. Through insignificance I find my true attachments in this life, my place. And the rejection slips are easier to stomach, because, these word-wields on the page are not actually me, nor are they actually my children. In a small way they are, yet in a much vaster way they are not. They are poems. Artifacts of work that I choose to do. They don’t feed people or make them happier (except perhaps momentarily). Knowing this frees me up to write, to work. To exist in relationship with myself in a field of interdependence. To determine when I must hit the DELETE button or start over.
Poets blur lines that most people would prefer to just keep in-tact. Sometimes it is healthy to forego the meta-metaphor and search for the less significant but more impactful grit of accurate perspective. Writers, we are people, too. We must remember to keep ourselves complex, complicated, and diversified. Without writing, I don’t feel that I live a complete life, but without a life, I don’t feel I have much to offer the blank page before me. We can, as poets, be just like everyone else. We can think we should have it all….and passionate kisses…as Mary Chapin Carpenter sang….and fleshy babies…who need more than our words.
I always get my writer-feathers ruffled a bit as I read through the posts generated this time of year about time management. I’m a poet. I am in the timelessness business. I consider myself an organized person. My house is almost always ready for company and on a quite regular basis, I’ve been known to throw together a home-cooked meal. True…I live in yoga pants, but when the occasion arises, I clean up nicely. I run errands with the best of them. I also run half marathons.
What is different about poets, I believe, at least it is true of this poet, is that I no longer check off items on a to-do list as though they are life-altering accomplishments. After all, Hamlet never said: To do or not to do…that is the question… Creativity needs nesting time. Sitting still time. Turning off the lights and staring at the Christmas tree time. Quiet time.
I am always amazed at how noisy Christians are when it comes to our hustling and bustling about the proper ways we must observe this holiday. We prize our indwelling, yet we pretend that a holy spirit wants to shout at us, to compete with our restrictions, to channel within the narrow confines of a Daytimer. We ink in our lives in a little square and these self-made appointments become the gospel of this day that the Lord has made. The question I ask is: Is the holy spirit truly glad in it?
As a Christian, as a writer, I find that I am always working toward rest. I am after the Sabbath. If you shake my hand during greeting time and I bombard you with 100 cookie types, or my 101 uses for a homeless person, or the abecederian prayer request pinned on the underside of my Christmas sweater, or the phone pic of me freezing my little Christmas tooshie off caroling off-key to nursing home hostages, be assured, my holy spirit–the part that lives and breathes uniquely through me–is taking a sound nap and I am totally faking it.
Authentically, I don’t really DO Christmas. If I am honest with myself, I never really did. There is one way, among many others, to check your own calling before God. If God gifts you to participate in his work, you will know you are in a place of truth and authenticity because it will feel like play to you. When you show up, sleepy, feet-dragging, you will always feel energized and happy that you did. If someone asked me what has been the hardest work I have ever done, I would answer the raising of my children followed by the writing of my graduate thesis which is a book of poetry. Both of these pursuits contain physical artifacts of the language of my own heart. Both took enormous chunks of time and discipline and commitment on my part and on God’s part. I never worked alone. I never faked it. Looking back, what I see are pictures of beautiful chaos, divine ordering, and play.
I was that mom, years ago, with the curly-headed little Christmas angels whose hair would never stay in place. I would feel so inadequate when the Busy Moms would pull out lip gloss and combs and attempt to tame their hair. Now, years later, I bask in a peace, the total acceptance of Grace and the belief in Christ’s total acceptance of me and my contemplative bent. The amazing thing is the way Grace can pay-it-backwards. Watch in your own life as you mature and grow in Christ, how Grace moves like a sweet-smelling smoke and beautifully colors in the patches of our memories where sin, competition, back-biting, immaturity, our own over-striving have left us washed out and empty. Those places left white are transformed into a mosaic of ALL the colors in God’s own crayon box. He never said to everyone: Thou shalt only color within the lines.
When Christ was tired, he rested. When he had questions, he asked. When he doubted, he embraced himself and the totality of his own being that was God and that was God’s. He never built a temple other than himself. He only tore them down.
We are not all called to be still. To be writers. But we are called to embrace and accept God’s creation. The way that God fashioned you, the way that God molded me…these are good. All good.
My Grownup Christmas List would be that each person could come before the authentic Christ this Christmas and feel authentic in our cookie baking, in our special musical ditties, in our handing out of blankets, in our sipping cocoa, and also, in our not-doing-at-all. That we be a church where the spirit need only whisper.
I can’t get Netflix to work for me. After diving into a new teaching job head-and-heart-first just moments after finishing my graduate thesis, I approach these holidays happy, yet drained. Full, yet running on empty. God bless us everyone. Bah humbug. Best. Worst. You get the drift.
This Christmas season, I have zero tolerance for Christmas legalists. I just want to shop on Amazon.com and click the gift-wrap box. I want to order good Chinese take-out and watch bad courtroom drama. I want to sleep for ten hours without waking up at 2 a.m. feeling unfocused and dull of wit.
