Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Truly Beautiful Sunset

Truly one of the most beautiful sunsets ever! I took this at Presque Isle last week.

Almost September....How? A Gratitude Post

It's so hard for me to believe that it's almost September, though the weather -- and the fact that we're home from our annual mini-vacation -- reminds me that it's true.

It's also hard to believe that I've posted so little on the blog this month. It feels surprising because I've actually had a rich writing month -- it's just all been off-blog. The summer turned out to be a good one for reading, pondering, thinking, and poeming; I also managed the rough draft of an essay I didn't plan to write but like a lot (and am pondering what the heck to do with once I revise it). I didn't get much time to work on the novel, alas, though I managed some good reflection times on the back story with my dear husband/creative consultant. I have a sense of where I need to go -- I just need to find the time to do it.

And I'm hopeful I can. The autumn is gearing up to be a highly busy one. Sweet girl/Jedi Teen will be in 8th grade (we start Monday). I'll be working as a teaching assistant and doing a good bit of curriculum writing again as well as staying involved in ministry (church school, missions, afterschool arts). It's a full plate, but I am raring to keep writing and determined to try to keep my morning writing rhythm going even once we move into the busier fall schedule. It's frankly feeling more important than extra sleep right now.

Two other blessings I should mention: our long, long overdue technology upgrade is in the works at home at last. Once we're through the transition, I'm hopeful that will free up much more time for writing, both here and elsewhere. And on a final but profoundly grateful note: my medical tests came back with good news last week. I'm still extra tired physically, but knowing that what I'm dealing with is in the "normal" range of things makes me feel incredibly grateful.

Tired and busy I may be, but I feel read to make these next few months count in terms of creativity and faithfulness. May it be so, Lord! May it be so!

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Wordplay! A Creative Exercise for Priming the Poetry Pump



It’s been a delightful poeming month, an unexpected gift to this summer. I’ve been both reading and writing poetry again and loving it.

Part of this is due to my reading “at” a couple of great poetry resources, one old and one new-to-me (more on these in another post). But part of it has just been a wonderful rekindling of a perennial love of words. I find myself wanting to pick them up and marvel over them like gemstones, wherever I happen to encounter them – in good prose or in poetry.

One way I can tell I’m in good poeming season (besides the bouquet of poems blooming in my journal) is because I’m relaxing with some wordplay exercises. While word play can refer to any sort of playing with words, I tend to use it as a heading in my notebook for a particular kind of writing exercise I started doing many years ago and return to whenever I’m feeling particularly playful with language.

I don’t think this is an exercise I picked up anywhere in particular, although I may have patched it together from dribs and drabs of other writing exercises and prompts. Still I’ve honed it over the years, finding new ways to relax into it each time I do it. It doesn’t have an exact set of rules. I basically know what to expect when I go into the exercise, but one of the fun parts is that I never really know what to expect, because it always leads to such creative and varied results. 

Here are some of the parameters for the wordplay exercise as I’ve developed it.

  1. Start with culling a list of words from a book or any other bit of writing. This will be your resource list. Your list can come from almost any type of book or article – in fact, it can be fun to experiment with different kinds of resources. I’ve pulled my list from magazines, history books, poetry anthologies, and nature field guides. You could try it with a favorite novel or a science text book. Sticking with one book is usually my favorite way to do the exercise, both because it limits my choices and because it delights me to see what a vast array of words you can find in almost any resource. Poetry anthologies or collections are, of course, some of the best for dipping into, since poets tend to use such concrete and evocative language.

  1. Set a limit for how many words you list. This can be any kind of limit – a “page’s worth” (however you decide to write them on the page), a certain number of words, a number of words within a given time frame, or a number of columns of words. I like to write my lists in long columns down the page.

  1. Try not to be too conscious of which words you’re choosing. This sounds harder than it is, because once you’re in the groove of choosing words, you’ll see how easy the choices are – it’s like picking fruit from branches. When I say “try not to be too conscious,” I mean don’t go looking for words with common sounds, or a set number of verbs or nouns or adjectives. But don’t worry or be surprised if you find yourself clustering around certain types of sounds or words. Let your pen write down whatever words your eye falls on most naturally. Pick the word up mentally and let it roll around your brain. If it feels good, jot it down; if it doesn’t resonate with you in that moment, skip it and move on. If you find a word that you really like but find yourself wanting to jot it in a different form, that’s OK too. Recently I came upon the word “boisterously” but decided to drop the “ly” and tuck away “boisterous” as an adjective. You can always go back and ad the “ly” later when you’re using it, or change it in some other way.

