RSS Feed

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Gold Coast

“Gold Coast” is a poem that is part of a chapbook I will have coming out from Finishing Line Press in March 2014. The following video features me reading the poem alongside a variety of photos from places around the world. The pictures are not literally connected to the poem content, but are meant to celebrate the beauty of decay and destruction, on one hand, and regeneration and forgiveness, on the other. I am far more grateful for this rhythm of the ups and downs in life than I am for any material objects. Most of all, of course, I am grateful for all the wonderful people in my life, for the opportunity to see all these extraordinary places, and for all the second chances I’ve had.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Best Possible Bad Luck is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press from November 25, 2013 to January 10, 2014. Pre-order here.

Empty Cans in storySouth

Posted on
Sweet potatoes. Photo by Vmenko on Wikimedia Commons.

Sweet potatoes. Photo by Vmenko on Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been a bad blogger lately (“Bad blogger! Go home!” as we say to all strays.) But I just had this essay, “Empty Cans,” come out in storySouth, so thought I would share that.

It’s also inspired a few thoughts on writing process.

First, sometimes you need some help. A year or so ago, I attended a wonderful writing retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I got some feedback on my writing about getting married after the age of 49 (for the first time)–to whit, that I needed to take my subject more seriously. I hadn’t realized that I had been trivializing my own subject matter in the back of my head. Who could write seriously about mid-life marriage? Or about marriage at all? Of course, I know that people have and do, but there was still something of the Ladies Home Journal hanging over the idea. Since then, I have been working to deepen my approach and to extend it to my larger family history. This piece is part of that work.

Some of this material has had previous rough-draft runs on this blog, where facts have been questioned by some of my (family) readers. That’s been one of the great things about trying to blog less than superficially–to at least make some stab at literariness even in the genre known for skimming and ranting. No evaluations there, just a nod to my brother’s wisdom when he told me I should think of everything on my blog as a rough draft. Hard for me to allow everyone to see, but useful nonetheless.

Even though I have been away in textbook-writing land, I also find it still important to make my own creative forays. The textbook has been demanding in a whole different way, and I find that my sanity still depends on my connection to word, image, and narrative. I find that there’s a lot of posturing about the mysteries of being a writer, but one thing I do believe is that writers write more than they promote themselves, more than they pontificate about writing, more than they adopt the pose. That doesn’t mean that every writer writes every day (that’s another pose, though it’s great if you can manage it). And it doesn’t mean that every writer writes for fame or publication (though every write perhaps wants them at least a little bit). It just means we write–to make sense of our world, to make sense of ourselves, to make sense of others. To us there’s no other way.

Teachers and Students and Killers

at sign AROBAZE

Yesterday, a colleague of mine received a disturbing email from a man who had been urgently interested in enrolling in UCF’s MFA program. In her role as advisor to our current MFA students, she’d been providing him information about our program and advice about applying to it. I had also exchanged a few emails with him, as he was determined to enroll in a course I’m teaching in the spring semester.

The issue is that this fellow wanted to take a graduate course in creative nonfiction this spring. We do sometimes allow “nondegree” students to take our grad courses when there is space in them and they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and background to work at the graduate level.

However, this person had the odd idea that if he took one such course, he would somehow qualify to get a tenure-earning job in creative nonfiction writing that is currently open at an area college. Now, I’m not at that college, but I know a bit about how these things go, and, of course, that’s probably not going to happen no matter how brilliant this man might be. In fact, over at that college, a pile probably two feet high is already accumulating with applications from across the country—from people who already have MFAs and PhDs, publications in the field, even books, and time spent teaching writing at the college level. In spite of clearly being an intelligent man with two advanced degrees already, this guy has none of that. I told him that one graduate course would not likely qualify him for this job.

He also didn’t seem to fully understand what creative nonfiction is, needless to say a serious deterrent to gaining a job in the area. My colleague had given him a few copies of The Florida Review so he could read some examples, and when he emailed me to request entry into my course, he sent me a manuscript that seemed entirely fictional, though perhaps heavily autobiographical. When I noted this to him, he argued, and told me that if Tim O’Brien is considered to be writing creative nonfiction, then so is he. I responded that most of O’Brien’s work is considered fiction. Perhaps I should have added, “as is noted on the ISBN page of each of his recent books.”