I want to love my treadmill and crave sugar again. Most of all, I want the Republican presidential candidates to see a vision and go as mute as John-the-Baptist’s dad. I want all the people everywhere dealing with the cold to get new, thermal blankets and puffy coats. I want just a pinch of the hope that resides in my grandson’s little pinky.
I am in a weird place. I have a Pushcart nomination and no goals, whereas, before, I always had an empty cardboard box where I could stuff all the imaginary accolades, all the North American serial rights to my invisible tokens of arrival. Now, I see the empty laugh in the full belly. Now, as my hormones are permanently moving south for the winter, I realize the very physical, biological nature of the immaterial, spiritual quest.
I go into my attic to look for boxes of red balls of glass, and all I want to do is get rid of all the boxes. I want to put names on the spoils of my lifelong accumulation of what is red and what is green.I want to be able to look at a person and to immediately discern whether I should say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas. I want to box the living daylights out of should. Who’s with me? Who longs for the empty tree? The vacant hearth? For words that hear themselves and change? Such sweet possibility. I hear the tinning now of the chaos that is silence, and I think how foolish I have been to appropriate peace.To assume her origins. To ignore the scratchings of a straw blanket. The violence in getting every inch right.
Naked, hungry, cold, poetry-less I stand before the mirror and I don’t have one item on my to-do list or one thing to say about Christmas except been there done that. Except, how wonderful is that?
Call me lazy or dull of palate, but I cannot keep up with coffee-trends. I read tonight that Starbucks is planning a bold move to attempt a take-over of the hipster, gourmet, high-end coffee market, which is sort of like the Christ deciding to grind up the anti-Christ (or is it the other way around?).
I live in a small town so by the time Starbucks became “the thing” in our parts, the trend-setting cities like Austin and NYC were already shaking their heads at the “Americano-latte-frappe-with-skim-milk-and-a-dash-of-vanilla-hold-the-whipped-cream-please.” Just when I was learning how to prance into the place and confidently order something. Talk about bursting my beans.
When did life, I mean coffee, get so complicated? Who, like me, wakes up in a blind stupor and needs a drip line of caffeine and wouldn’t be able to maneuver or wait for a French press at 6:30 a.m. until she got herself a tall, hot, strong cup of that nectar that Juan Valdez was having back in the innocent age? Don’t get me wrong. I like good coffee. But in a pinch, first thing in the morning, I will down just about any hot beverage someone wants to pour for me.
For me, there is something nostalgic about bad-diner coffee or convenience-store coffee with those lids that never stay on. Perhaps, I just don’t like coffee enough. Perhaps I only want her and need her–I don’t LOVE her. Not enough to oil and prime my espresso machine nightly. Not enough to enroll in a community art class on the finer techniques of coffee swirl art. Not enough to investigate if the beans are organic, Fair Trade, sustainable, local, natural, vegetarian, humane, low-carbon, small-scale or CSA. None of these activities makes me feel in the least cosmopolitan, even when I am sipping my brew in Seattle.
Don’t misunderstand. I do see the morality in attempting to form consumer habits that do the least amount of damage to the planet and that promote humane working conditions for the men, women, and children who daily pick my coffee beans (even if I don’t always know exactly where they come from). But I see no compelling reason to name-drop about this and to take up entire conversations at dinner parties or entire sermons from pulpits expounding upon the world of coffee as we know it in 2014. I have to ask myself, are the men, women, and children who are picking my coffee daily having these conversations about how back-woods a person is if he doesn’t necessarily want a coffee drink that is more difficult to decipher than his child’s IEP?
My grandmother picked cotton by hand as a child. I can guarantee she wasn’t lamenting the plight of the ignorant souls who didn’t have the where-with-all to sleep on 1,000-count sheets as her fingers bled on the bolls. Aren’t we, in addition to boring the likes of a true intellectual like T.S. Eliot with our gloats about foam, becoming more consumerist by creating some kind of faux-sophistication about the very appetites which will keep those children enslaved in those faraway fields regardless of the informed decisions we make about which brand to buy? Is it not our appetites, fueled by our feverish desire to keep up with our own urban elites, which is at the root of the evil in all industry? Because the cloud in my coffee tells me that when I contribute to strengthening that appetite, which is nothing short of lust, I contribute to mistreatment regardless of my own savvy as a coffee-bean buyer. Is there not some other kind of slavery being created when we are more affected by the roast of coffee and it’s source than we are captivated by the conversation happening just across our cups? When we begin to judge the intelligence of another person based on their degree of lunacy about a coffee bean? Dostoevsky said it better than me: “What reason can there be for protecting the privacy and freedom of the conscience, or even the franchise, of anyone, if we assume nothing good about those whom we are protecting and enfranchising?”