  1. If it helps to prime your creativity, capture your words in colorful felt tip markers or crayons, or alternate different colored ballpoints – one word in blue, another in red, black, or green.

  1. Occasionally, a poem may begin to form (chomping at the bit!) as you’re making your list. If that happens, go ahead and run with it first thing.

  1. More than likely, however, you will find yourself pausing for breath once you’ve compiled the list, pleased just to sit there and look at it for a minute. Like other things you collect, words can be beautiful in and of themselves, each one as different and unique as shells or wildflowers. Let yourself enjoy the collection.

  1. Get ready to play! This is where I have to confess the guidelines break down a bit. I don’t have a single approach to how I play with the list beyond this: I begin to put words in groups (clusters, bevies, strings) on the page. Sometimes I do this on the actual page where I wrote the list, letting the words dance in the margins. Sometimes I do it on a facing page. Sometimes I go for groupings via sight features and sometimes by sound. Although there isn’t any set way to do this, here are a few possibilities you might try to get started:

(a)    Read through the entire list, either silently or out loud, and let yourself notice repeating sounds. Did you gravitate toward a lot of words that all started with the same letter? Put them together. Did you happen to collect a lot of words that major in long “i”s or short “a”s or long “o”s? Let them gather together and see what happens.

(b)   Group words by form. Let your nouns huddle in one place, or divide them into concrete nouns and more abstract ones. Encourage your adjectives to hang out together and marshal your verbs into one force. Notice if you had a tendency to go for certain forms like “ing” endings or plurals. Anything that makes these words kin is game for a grouping strategy.

(c)    Begin to put together adjectives with nouns, even if they don’t seem to make logical sense. Turn adjectives into nouns and vice versa. Silent can become silence and kindness can morph into kind. Yes, you could end up with some trite expressions – in my wordplay session earlier today, I did this and stumbled upon both golden silence and natural kinship (I think our brains are sometimes wired to make the obvious connections) but push yourself and put words together willy-nilly, whether they look like they belong together or not. You will end up with some combinations you would never have come up with except in playful mode: relentless world, secret father, obstinate rain.

(d)   Look for rhymes. Sometimes you won’t actually find any that occur naturally in your list, but you’ll find words that want you to find rhymes for them. My collection of “ing” words netted me the following: living, bleeding, glowing, meeting, which felt like they were begging for a quatrain.

Once you’ve spent a while playing with the words of your list, grouping them and re-grouping them, you will probably find poems or poem lines start to come. The end goal of the exercise, for me at any rate, is not usually a whole poem draft – though sometimes I end up with one. More often than not, I come up with what I call “snippets” – potential lines of poems, stanzas that might be built into something interesting later, or even just a series of images that I can come back to.

Here’s example of a snippet I wrote in today’s wordplay exercise:

the broken wing of
the boisterous bird
left him earthbound
but his music
was heard
in an echoing chant
that spilled
through the bones
and waltzed
through the woods
and scattered
the stones

One of the best parts of this exercise is that it helps me to approach poetry from a different place: not just a playful place, but one in which form takes precedence. Actually it’s not even form taking precedence, but the words themselves. The words lead me into the poem, rather than an idea I want to convey or even an image I feel compelled to describe. Those are fine places to begin with in poetry, but sometimes I need to get back to words themselves. The wordplay exercise shakes me loose from the typical ways I approach the writing of a poem and pulls me into the music of language.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Why All the Best Ideas Come in the Shower (An Original Poem)


Why All the Best Ideas Come in the Shower

Because you can't hear the phone ring,
and if you can,
you still can't answer it.
Because no one can expect you
to solve a problem
or take care of an immediate crisis,
real or imagined.

Because the warm rainfall
descending on your head
mimics the flow of inspiration,
pouring downward
in an abundance
that catches you by surprise.

Because water is a gift
so precious
that on good days
when you remember to stand
in gratitude
you're more receptive
to other gifts too.

Because you can relax
taut muscles
and breathe deep in ways
that you don't think to do
if others might see,
and if tears need to flow --
who will know?

Because the sound of the water
doesn't just soothe,
it quickens
and helps your mind
make liquid connections
that suddenly!
create so much beauty,
so much sense.

Because unclothed
feels vulnerable but also free,
the same way you feel
on the best creative days
even you're bundled
into protective layers.

Because --
(oh, wait, there were more reasons,
I know, but they have
gurgled softly
down
the
drain -- )

oh yes
Because being cleansed
makes you feel alive
and whole
and covered by
refreshing waves of grace.

