On Living and Dying and Making a Difference

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“I think I’m dying,” I said, and I coughed weakly. My children gathered around me, stroking my head and handing me small squares of toilet paper instead of Kleenex. My oldest got me a glass of water as I propped myself on some pillows. I tried to watch another season of Hell’s Kitchen but it made me hungry and being hungry made me feel nauseated. This sickness is not consumption, though that would be a far more literary way to write about my sick bed. This sickness is just a nasty head cold, a head cold I developed because my children are in grade school, and I just cannot help but hug and kiss them even when they are sick, which is always, because they are in grade school.

All that day I camped out in bed, and I read the stack of magazines I keep on my nightstand. I collect literary journals like some kids collect bottle caps. I line them up on the shelf under my nightstand. I stack them under the bed. I pile them on the coffee table. When the magazines arrive I read them while sitting on the couch, feet up, absent to everything else. On this day, I am reading Ruminate Magazine, one of my favorite journals. It is one of my favorites because of the beautiful work inside, the feel of the thick paper between my fingers, the splash of color of the artwork every few pages.

I might never have subscribed to Ruminate had I not met the editor, Brianna Vandyke at a writer’s conference in Michigan many years ago. I met her while walking through the “vendor” room. She was positioned behind the Ruminate table, smiling. I browsed the sample magazines on the table. They were a young outfit back then, just getting started. I had heard of them through a few other writers, and I had submitted to one of their writing contests. When Brianna saw my nametag, she said, “I know your name! I’ve been wanting to meet you!” and then she came out from behind the table and hugged me. At that point in my writing career, no one knew my name. I had no publishing credits to speak of and in fact, I was still unsure of whether I could truly say out loud that I was a writer.

I subscribed that day. And it was in that generous greeting, that moment of recognition and that small, well-loved journal that I began to form some solid understanding of what it means to create something beautiful. It’s something I still value to this day. Truly, I’m grateful for the work of Ruminate.

Because you might never have come across Ruminate before this post, I’d like to tell you that you also might never realize that they are in a funding crisis. Years of working on this magazine for no monetary compensation have taken its toll on the creators, and they are faced with closing their doors. This post is just to say that it will most likely not cut into your Hell’s Kitchen viewing. It will not keep you from your important engagements. If you have not heard about the magazine, the closing of Ruminate will not affect your daily living so far as you know.

What you don’t know is that the effect of this magazine on creative and talented folks is immense. Letting this magazine fall into the waters and not surface again is a loss that is felt at the deepest levels by people who read and imbibe the words there like vitamins, like minerals, like meat. These words sustain us, they bolster us, they fuel us well and whether you realize it or not, the loss makes us all weaker. The loss of good creative work, deep and beautiful work, wears on our communal immune system. We need Ruminate Magazine because we’re weary and worn down and words matter, art matters.

Will you help? You have a couple of days yet to lend a hand to help pull this powerful force from the water. Subscribe today, give a subscription or just toss some coin in this direction instead of a couple of pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks. Be a part of something foundational and good where art is concerned. Your small contribution makes a difference, I promise.

And listen, if you’ve never subscribed to a literary journal before, consider this your opportunity. Even Gordon Ramsey would agree that work like this needs your support.

Let’s do this thing.

 

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i thank You God…

Photo Credit: Luci Shaw

Photo Credit: Luci Shaw

You need poetry today, right now. You maybe didn’t know it but it’s true. I ran across this poem today and I thought I’d toss it out there to you, to me, to all of us.

This is fresh for me, right at the front of my mind and heart. It feels vital and immediate for me probably because I’ve been reading Wendell Barry’s “Life is a Miracle” or because I attended readings by Scott Russell Sanders and lovely poet Luci Shaw, last month. In any case my pals, here is this today.

i thank You God for most this amazing

by E. E. Cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

The magical mystery tour!