When my phone alarm begins to chime in the morning, I become a lunatic of a different sort. I must have two to three cups of java every morning first thing or I will suffer from a killer migraine headache, which probably means I am addicted to caffeinated coffee. Coffee I don’t question. Coffee I don’t take the time to learn about. Coffee which sports catalogues full of gadgets I will never, ever attempt to master. For me, there is the Sistine Chapel and there is this hazelnut concoction my barista just manipulated into the shape of a bird. And there is a discernment which must transcend it’s “strut and fret” across the stage. Yes, Coffee: “I want you. I need you. But there ‘aint no way I’m ever gonna to love you. Now don’t be sad (don’t be sad) ’cause two out of three ain’t bad.”
Sometimes life is just good. I received news that my poetry mentor for my thesis semester is the great poet Angie Estes (my top choice) and this news brings relief because with her guidance I believe I actually have a legitimate shot at getting a book of poems put together by May 1. I have probably close to a thousand drafts of poems in various stages on my hard drive, but these 40 to 60 poems must be “finished.” Angie Estes is not only one of the great poets of our time, she is an incredible teacher. She’s efficient, she brings high expectations to the table and she knows how to assign essays and poems which move her students toward a desired end. I am attempting to take a break from writing to enjoy the holidays and refresh before my thesis semester begins in early January. I say attempting…I can’t seem to keep my eyes out of my folder of possible thesis poems!
Today is Thanksgiving. It’s a down day for us because we postpone the big feast until Saturday so all of our married kids can join us. Today is a mixed-up, random kind of day–my favorite kind. A day of bear-naps, and basketball watching and diving into the Christmas greenery. A day of intersection for the Nativity sets and the pumpkins. Christmas music blaring on Pandora.
I see parallels to this kind of a day to my writing process. I can’t neatly and succinctly cram creativity into its own special corner. I prepare, rest, exercise, eat, argue, console, forgive, clean one room, mess up another. In my mind, Baby Jesus lurks even as the ghost of my maternal grandmother stays watch in my kitchen over the stuffing preparations.
I grow weary of purists who can’t mix their Christmas shopping with their gratitude, who want me to wait until December 26th to sing about pregnant Mary. Advent belongs to me because it was a gift from a Person who has the right to give me whatever gift He wants. It’s my Advent and I’ll watch a John Travolta movie if I want to. Pumpkin pie and peppermint ice cream are holding hands in my freezer just fine.
It’s called life. A Writing Life. A life that each day rises with a sun that owes everything to our Christmas Story which is the source of all Thanksgiving. No segue needed.
Recently, I had the privilege of writing one woman’s story for our community’s “Facing Project,” which was borne out of a program designed to give a “hand up” to some of our more hidden citizens who suffer from poverty and the many problems which go hand-in-hand with that. Violence, addictions, abuse, hunger, gaps in education, brokenness in relationships…these are a few of those problems.
The woman whose story was entrusted to me told a story which was difficult to hear, difficult to write. Several of our community’s “Facing” stories will be read at a fundraiser for our local Circles Out of Poverty Program. We will all be sitting around a a table with a crisp table cloth, enjoying gourmet coffee and petite desserts in the month of Thankfulness and girth and all things pumpkin, as some of our high school students read these stories, all written in the first-person in order to emphasize the immediacy.
Here is the link to the national Facing Project:
Wow, it has been a long time between posts. Here I am in the last semester before my “thesis” semester at Ashland University’s MFA Program, a semester which I would have to label as “Self-Doubt.” It’s the time in the program when after working my poetic tail off, I realize that I have close to 100 poems, all of which need some kind of revision or work before my thesis will be accepted. Opening my blog site and reading through some of my older posts and poems tonight has given me a much-needed boon of confidence. To put it bluntly, I am weary of writing poems, weary of studying about Native American history, and weary of this quest for clarity in my poems which I must achieve before next semester’s thesis mentor is going to give me the “pass” sign. I have learned so much that I am sure I will be blog-processing the ways in which I have grown as a writer for many years to come. I will be sharing poems and poets I have discovered. I will continue to write poems. But right now…I just want to clean and organize my house and cook several decent meals from scratch in a row.
With my first semester completed, I am now free to deep-clean my house and stay completely off computer for the next month if I so desire, yet I so do not desire that! The self-discipline of writing for four hours a day has created a writing monster within that constantly beats at my chest to produce more words. I choose to write even when I don’t have to. This makes me incredibly happy.
Today I started an essay which I hope to complete by the end of the week for submission to a contest. I am finding that writing in essay-mode is much easier than revising poems. After months on a steeply-inclined treadmill, I am now feeling the rush of sprinting toward the horizon on flat land.
Last night, just for fun, I sat down and wrote what I believe to be is my strongest poem ever. Time will tell. I am learning to give everything time. Funny, as we age, we have less and less of that precious commodity, yet more and more acceptance of its limitations and graces.