(~EMP, 7/31/15) 



Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Two Men at Breakfast: A Trimeric Poem

My friend Sandy recently posted a picture of her husband and grandfather breakfasting together while they read from their Bibles. The beautiful photo got me thinking about the ways generations share love and faith. It also got me playing with a poem in trimeric form.

This is a relatively new poem form which I first heard about on a blog last year (I think it was a Monday Poetry stretch at Miss Rumphius Effect). It was invented by Dr. Charles Stone, who defines it as:

 "Trimeric \tri-(meh)-rik\ n: a four stanza poem in which the first stanza has four lines and the last three stanzas have three lines each, with the first line of each repeating the respective line of the first stanza.  The sequence of lines, then, is abcd, b – -, c – -, d – -." 

Dr. Stone has written a lot of trimerics. He tends to write very spare lines, which I appreciate (and he is, after all, the inventor of the form!) but one reason I enjoy playing with the form is that it seems to lend itself so well to tiny narratives. This is only the second one I've written, but I hope it won't be the last.

Two Men at Breakfast

They keep the Bible near to hand --
the old man and the younger one.
At the table, they enjoy coffee
and sweet fellowship in prayer.

The old man and the younger one
have long shared a love of mornings
and the God who made them.

At the table they enjoy coffee,
sip the bitter and the sweet,
share their worries and their cares

and sweet fellowship in prayer.
These are the moments that bind
generations together in love.

~EMP 7/28/15



Monday, July 27, 2015

One Child at a Time: Reflections After VBS



We had a tiring but terrific VBS week. This was the fourth year we invited in a local CEF team, recognizing that we don’t have the people power to design, implement, and carry out an original program right now. I also like that it connects us to other churches and a wider community of faith. Yes, there are differences in presentation and emphasis within different Christian communities, but sometimes I think we gain more by working together, even in the tensions, than we would working separately. At least that’s one of the gleanings I took away from this week, in which I sensed the Lord was working in me as much as he was in the kids.

The kids had a great time. With the exception of the first night, when we only had 8 children, we had about 18 coming every night, with a good core coming back multiple times and being there the whole week or at least 4 out of 5 nights. A number of these kids came last year as well. It was a good reminder that, as my dear husband says, when we open the doors, the children come!

There are years (and this was definitely one of them) when I wasn’t sure we were prepared to open our doors; we hadn’t had the energy to do much preparation ourselves and our pool of volunteers to draw on seems to get smaller every summer. Our little family has been feeling a bit burned out lately, and D. and I have been asking ourselves some questions about our ministry call and the best way to carry it out in this season. I have also been struggling a good deal with some physical issues and extra tiredness on account of them.

And yet a marvelous thing happened when we did open our doors and step out in faith. The children came, and God was there to meet them, exactly where they were. God was also there to meet us. He gave us energy, enthusiasm, a renewed sense of realization about how deeply these children need an encounter with his love and a chance to hear and see the gospel.

Since we weren’t doing the heavy lifting as teachers, he also gave us time to just sit and be with the kids during meals (at least some nights; S. and I ended up handling the kitchen for the last three nights) and during the lesson time. That meant time to listen to them and laugh with them and ask them questions (in addition to directing and guiding them…and keeping them out of the bathroom when they shouldn’t be in there…and keeping them from clunking each other on the head or shoving each other around too much when they got frustrated or mad at each other). It meant time to do the goofy hand motions to the songs and to encourage them to repeat the Scripture verses. It meant time to observe and interact with and pray for some of the kids who came with extra special needs: we had a deaf boy as well as two boys who were autistic.

Wednesday night, midweek, felt a little overwhelming. We had a large attendance with no one to sit and be with the kids except us and the CEF team, two of whom were very young this year. Some of the kids got loud, rowdy, and rambunctious and just keeping order became the main task of the evening. In the midst of it all, you could tell there were kids who were doing their best to listen, drinking in what they were given. We quickly recognized that many of them had little to no familiarity with the evening’s Bible story, which happened to be Noah. 

At the end of the evening, I was grateful when two lovely ladies in our church who do outreach to the deaf community came downstairs from the Bible Study they’d been holding. I had contacted them to let them know about the little boy who was attending who is deaf, and they were able to have a conversation with him. One of the ladies was able to come back the next two evenings and really forge a connection with this little boy; she signed the lessons to him and also just spent a good deal of time with him in signed conversation. She also made some beginning connections with his family, who is in need of the some of the resources and personal help she can provide. That turned out to be one of the huge blessings of the week.