Eventually, after numerous emails where he was told that a) a committee has to meet to make admissions decisions, b) we only consider applications in the spring term for admission in the fall, c) my course is full and we won’t crowd a class for a nondegree student, and d) we can’t make exceptions, even for him, he became enraged.

In the email he sent my colleague, he noted that he had made it “crystal clear” that he “needed to begin in Spring. … I told you that this was the passage to the teaching job at [x college]. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the creative writing program at UCF.” He went on to add, among other insults (“inconceivable lack of competence”) and threats (“letter for your permanent file”), that “I have had the benefit of more and better education than you or anyone in your department and I was treated like an ugly stepchild. So,” he added, “take your stupid MFA and shove it up your ass.”

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting just a few days before, this man’s email gave me a gooey knot in the pit of my stomach. After I read it and tried to comfort my upset colleague via email, I went back into the living room where my husband was watching the latest Batman movie, and said, “Maybe you should give me a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.”

I don’t mean to accuse this particular man of murderous intentions. Perhaps, in fact, those who take advantage of language to vent their spleen are less likely to do it with weapons.

Maybe it made me queasy because I regularly teach Jo Ann Beard’s powerful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which chronicles the 1991 mass murder of five at the University of Iowa by a graduate student who felt he hadn’t been properly honored for his work. Perhaps it is because the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a creative writing student. Or that in 1996, while I was a graduate student at Penn State, a rare female shooter (and not a student) set out to massacre as many as she could on campus; fortunately, she didn’t have an automatic weapon, and her having to pause to reload allowed a young man to disarm her before she could kill more than 1 and injure another.

There’s also the fact that in 1989 when Marc Lépine singled out and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, just because they were women who dared to study engineering, I was beginning to contemplate a teaching career. And that, although I had never driven past the particular Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County where in 2006 a truck driver went in and lined up the girls (not the boys), shooting 11, killing 5, and leaving 1 severely disabled, I had frequently driven past several such schoolhouses on my trips back and forth between State College and Lewisburg in the couple of years before I moved to Florida.

It’s not that only teachers and professors or only females are targeted in these attacks, though often they are the focus of rage. Sometimes men and boys are killed, sometimes it is even disgruntled professors who do the killing, as in the cases of the University of Alabama in 2010 and Concordia University in 1992. It’s not even as though all such shootings happen at schools—they happen at movie theaters, at houses of worship, at other kinds of places of employment.

668px-Gnu_teacher.svg

Still, teachers at all levels from elementary school to university graduate programs sustain irrational and unhinged attacks of all kinds. Usually, we take this verbal kind with a grain of salt because it happens so frequently.

We are seen as—and sometimes actually are—the keepers of the keys. We give grades and report cards, we evaluate other human beings, we determine who passes to the next level and who has to try again, we decide sometimes that a child or an adult doesn’t merit a degree or a certification or a diploma. There’s room for a lot of resentment about that, even though most of us go into our careers in order to foster learning and help people make the most of their lives.

Most of the time, we do help people make the most of their lives. This man’s email juxtaposes itself against the backdrop of physical violence in Connecticut, but also against the background of my own preparations this week as I produce a binder to apply for a teaching award. In front of me I have all the notes of thanks, all the end-of-term reflections and finished projects that show how much my students have indeed learned, the list of my undergrads who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs elsewhere. That is good and satisfying. I hang on to that.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

The experts say that there has been no significant rise in the number of such rampage killings in the past decade.

Yet, I do sense changes, if not in the threat of death, then in the general demeanor and respect of my students and others I encounter in my work world. It’s not that I didn’t ever encounter over-demanding or angry students at the beginning of my career. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older and wish I got concomitantly more respect. Or maybe it’s just that behavioral paradigms are shifting to something more casual. Or that people all around are stressed by the struggling economy. Maybe it’s also that in the world of writing (and so many other realms), we are now all expected to be hucksters and self-promoters as much as contemplators and wordsmiths (or whatever work we do). All of this might be tending to make people more aggressive. There’s a sea of mud between healthy self-assertion and self-aggrandizing aggression.

Maybe it has to do with the self-esteem movement introduced into our schools and our society with great intentions back in the 1960s and reaching a peak in the 1980s. Like so many perfectly legitimate ideas—that it was important to encourage children and support their dreams—perhaps the self-esteem movement filtered down in an over-simplified way and got twisted. It got twisted into crap like The Secret and the whole idea that if you just want it bad enough you can have it.