Good things happen to those who write.
Semester One of my MFA program is in the history books. It sounds like the ticking morning clock is applauding me as I write this. Yes, I am excited about the growth I have seen as a writer through this intense semester of creating and considering and revising. It’s nice to have a period of time over the holidays to take a deep breath and watch some mindless television, but i have to admit I am already feeling the excitement and anticipation in my almost-always typing fingertips at the prospect of studying next semester with the great poet Angie Estes.
I have learned so much from this semester’s poet-mentor–Ruth L. Schwartz. In addition to reading her work in-depth, I studied the following poets: Dan Bellm, Larry Levis, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Cynthia Marie Hoffman, C.K. Wright, Charles Wright and Jan Beatty. It’s amazing how reading these poets with careful consideration regarding my own craft and aesthetic has shaped my writing this semester. I am writing even better first drafts and I have developed the key and previously missing skills of revision, good news to the thousands of first drafts hiding on my hard drive.
Most importantly for my work and for my life, I have discovered that I have something to say and this is the arena which I choose to say it in. This first book of poems I will complete as my thesis project is very personal, but at the same time, evolving into interesting relationships with my faith, with history, with universal experiences. My poetry seeks imagery–my mind thinks that way and it always has. It is satisfying that this semester I have learned it is much more satisfying to create an image-heavy poem which works for readers, which coheres and makes some sense. I enjoy poets such as Eliot, Angie Estes, Charles Wright, who I “get” but I don’t fully understand at all times. Wallace Stephens. Those who have that “something” extraordinary illuminating or creating a shadow of though, illusion, allusion, myth.
I have been called “strange” many times this semester! I have learned that “strange” in poetry can be a good thing. Now someone please write me a note verifying that “strange is good” that I can hand to all the ordinary people in my ordinary life. I have learned that I compartmentalize my poetry pursuits from the rest of my life in my thought processes. I keep it separate. I am a different person when I am putting words on a page. I hope by the end of this program that Writer Kerri and Ordinary Kerri can share more peacefully the same skin. I hope I alienate all those in my life who refuse to take me as least half as seriously as I take myself.
I have learned so much from Ruth L. Schwartz, from her patient and constant attention to my poetry, to the many hats she wears as she enters our fledgling poems and seeks to know the writers better so she can find that jumping off point for us to learn to soar. It is different for each one of us. It is a kind of poetic parenting…this mentoring. Through her ability to find a slow peace in the living out of her personal convictions and her own poetic creations, I have learned to slow my pace somewhat as a writer. I have learned the value and the rush of staying with an image or a poem until it really feels complete, and then looking at it again the next day and the next day after that. For me it’s a process of tweaking away until I see a little light. Revision is the hard work of writing poetry. Ruth has steadfastly stayed with me and encouraged me to enter my work as the poet, and this was the main goal I expressed to her at the beginning of semester. She never forgot that, even though I handed her some of the most outlandishly disconnected drafts she has possibly seen as a poetry professor. She never flinched. At the end of this semester, I feel that I can begin to write from a place of accomplishment. Perhaps live there, too. I don’t feel that I am clawing and scratching and auditioning anymore. I feel I belong in this MFA program. It is an incredible amount of hard work to produce a book of poems. I am thankful for my community of Ashland writers who get that and who deeply through the experience of pursuing the same end really understand.
As a civilization we are destroying miles of rain forest every day, we have whittled down untouched prairie to less than 3 percent of our world’s known topography, our landfills are bloated, ugly artifacts-turned-monsters–yet what may be the most endangered life-giving domain in the post-post modern world? Creativity.
Why? It takes a deliberate snubbing of all that mainstream society holds dear for a person to creatively write, draw, paint, sing, dance, think.
Creativity requires “Thoroughly Modern Millie” to turn off the television, mute all cell-phone notifications, to begin to think of her home as a studio where art is created, which means order and simplicity and hours and hours of uninterrupted time and space. Creativity requires long periods of seemingly doing nothing. It’s much like prayer, when prayer evolves into listening to God rather than speaking to God. For me, creative moments are prayer in exactly that sense.
I wish that I could visit all the elementary schools in the world with the power of an Education Czar so that I could teach teachers and principals and parents how to structure days and classrooms and lessons so that each day children would be “required” to learn the architecture behind the creative moment, because there definitely is one, and I believe most creative souls get their architecture mown down by the bulldozer of the industrialized society, by the misplaced values of such a society, much in the same way Andrew Jackson took down the Native Americans. He couldn’t see what he was destroying for the vision in his head of what he wanted to build.
I really believe the person who will ultimately cure cancer will be a scientist who writes poetry on the side, who listens to Mozart while he manipulates cells in a test tube, who takes long walks in the evenings and reads real books, not Kindles.
Poetry makes me a better person, and there is not much else in life that has that power to refine me. Others may misunderstand, but I understand myself so much the more, which strengthens my own foundations and my resolve to continue down this path. Most of us, who do this, do it for the joy it brings.