Still, by the end of the evening, I felt discouraged. I kept thinking “there is so much hunger here, and we have no real way to meet it. There is so much need for attention and presence, and we have so few people to provide it. Even just attempting to reach the children within a few block radius of our church feels overwhelming.” That feeling persisted for me until the following morning, when I opened the daily intercessory email I get from an amazing mission organization working in India. Guess what the first line read? “How do you transform a nation of a billion+ people? You start with one child.”

Suddenly, our task didn’t seem quite as daunting. Or if it did still seem daunting, God had at least given me the “perspectacles” I needed. Our task is truly not as overwhelming as the task of church planters and Bible teachers in India, but with them we share a common task and calling, a common gospel. And even, in one sense, a common strategy. “You start with one child.”

That phrase changed the whole way I looked at the next two nights, even when they seemed to feel overwhelming. One hungry little boy prayed to accept and trust Jesus the next night. And that night, and the next, there were other opportunities, some of them small, to tell and show individual kids how much God cared for them.

In the midst of all of that, God directed my attention some other words I needed to hear. One was in the book Discipleship in the Present Tense (by James K.A. Smith) which I’ve been wending my way through this month, and the other was in an old seminary magazine.

Let me mention the words from the article first. I’ve been going through old magazines, some of them years old, pulling articles or photos I want to keep and recycling the rest of the pages. I was skimming through a nearly ten year old interview with an alum from my seminary who was talking about his own then-daunting task of a particular ministry, in which he had humbly realized he lacked “tools, talents…and finances.” (Sounds familiar!) But he went on to say that because of that, they had constantly relied on “seeking God’s provision and direction” (also sounds familiar!). He finished with the words “This is a ministry bathed in intercessory prayer.”

The other light bulb that went off for me was in Smith’s book, which is really a collection of essays and interviews. I was reading an interview in which he recapped much of the terrific content from his book Desiring the Kingdom, which I read last summer. Toward the end, he commented that that no matter how small you or your community might feel, it’s important to remember that “you’re in a story of immense cosmic significance.”

Yes.

  • Remember you are in a story of great cosmic significance
  • Bathe the ministry in intercessory prayer
  • Focus on one child at a time

I don’t know entirely what the future of our church’s or even our family’s ministry and calling may look like, but it seems to me that these are wise and important reminders that I know I needed to hear this week.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Limitations and Confidence



I had one of those conversations today that got me thinking about limitations and confidence. As I contemplate my ongoing work as a teacher (in the midst of parenting, ministry, and writing) I often struggle to find the distinctions between knowing and acknowledging my real limitations and simply lacking confidence.

Does anyone else have anything in their life that they feel this way about?

I got into teaching very much through the back door. I’ve never been trained as a teacher; everything I’ve learned as a teacher I’ve learned from experience. I rarely get opportunities for ongoing conversations or professional development that help me grow as a teacher, except in the cracks and crevices of an ongoing learning life of my own.

And these days, I seem to be teaching everywhere: as a homeschooling parent, as a children’s ministry worker, as a graduate school adjunct, as a teacher for an online diocesan lay institute, as a curriculum developer and writer. There’s almost no part of my life that isn’t suffused with teaching of one sort or another, and this past year I literally worked with students as young as three on up through retirement age. The fact that the door keeps opening for me to teach leads me to believe…I hope, I pray….that it’s a calling I’m supposed to be embracing.

I love teaching. There are parts of it I know I do well. There are other parts I know I don’t do so well, sometimes due to lack of time – time to read, think, process, discuss, experiment, grow, pay attention, check out new scholarship. Other lacks that frustrate me at times are lacks in financial resources and decent technology. There are other parts I know I don’t do so well because I just don’t do them well. I don’t know if I could ever develop certain skills as a teacher because I’m not sure I am gifted in certain areas. Like most teachers (I guess?) I try to build on my strengths.

But there are times when I am called upon for a teaching project when I find myself standing in front of it, feeling so unsure if I am adequate to the task, and not always knowing if it’s just me being tired and overwhelmed and lacking confidence, or me coming up against a real wall because I just don’t have the brain and the gifts needed to go any further. This is not intended to be some sort of false humility, by the way. I’m serious about the fact that I sometimes feel very limited as a scholar and teacher, especially when it comes to my work in formal academia.