This morning when I stirred my coffee I picked up the wrong spoon. Instead of the nice clean spoon I’d taken from the drawer moments before I picked up a spoon left on the counter from dinner last night. Somehow it had missed the last train into the dishwasher before I went to bed and so it sat there all night, lonely and covered in spaghetti sauce. I stirred my coffee without realizing the error. I walked to my comfy morning ritual chair without noticing and I took that first sip, maybe even the second sip in utter bliss. The third sip revealed my error. Nothing like aged tomato sauce chunks in a person’s coffee first thing. I mean that.

All of this has nothing to do with my post this morning. I just needed to tell someone. Thanks for that.

Now, to the business at hand- my new friend, Cathy Warner has invited me to be a part of what she calls a The Magical Mystery Blog Tour 2014. I was very excited to be offered a seat on that tour. I love the Beatles. Imagine my surprise when I read her actual post this morning and found no evidence of the Fab 4, no walruses or no Strawberry Fields. It was not quite as bad as discovering the floating chunks of tomato sauce in my coffee but I’ll confess my initial disappointment that John, Paul, George and Ringo were not a part of this tour.

In any case, I moved past that because I really do like Cathy Warner an awful lot. Her writing is lovely. Her blog is beautiful and intimate even though it’s not psychedelic like the cover of that Beatles album that we shall no longer name in this post. It’s still pretty far out, man.

The tour itself is about connection. Cathy answers some questions offered up by her friend, poet Cary Taylor and then Cathy pays it forward by tagging other writers that she likes a whole lot. Thus explains how I’m involved in a blog tour (that has no walruses, strawberry fields or LSD inspired art work. Sorry.)

So, now that I’ve gotten a fresh cup of coffee (that has no chunks of tomato sauce floating) here’s my contribution to the cycle of questions and answers that make up this tour today:

What am I working on?

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If you’re my friend you know (because I have been pounding you over the head with this information) that I just finished a book, “Nearly Orthodox: On being a modern woman in an ancient tradition.” The book has just been published by Ancient Faith Publishers and now is wending its way through the world of books. I guess in theory I’m not “working” on that anymore as far as writing is concerned.

So, in light of that I’ll change my answer to say that I’m working on research for my next book, which is a sort of “theology of the body” for normal people. Most of the work out there about how we see our bodies (for religious folks in particular) is tough to decipher. I’d like to write a book we can all cling to when the couch is too comfy and the pastries are calling.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

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When I began to write the book, Nearly Orthodox I wanted to tell the story of my conversion but I couldn’t just tell that story because I’m not a single story. I’m a collection of stories. All of us are collections of stories. We are the product of all the years we’ve lived and all the stories we’ve created. So, instead of telling you about my conversion to Orthodoxy I wrote the stories that explain why I’m so neurotic. It’s far more entertaining, and, it’s all true. I thought maybe it’d be like therapy and help me not be so neurotic but I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen. You’d have to ask my husband to find out, I guess.

I’m not sure that answers the question but it’s been a rough start this morning, with the coffee and blog tour shake up and all. Forgive me.

Why do I write what I do?

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Remember that part of me being neurotic? That’s why I write. Online quizzes on Buzzfeed and the like tell me I’m a verbal processor which means I need to talk about things to understand them. That was driving the grocery store clerks crazy so instead I put my creative writing degree to a good use and began to write about things instead. I have to write it down to understand myself and that’s why I write what I do.

I also write poetry which is what happens when too many words on a page make me want to dig my fingernails into my skin. Poetry is a way for me to make beautiful little tasty morsels instead of a full on Cake Boss cake wreck. That’s not to say the kitchen is any less a disaster area whilst creating those tasty morsels. The process is always messy. I could really use a cleaning lady.

How does my writing process work?