I am officially floundering in the deep end of my MFA program about half-way through my first semester. I haven’t had time to check-in on the blog because every spare moment I have is spent reading assigned poetry books, writing poems that emulate the writers we are studying, or writing responses to poets I encounter. I am enjoying every minute of it, but at the same time I am exhausted.
Here is a link to a blog post I wrote which ran today at Relief Journal’s Blog. Three of my poems are featured in Relief Journal 7.1.
I am committed to revising the rest of this semester. Blah! I would much rather generate new drafts of new poems, but the “Catch-22” of that is, all the new drafts will at some point, need revising. This is the hard work aspect of poetry for me. I am hoping to find resolve and discipline. I now know the answer to why everyone doesn’t publish a book in their lifetimes. It is HARD work.
I saw this quote on my Facebook wall while killing time this morning in between bouts of poetry-writing. I don’t agree with this one-hundred percent, because I think there is the tangible and the intangible to life. There are forces beyond our control that sometimes coerce our realities into being, and there simply is nothing we can do about that. It’s like the writing process. If I focus on what I can control and only focus on that–the work ethic, the reading, the self-discipline to get off Facebook and write, the physical exertion I need in order to sit still and work–my writing will improve and perhaps significantly, which is why I am enrolled in am MFA program. I want to focus on and work on the gifts of writing that are in my hands to improve. This doesn’t, however, negate the reality that there are gifts out there which no amount of drive, focus, ambition, and hard work will bring to me. There is a certain fickle quality to everyone’s Muse.
I believe in writing and in life, we spend too much time sometimes gargling the happenings of life which we have no control over to the neglect of those aspects of life which we do have control over. Posting this quote and finding some solace in its fact doesn’t mean I believe there is no whimsy to life, no unexpected course, no tragedy that comes out-of-the-blue. It’s just it seems pointless to me to spend too much time fretting about the fairy dust of life. I still believe in it, though.
This poet is on faculty at Ashland University and I plan to request her as my mentor for spring semester. She lectured during summer residency on documentary poetry and the above link presents an article she published on that topic. What is the responsibility of poetry to tackle social problems/issues? What is the best format for literature to grapple with accurate history? I see documentary poetry as a means of engaging an audience that stretches beyond those who read poetry as art for art’s sake. Documentary Poetry is also a way to transport the poet from the exclusively confessional as far as subject matter.
Home. There is no place like it. Kansas. I feel I have the right to paraphrase Dorothy because Kansas is home to me. There is nothing like landing at the Kansas City Airport and viewing that wide expanse of sky with nothing to serve as a geographical interruption to the horizon….and I mean that, not in a sarcastic way. Whatever others feel when they arrive “home” to their Philly Cheesesteaks or Great Lakes or miles of ocean-views, or Chinese food or Indie-music, or Rocky Mountains or favorite bistro where he proposed to her, or In-and-Out Burgers, we Kansans feel that exact same feeling when we open our eyes and see the open prairie. Ah. I am home. My heart can relax and breathe again. I can see forever again. I can let down. I am home.
I am still processing all that I learned from my two weeks at Ashland University. Poetry work-shopping has much in common with heavy weight-lifting. The body gets broken down. Toward the end of the experience, I am sure I was not alone in feeling like a complete poetry imposter with no business spending money on attaining an MFA when I felt like I didn’t even want to write my name anymore, much less write a poem, much less talk about a poem, read a poem, comment on someone else’s poem. Growth and building chops in anything always presents itself as the monster we would much rather avoid. I like to refer to poetry workshops as the root canal I just signed up for.
The last day of workshop, I sat in my oversized chair that was causing my spine to crook, feeling like the weakest link. I don’t like that feeling. I hadn’t completed the one assignment of the week in an acceptable manner. I had not followed the directions of the assignment but had gone off, as I am apt to do, on a tangent of my own. Part of the struggle involves my attempt to write from a foreign image bank. I want to write my thesis project about the Native American tribes in southern Oklahoma. I am so immersed in thought about this project that my poetry right now sounds like poorly planned prose. Clarity is impossible. I have no idea what I want to say. It is too early. I don’t even know what I want to know about all of this yet. It is somewhat like attempting to write in a foreign language before learning the language. I know that, being part Native American myself and having grown up in this area of Oklahoma, that I know much more than I realize I know at this point, but writing to know (I think Frost says this is why we write) doesn’t work as well for me as writing from what I know. I lack a voice.
After the last workshop I kidnapped myself for the remaining hours I had at Ashland and re-worked the assignment which was to copy as closely as we could the form of a Beckian Goldberg poem. I forced myself to leave Oklahoma and to write about something I do know much about–Walt Whitman. I emailed it to Angie Estes, poetry mentor at the workshop, and left Ashland feeling at least as though I had given it my best try.