This kind of attitude is often prevalent with my students, even some of the wonderful ones. They are certainly never afraid to ask for what they want, to demand it even. No matter that my syllabus states that 8 absences will earn an F for my course, students expect to pass. No matter that the assignment requires 12 to 15 pages, and they only turned in 6—if they “tried hard” and it was “difficult for me to write about this,” they think their grade should be fine. I had one student this semester who had missed numerous classes, had turned in 1 out of 9 smaller homework assignments, had failed to participate in most of the workshops, and whose own writing had earned her Cs… who came up to me the last week and told me she hoped she could still earn a B.

I won’t even bore you with the web of negotiations between myself and a stunningly talented young man who nonetheless earned a C in my class due to his inability to complete work or manage his time. Flattery? Manipulation? Sincere desperation? Promises of improvement? It was all there, just not the work.

More recently, a graduate student, reportedly a hard-working and lovely person (I have only met her once myself), informed me that she only checks email every few days so that if I want to reach her on short notice, I should use Facebook or Twitter. Since when is it up to a student to define the method of communication between herself and her professor? Since when is it part of my job to explain such basics? This kind of control-taking is noticeably more common among my students today than it was more than twenty years ago when I began teaching as a youthful 30-year-old.

Fortunately, none of these students is threatening. But, still, something is not adding up.

Violence_theme

Unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that this all somehow correlates with the rise of fantasy genres and the amount of time people spend in fantasy worlds, whether they are in book, movie, video game, or Internet chat room variety, even the uber-cheerful Facebook presentations that people make of themselves. I have environmental concerns about this, which I plan to discuss in a later post, but I worry about human expectations these days, too. I worry that we are making a world that is in reality intolerable and so people turn more and more to fantasy.

My students tell me this repeatedly. They are bored and stressed at the same time. They prefer escape to self-examination. They prefer to spend some time in a world, no matter how evanescent, where they can be heroic and romantic and good-looking and successful, often things they don’t feel like they are in daily life. But I can’t help but believe that we are all affected by where and how and in what modes we spend our time. We come back from these virtual worlds, but I’m not sure our expectations come back with us. And the virtual worlds grow more and more convincing.

In the past week, there has been plenty of talk about “evil.” Even President Obama evoked evil when speaking of the shooting in Connecticut. Yet, I don’t believe that shooter was evil, even if his act was. He suffered from some deep mental illness and desperation, the likes of which we see over and over in these cases.

Plenty of others have already written about the need for better gun control laws—assault weapons simply have no rationale for being readily available except for crime and gun-industry profits. While it is true that we will never prevent people from rampaging if they are determined to do so, the difference between a knife or a manually loaded rifle, on the one hand, and, on the other, an automatic assault weapon is huge in terms of the amount of death someone can inflict.

Plenty of others have written about the need for a better armed and better prepared set of first responders. We certainly have that, increasingly, and it has had little effect. It’s too late by the time they arrive. Here in Orlando, the nightly news has been filled with discussion of appointing an armed security guard at each and every school. I consider that a terrible idea for many reasons—the atmosphere for students, the inculcation of constant fear, the dangerous presence of potentially misused weapons, the need for that money to be spent on instruction, and pure ineffectuality.

Plenty of others have argued passionately that we need to care for our mentally ill better—we need to remove stigmas for early care, be watchful for early signs, provide the financial resources for such care, and provide facilities other than prisons for the mentally ill. Here, here. This is a massively complex issue, of course—de-institutionalization began as part of the Civil Rights era when it was recognized that this broad category of people didn’t always deserve to be locked up out of sight, that we might need to learn to deal with some kinds of mental difference. But support services for the mentally ill certainly need more attention, and families living with those who are showing signs of violence and major disturbance need better options.

Some have even written that we need to work against the culture of violence we have in the United States. How to do that is the question. Do we ban violence in our books, TV shows, movies, video games? Do we try to educate children about the consequences? Do we try to change our own behaviors when we speak with others? There’s a lot of blame that goes around for the culture of violence.