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Remember that disaster area and cleaning lady comment?It’s safe to say that that’s an apt metaphor. I wish I could emulate the sort of writer who can just sit quietly each morning, soak in sun rays, sip coffee (without tomato chunks) and summon the muse but it’s messy. My best ideas come when I have no chance of writing them down. It’s like the best conversations my kids want to have with me come at bedtime when my brain cells are gone and my attention span is depleted. I have to force myself to find time to put it down someplace and hope I can decipher my notes later. It always reminds me of that episode from Seinfeld when he wakes up late at night, laughing, scribbles down a note for a joke then spends the rest of the episode trying to figure his handwriting. When he finally does, the joke is not funny at all. I feel some days I spend a whole episode reaching for that great idea I thought I had and some days I never do reach it or I reach it and realize it’s all about the flaming globes of Sigmund but some days there’s gold and those are the best days.

What’s next for this tour?

Well, this is where things get really interesting because I’m tagging my pals for posts. You’ll get to click on over and see posts from my friends, Karen Beattie and Lance Burson.

Karen has written a beautiful book about loss and grief and gifts in the process. I hope you’ll check it out and while you’re at it, read her, a lot. She’s awesome.
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My pal, Lance has written a few books over the years but his latest is here. Also, check out his blog if for no other reason than that picture of Brad Pitt. Why not?

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If that doesn’t do it for you, you can also read him on LeftyPop, his hard left leaning, news gathering, opinion spouting website.

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Look for their posts in the coming week or so and continue on this magical mystery tour! It’s a virtual pub crawl of awesome, except I’ll tell you right now there is no actual beer being given out. It’s BYOB, people.

 

Good Letters: Jars of Clay

I’ve got a post up today on Good Letters, the fine blog offered by that Image Journal magazine I like so much. If you’ve got a moment take time to check it out. In light of the heat the band (and front man, Dan Haseltine in particular) took a few weeks ago over a Twitter discussion on marriage equality I just wanted to check in with my friend, Stephen Mason. He delivers some lovely words and sage thinking. Hope you’ll give it a read! 20130614-jarsofclay-600x-1371228007-300x240

The problem with poetry…

Last week I was fortunate to have an essay I’d written picked up and published at Art House America’s blog. This week I had the opportunity to do a Q & A with poet, Scott Cairns for Image Journal’s Good Letters blog. This morning as I drove through the alley that takes me to and from the safety of my garage I saw the broken glass that littered the sidewalk just where that alley meets the road. There was another shooting last week here. It was at around 3am and it involved known gang members, as is usual for shootings in Logan Square.

It was after another such shooting a few months ago that I wrote the essay that was picked up by Art House America. This one was a few blocks away. The scattered safety glass glimmered on the blacktop and spilled onto the sidewalk. After the driver was shot the car must have hit a bordering tree. Police tape flapped in the wind and I thought, does poetry matter here?

I went home a little shaken, not because of the shooting but because of the idea that perhaps my love of poetry was frivolous, extraneous and maybe even elitist. I have the luxury of reading poetry. I have had the privilege of studying it, of writing it, of discussing it with smart people in many beautiful places. But here, in the broken glass and police line tape, does poetry matter here?

The essay for Art House served to assure me that poetry was more than frivolous for me, it has been life blood in all of the difficult times in my life. My family, though smart folks, were not intellectuals. We did not sit around reading for fun. We did not discuss or debate literature or poetry. We were as ordinary and maybe a little more troubled than most of our neighbors but my parents valued higher education and pushed for it. They instilled the idea in my siblings and myself that going to college was an honor and a necessity in a time when going to college was not a certainty for most kids of my generation. I had to work hard to make it to college. I had to work hard to pay for it. I had to work hard to keep my grades up and keep my meager scholarship and aid money.

But unlike the kids in my neighborhood, I did not have to worry whether I’d live long enough to do any of those things.

Sometimes I think about being able to have a short talk with the gangbanger boys I see in my neighborhood. I don’t see them as dangerous or degenerate. They are all someone’s son. Many of them are the ages of my own children. I consider asking if poetry matters to them. I want to ask about their hopes and dreams, about their family lives. I want to ask them to write a poem, to imagine this poem would be read someday far in the future by anthropologists and literature professors and young people who want to know about life in this time, in this place. What would they say, I wonder.