I felt so pleased today to receive an email back from Angie Estes, who started her comments with the word “WOW.” First of all, it is amazing to me that a poet of this stature took the time to email me after the class ended on a poem which is clearly a late assignment on my part. All the poets I worked with at Ashland have shown me that kind of attention for the entire two-week residency. And not just to me. To all the graduate students.
I am home, still enjoying that beautiful let-down, not writing much, not thinking much. Cleaning and cooking and hugging my family a lot. My books are ordered for fall semester. Today’s email from Angie was a real boost of encouragement. Maybe I do belong in this program after all. One thing is certain. I am having the time of my life.
I love this poem by Joy Harjo. Hopefully, tomorrow I will link some photos of Ashland University’s beautiful campus. I am in intense writer/reader mode! So much to learn…so many ideas…this is an inspiring place.
I found coffee this morning, and discovered much to my pleasure, that Ashland is a very “run-able” little city.
Breakfast for me was the consumption of this essay by Elizabeth Dodd. http://readthebestwriting.com/?p=793.
I am focusing in my solitude on methods to slow down my writing process, to improve within my writing routine, the savory flavor of letting ideas ruminate and cure before spilling them on the page. I need to become a distance runner as a poet instead of a sprinter.
How to slow my mind down? How to wait for the great poem, instead of settling for the onslaught of fast ideas?
Working on a mini-presentation for tomorrow’s workshop on the tense and time travel through light in the poetry of Mark Strand.
I am sitting in my “owl” pajamas (apology to my sister who is terrified of owls), sufficiently tucked in for the night in my little dorm room cubicle on the second floor of Andrews Hall at Ashland University. Coming from my over 4,000 square foot, newly-purchased Tudor home to the institutional yellow walls of the tiny dorm room that will be my “home” for the next two weeks makes me feel like after-the-felony-Martha-Stewart. I hope to post pictures of the bunk bed with the thin, not-ready-for-summer-camp blanket in tomorrow’s post. I have already Googled hotels at Ashland for next summer’s residency.
In reality, though, I am thankful to be in this quiet room with no clutter and no distractions other than the television blaring in the lounge that adjoins my room. Did I mention I am a light sleeper? Living on campus has already necessitated the making of new writer friends. Tomorrow three new friends and I will meet for a journey to find java on a Sunday morning in a small Ohio town.
I struggle with “talking the talk.” I just have to keep reminding myself that what I am here in the program for is to improve my ability not only to write poetry but to talk about it.
It helps that tonight I received an email from Relief Journal who is sending the final galley of my poems for proofreading before publication. I may come from a small town in Kansas. I may be a SAHM. I may have arrived here with the writing processes of that ugly stepsister–Journalism. But I am here, and I am already a published poet. I love the work.
I am thrilled for the residency to officially move from introductions and awkward socializing (poets in general need more than apple juice to make us socially interesting people…) to teachable moments. Tomorrow’s craft seminar is ” A Closer Look at James Agee” followed by a reading by poet Brian Doyle.
True to form, the pace of my summer has not been conducive to a writing life. Usually, I completely table all writing and spend my time outdoors, mostly driving my son to and from summer tennis practices and tournaments. Normally, I embrace the hiatus from writing, however, in two days I board a plane for Ohio where I will begin Ashland University’s MFA program with a two-week writing residency. I am excited, nervous, and a bit freaked-out by having to pay my first year’s tuition. I feel like I can’t waste that much money. I now must succeed. Someone please define “success” for me.
Today, I unpacked my first box of poetry books and placed them on shelves in a new room in our new home. It felt like my mind was opening and I could breath again, to see my familiar friends–these books. In the next two days, I must select a poem to analyze and present at the residency and I must fill out workshop forms for the poems I have submitted for workshop at the upcoming residency.
Most importantly, tomorrow I have a hair appointment. Nothing saps my confidence like gray roots! By far the biggest surprise to me is the angst I feel over leaving my little grandson for two weeks! I like to pretend I am this independent woman with a poetry career, sports interests, friends, hobbies, etc….that little boy has me completely wrapped around his little finger.
It feels good to write something again, albeit a hastily scribbled blog post. It’s a start. All of life is a start, a box to unpack, a changing child to remember.
I am in love with the poetry of Maurice Manning and so far this is my favorite.
I read this interview with Mark Strand to jumpstart my writing day today. I believe that the poets, as Strand alludes to in the article, who are able to create their own “other worlds” through poetry, bringing luscious mystery to light (as Strand does) have a deep understanding of their own poetic process and their own theories about why poetry matters and poetry’s place in the world, or lack of place.
Strand’s process sounds similar to my own, but my own understanding of this process, my own relationship with the intangibles of art, music, poetry, my own steadfast groundedness in nonfiction and prose and this concrete world, diminishes my ability to shine such bold light. This is something I will continue to work toward…mystery yet absolute clarity at the same time.