I don’t mean to be navel gazing. It might sound like that’s what I’m doing, but I honestly wrestle with this question, which becomes a question of practical import when I’m trying to decide which projects to take on and how to approach them. It may not be popular to talk about limitations, but I sometimes need to face the fact that I have them – both tangible and intangible ones. I don’t like the fact that lack of confidence is sometimes part and parcel of the limitations I face, but I suspect it often is. Trying to detangle all that is difficult. Sometimes I retreat and sometimes I take the plunge; sometimes I serve my students better than others. 

Grateful for opportunities, but I do confess sometimes I wish I could put my energies into one or two places, at most, and really dig in wholeheartedly and deepen in those places. Given the current season of our lives and our family's needs, I don't think that's going to happen any time soon, which means I need to keep on learning to do as well as I can putting together the myriad small pieces that make up the mosaic of my working and creative life.  And being as faithful as I can to do them well, even when I can't give some of them the attention they deserve.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Reading Round-Up: Early Summer Edition

Summertime! Our recent trip to Virginia to see family, coupled with the fact that school is out, means I am getting some long overdue reading time. Even though I have a heavier teaching load this summer than usual (at the seminary) I am still enjoying some good reading time.

Here's a peek at some of what I've been reading lately.

Young Fiction


The sweet girl (aka Jedi Teen...who by the way truly has officially reached her teen years now!) has been busy recommending books to me, deep into her own summer reading. Some of these she's found on her own and some we've ferreted out together via book lists. So far I have really enjoyed Savvy by Ingrid Law and One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, two mid-grade books I might not have read but for the sweet girl's encouragement. I enjoyed Savvy, an interesting mix of fantasy and realism, for its creative story-line and highly creative use of language. One for the Murphys, the debut novel of author Hunt (whose second book Fish in a Tree the sweet girl and I both enjoyed earlier this year) is the story of a young girl in foster care. It reminded me a little bit of Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins, though Gilly had less overt sentiment.

Jedi Teen and I reviewed the graphic novel Smile together, and she's gone on to read two other graphic novels by Raina Telegemeier (I've started Sisters, but haven't had a chance to finish it). We both also read the seventh (and perhaps last, though we're not sure) Clementine book by Sara Pennypacker, Completely Clementine. It's so funny to realize that the sweet girl started reading these when she was about Clementine's age. Clementine has only made it through her third grade year in these seven terrific books, while my daughter has shot past her by years. But we both still love them, almost the way you love to and return to a good Ramona book. And that's saying something.

Mysteries

I've needed a lighthearted return to mystery reading this summer, and decided to dive back into my exploration of the books of Patricia Wentworth.  I'm not sure quite how many of the Miss Silver mysteries I've read now, but I know I've done three since late spring: She Came Back, The Gazebo, and Out of the Past. All of these were written in the 1950s, I think, and she definitely had her formula down by then. I'm cottoning on to what makes a Wentworth a Wentworth -- I actually managed to guess the murderer in the last one -- and I'm very much enjoying the camaraderie between Miss Silver and Inspector Abbot, who looks upon this school-teacher-ish maiden-aunt woman with both amusement and awe. I love that he trusts her detecting instincts so completely that he'd pretty much follow her blindfolded in a snowstorm. It's a great early example of an amateur and professional partnership.

Non-Fiction

So much really good non-fiction on my plate right now...it's sort of an embarrassment of riches. I'm inwardly singing with joy over the beautiful essays in James K.A. Smith's Discipleship in the Present Tense, which seem to be "speaking my theology" in ways I've only felt with a few authors in the past. I'm revisiting a gem of a book I loved years ago and recently rediscovered in a library book sale: Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal -- and I need to hear what he has to say just as much as I did then. It's one of those beautiful gospel-centered books that we all need to revisit from time to time for the good of our hearts. And it's reminding me how much I love the artistry of Rembrandt and his Prodigal painting in particular.

I'm learning a ton of history I never knew from David Garrison's A Wind in the House of Islam, a book that is both challenging and encouraging. It's a carefully researched and well-written account of some of the many amazing things that God had done among Muslim communities in centuries past and is currently doing among Muslims in this century. I was going to call it a book of mission history (which it is) but I'd rather give it the bigger parameter of Christian history or just history (thinking about Justo Gonzalez' reminder that we too often separate the study of missions from the rest of church and world history).

I'm still working my way through N.T. Wright's Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, which is taking me longer than I expected, mostly because I find myself wanting to chew thoughtfully on his insights. I keep meaning to jot some of the things that are particularly speaking to me -- from Wright, Nouwen, Smith, and Garrison especially -- here on the blog. Maybe I will have a chance to do that soon.