And I just want to understand, not so that I can fix it, because when my white savior instincts kick in (and they do) I try hard to remember that these kids are not a problem to be fixed. They are someone’s son. I don’t have the solve them so that I feel safer in my neighborhood or so that I feel better about my own worth. I want to understand so that I can avoid being part of the problem.

While I will profess my undying love of poetry to all who will listen (obviously) in moments like this, the day after another shooting, another loss of life, it is sometimes difficult to know that poetry matters here, where the alley meets the road.

friends…

Essayists, like poets, are born and not made, and for one worth remembering, the world is confronted with a hundred not worth reading. Your true essayist is, in a literary sense, the friend of everybody.

William Ernest Henley

I can’t say for sure that I was born an essayist yet I sincerely hope one day to be one worth remembering. In any case, I like this idea of being the friend of everybody. That resonates. So, hello friends. Happy monday.

Advice to young poets

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The advice I got when I was a young poet came from Keats and Dickinson, Thoreau and Hugo. I languished in my angst more often than not. I did not consider the words I put down as a craft or art but rather a way to give voice to the deep sad I felt but didn’t understand. And in fact, I had no idea why I would need to give voice to the deep sad. I just wrote and pondered and swam in the waters of dark thinking because it came naturally.

The advice I gleaned from poetry was hidden in verses, like code between line breaks-

I ’ve seen a dying eye
Run round and round a room
In search of something, as it seemed,
Then cloudier become;

And then I saw the dying eye Dickinson described too, in my room, in my cloudy vision and often I did not know what to do with it.

And I’d dive head first into a verse, like this of Thoreau then in the next moment-

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

Or paddle around in Poe until I could not breathe without sobbing-

“I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand–“

Looking back on it now, I realize I was too short-sighted as a young poet to know how deep the rabbit hole of poetry really goes. I did not have the Internet to tell me there were other words, a great “And also there is this…” batch of words, encouraging words, to lift me out of the dark thoughts my adolescent poet brain offered up.

Growing up is hard and painful and poetry is good balm. It’s too bad so many young people don’t realize that for the most part they’re all young poets waiting to be fed strong words that can build them up and get them through it. Regardless of creative leanings, economical level or ethnic background all young people have a young poet inside, whispering and waiting. I really believe this.

And so, today, I thought about what advice I’d give to the young poet and this is what came to me for what it’s worth-

Don’t be afraid of your dark thoughts but don’t give them absolute power either.
Put those dark thoughts in a well-lit room close by
and listen to them from a place of authority and calm.
When they are hungry, give your dark thoughts food grown in clean soil
and water from the clearest streams
because dark thoughts are really just ideas that are afraid.
Treat your dark thoughts like children who need care to become healthy.
Guide them into your art and let the art speak those fears
And when your thoughts are ill, let your art be the medicine and the hospital bed.
You are the doctor and the nurse and the midwife and the priest to them.
Let your art heal those dark thoughts so that they can become
what they are meant to be in the wholeness of you
as an artist
and a friend
and a human
living and breathing and growing all the time.
Don’t be afraid of dark thoughts.

Poetry: If not for the storm…

I’ve got a new poem up on Burnside Writer’s Collective today. Hope you’ll take a moment to check that out. It outlines a bit the process of writing a poem or at least trying to write a poem 🙂

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fotos: friends

308422_10150422813081667_1626045117_nI have a two-part interview of one Sarah Masen up on the Image Journal “Good Letters” blog this week. It led me to this foto and I felt all kinds of sad, grief stuff for having left Nashville and the tremendous beautiful people we are now missing and then I was able to circle around the block and park in front of grateful once again, thankfully. I hope you’ll take a moment to check out the pieces on Good Letters and ultimately to listen to (and purchase) Sarah’s work. She really is remarkable and I’m not just saying that.