In the tense of President George W.– Work was done around here today. I selected several poems and zapped them to the Cincinnati Review for a poetry contest. “Geography,” “Demise,” “Enlightenment,” “Burning Day,” “After Moving (Re-titled “Oklahoma Territory”), “Whitman’s America,” and “Water.”
Editing poems is tedious work!
It’s “crunch time” around here. In the next four days I must select 15 poems to be dissected and hopefully, like a beautiful mosaic, glued back together as stronger versions of themselves during my summer residency at Ashland. The important thing is to select poems which have some “wiggle room”– the ability to change and grow. Much of what I write feels very finished after the first draft. The writing isn’t great yet, but like my personality, it ineffably is what it is, and no amount of tweaking fundamentally changes anything.
I am thinking of starting a nonfiction piece entitled “How to Get Anyone Besides Your Husband Who is At This Moment Terrified of You to Take You Seriously During Menopause.”
Yes. Good luck with that. Truthfully, The Change has not even started for me, but at 50, I am at that age where no matter what I do and say…that is the overriding assumption. Works great unless you are attempting to accomplish something outside of yourself like publishing a book of poetry and earning a MFA degree. We all know poetry is never written outside of one’s true self. I am just finding that for 50 years, I have been parading around as a fictional character…no wonder success hasn’t followed me like a bloodhound!
It seems, even in my inner circle of friends and family, I have attracted a bunch of wing-clippers. (That sounds so menopausal, doesn’t it?) Perhaps more accurately I have focused too intently on being the wind beneath everyone else’s wings. I take responsibility for this. After all, I trained them. I do believe we lay little bread crumbs of instructions (nonverbal and verbal, in thought and action) which teach others how we want to be treated while they are on their merry ways to us. Some of us know we deserve more, but at the same time, feel that we don’t.
A little at a time, I am feeling more secure in who I really am. I know I have a voice and that I have always had one. I am beginning to believe if I find the right audience, my voice will make a difference and will be heard. I can’t spend all of my time keeping other people in the air only to be told when I exhale that I am a Debbie Downer. I am excited to develop through Ashland University, a group of support persons who take the writing of poetry as seriously as I do. Now I must begin to select the 15 beauties who will make this trip with me.
I don’t consider myself a writer during the summer months. I consider myself a popsicle-eating, sun-bathing, tennis-watching Mom during the summer. I also don’t consider myself a cook or house-cleaner in the summer, which bothers my husband much more than the not-considering-myself-a-writer thing. This summer, however, with my summer residency at Ashland University looming, I have to somehow get myself motivated.
I have to select my poems for workshop during summer residency. Deadline: yesterday.
I have to start writing again. Something tells me that my popsicle-eating persona isn’t going to make much of an impression upon my Pulitzer-prize- nominated- poetry- mentor at Ashland.
As if God knew I needed some external motivation, at just the right moment I recently learned that three of my poems will appear in the July issue of Relief Journal.
Nothing makes my grape-stained popsicle lips curve up at the ends like notice of publication. I am sticky with gratitude.
Click on the link above to read my latest published poem entitled “Flock.”
I am headed to Kansas City overnight on a business trip with my husband and I am hoping the luxury hotel atmosphere, and most importantly, the privacy away from my house, kids, and to-do lists, will inspire me to get some writing done.
Here is what I hope to accomplish: 1. Select poems for my summer residency at Ashland; 2. Write some on the novel I started on a whim 3. Read, read, read! 4. Work on a couple of essays in the works.
Perhaps some poetry will get written as well.
I will report back.
The link above is a blog post by Donald Miller which connects two great passions of mine–basketball and writing. So I had to share it.
The post also gives us, as writers, permission to have bad days. Whew, that’s good, because I have more bad days than good ones when it comes to producing quality writing. This post also engaged my thoughts around the connection between writing routine and fitness. For me, I cannot possibly quiet my mind or sit still long enough to write a poem or an essay unless I have at least an hour of exercise each day. Most days, I log more than one hour. This could be walking or yoga or running or weight-lifting or non-swimming water exercise.
Because I devote such regular time to fitness, many of my friends are women I have met with a mat or a band or a barbell between us. Many of these friends are fitter than I am, so I hesitate, always, to give advice about diet and exercise. With that caution in mind, here are some random thoughts I have about diet and exercise and I dedicate this to all women who are driven to improve themselves and to be the best we can be:
1. Fitness should serve you, not the other way around. If you serve the Fitness god (who looks like Barbie, by the way…and you, of course, don’t) then this is a tragic form of idolatry. What could be adding years and more importantly layers of energy and quality to your life will, instead, take you by the high, bleach-blonde fantasy pony tail that you have and yank you out of your own life. Yes, you might be a size 4, but your conversations will be only one-dimensional diatribes about the perfect green smoothie and the best regimen for killer abs. There is no acceptance in this territory, and when we can’t accept ourselves and our less-than-perfect bodies, we shut down the avenue to understanding the miraculous gift of God’s acceptance of us. Worse yet, we question his perfect wisdom in creating us with physical flaws. Angelina Jolie recently went public with the news that she recently underwent a preventive double mastectomy because of her nearly certain genetic probability of developing breast cancer. Here is one of the most physically beautiful women to ever walk the face of the earth. It is a very good thing for Angelina and family that she understands the deeper elements of true beauty. While it is not possible for me to look like Angelina Jolie, it is completely possible and desired by God that I have the confidence in myself to know that beauty is not the summation of perfectly chiseled body parts.
2.Gentle Moderation. I love high intensity workouts. I love pushing myself and attaining goals. Nothing wrong with doing Crossfit or running marathons as long as we listen to our bodies and exercise for the longterm benefits. If your body hurts, though, let it rest. We shouldn’t be judging our worthiness for the day based on how many stairs we climbed, or as I have been known to do, how close to cardiac arrest I pushed myself. Two years ago, I was heavy into Crossfit, and now after sustaining a back injury which keeps me from doing high intense workouts anymore, I do notice that my body is different, but honestly it isn’t THAT different. I am still in the same size of clothing as I was. My arms are not as muscular but they aren’t flabby either. I am curvier and look more like a middle-aged woman, but I am also able to enjoy other pursuits like writing and cooking and being with friends more because I am not chronically fatigued from my daily workouts and so depleted physically that the rest of my day after my workouts aren’t consumed with fueling my body with calories for the next workout. I don’t really miss the workouts. I miss the endorphin-highs. It takes more time for me to burn the calories I need to burn to maintain my weight, but I am much more at peace about my day and about my life, and I am much less HUNGRY all the time. Don’t get me wrong….if I could still do Crossfit I would. I loved it, but I can’t and both Barbie-god and myself have to be okay with that. It’s odd, I don’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I would.
3. Eat Real Food. Sometimes I just want to open all the windows of my house and shout Guess what? Human beings used to eat sugar and white pasta and dairy products and they eventually died. And guess what else, you can go through your life avoiding these food substances and you are STILL GOING TO DIE SOMEDAY. I do believe in pursuing the eating of more fresh vegetables and fruits, but some of the posts I read from fitness buffs in blogs and on Facebook and some of the conversations I hear from ladies in the locker room at my local exercise haunt, lead me to shake my head. These women apparently never eat real food anymore. I recommend the wisdom of Nina Plank and her Eat Real Food movement. Count the cost. You are giving up a day in your life for this. Personally I want to talk about something else and I want to eat real food given the fact that I don’t get this day back ever again. Today, at age 50, tacking on another year at the end of my hopefully but not guaranteed long life is not as precious or as vital is this day right here and now is to me. Food is fuel, but it is much more than that. It is also a way to connect with other people. I don’t want to eat like an astronaut.
4. Guilt makes you fat, not real food. For me, the journey to prioritize myself as a Christian wife and mother has been a climb through a lot of hastily consumed brownies. I have been addicted to sugar in the past. There is a connection between sleep deprivation and poor eating habits. It’s all about finding emotional, physical, and spiritual balance. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you. The key to achieving ideal weight and long-term health is to address all aspects of why we make the food choices and the exercise choices that we do. Right here, right now, let’s take a deep breath and say I am beautiful just as I am. The only person who needs convincing of that is myself.
5. No matter what you do, you are going to die. It might be with perpetually and falsely perked-up breast implants or Botox cheeks or hair that is too blonde for your laugh lines. You might meet your Maker in bling-jeans that in previous generations only country music stars would wear, but make no mistake about it, we can’t cheat death no matter how many unassisted pull ups we can perform. It seems to me a good percentage of our days (perhaps the equivalent of how many hours we put in on the treadmill) should go toward what is eternal about us and our lives, and to the extent going for a jog prepares my heart and mind for eternal living, that is the extent to which all of this matters. It does matter. Show me a woman with a barrel-shaped belly and I don’t care how many women’s retreats she has led or how many sermonettes she has delivered or how many hours she supposedly spends in prayer, I will show you the truth that there is guilt there, and hiding and hoarding and lack of balance. For me exercise is a very spiritual pursuit. Sometimes so is a good donut. When I eat a balanced diet and when I exercise at least an hour each day, I feel so much better and I am able to accomplish so much more. But it is the balance, not the steady feeding of endorphins that keep me grounded able to be the best me. We begin to attempt to control what we fear when we realize we fear what we can’t control. In reality, my body is aging. My skin is getting thinner. My teeth are losing enamel. My hair is well, my hair. I fear loss of my quality of life probably more than I fear total loss of life. But I can’t control these natural processes. I can only live in the reality that this is life as it is meant to be lived and there is no dodging the uncomfortable parts. Perspective is the word. Exercise within the realm of this reality.