But this is what I have to add: It is violence in the context of fantasy that is the problem (maybe even only certain kinds of disconnected fantasy). I’m not even saying that we should ban these video games, absolutely not—I am not offering prescriptions or proscriptions—but when children and adults spend so much time shooting others, massacring others, without the consequences, and when they spend time communicating at so much further than arm’s length even with the real people they know or sorta know, then I believe something comes loose in the minds of those people. Some depictions of violence actually sensitize people to its effects. But not if those depictions exist in a fairyland where dead people return to life, where humans are monsters and monsters are human, where we spend the bulk of our time with characters and in scenarios that are designed to fulfill our most childish egotistical desires. Too often, when that is the frame of reference, disappointments in the real world then become a devastating source of rage.

I question myself on this—after all, I would never say that reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Tolkien ruined my sense of reality. And plenty of perfectly peaceable people have been fantasizing for a long, long time. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the imagination and love it in all its many varied forms. I believe that humans can work out significant issues in the realm of fantasy. Also, I have no evidence that any of the killers mentioned here deeply embedded themselves in fantasy worlds, and their type has been around since long before the electronic versions of such fantasies.

So, what the heck do I mean? Maybe it has to do with the fact that reality and fantasy are merging. I’m not really sure. I always hope that you, my readers, can help me reflect on such things. It’s just that I have a creeping sensation that a whole host of unrealistic expectations contribute to a culture in which psychic violence and aggression seem to me to be on the rise even if physical massacre is not. And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.

Really, I’m on tenuous ground here, and I admit it. I’m only at the stage of associations crisscrossing my mind. What do you think? What images, memories, associations, and seemingly free-floating concerns have been on your mind since December 14?

L'ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

L’ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

The Paperwork of Loss

My paperwork-overloaded desk, with the green animal license cards.

We all encounter it: the paperwork required to lead a contemporary life. In fact, from the moment we are born, we are subject to paperwork—birth certificates, vaccination records, report cards, drivers licenses. By the time we turn 16 and encounter the DMV, we are thoroughly immersed in bureaucracy. Now that I’m in my 50s, and working at a public university as a state employee, I’m sometimes so overwhelmed by it all that I feel there’s time for little else in work or personal life. (I started to list all the adult forms, but it was so long and boring a list that I just deleted it. You know what I’m talking about.)

Most of all of this paperwork is just deadening. Sometimes, however, it actually connects in poignant ways to what’s important to us.

Last week, I received in the mail three bright green “courtesy” notices that it’s time to pay my Seminole County Animal Licensing fees. I don’t mind paying these modest fees. They go toward supporting Animal Services in my county, and though I’m sure they euthanize far more animals than I’d like, I do support their work in keeping animals from dying on the streets. Even getting these little cards reminds people that they need to vaccinate their pets and be responsible pet owners. The fee is lower when your pet is spayed or neutered. In these ways, they function as an educational tool as well as a tax on pet owners.

This time, of course, I have to send one back with the box checked off that the “Pet is deceased.” Little Cameo is no longer, and the green card with her name stamped on it will go back without a fee.

My grandfather at McFerrin School, c. 1908 or 1909.

Perhaps because it’s November again, this has reminded me of the months after my grandfather died on November 2, 1972. My mother, of course, was the main one in our household dealing with the practical implications of her father’s death, as well as the emotional ones. These must have been enormous. My mother was closer geographically than her two siblings to her parents’ home, but was nonetheless more than 400 miles across the state of Tennessee, and her mother had grown fragile and fractious and was soon to enter into nursing-home-land. My mother filed changes of address on numerous accounts from their house to our house, so she could make sure that nothing slipped between the cracks. My grandfather had been in the hospital for several weeks, and the lengthy and incomprehensible medical bills kept coming. Other bills had to be paid. The estate had to be settled.

What I remember about this is that we kept on receiving relentless communiques sent to my grandfather months and months after his death. My mother handled the important ones, but somehow I took it upon myself to help handle the subscriptions and other minor stuff. My grandfather had been an avid reader—Newsweek, Life, Look, American Heritage, Smithsonian, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Forbes. The list was large, and these companies kept sending renewal notices relentlessly, long after we had canceled the subscriptions.

Today, of course, I understand that in those times removing someone’s name from a subscription list might take time. No instantaneous computer could make him disappear off the rolls at the touch of one button by one employee. In some ways perhaps we should have taken comfort in this echo of my grandfather’s life, at the difficulty in purging someone from the world. However, it just seemed to us like torture.

I remember the day about eight months after his death when an envelope arrived in the mail from one of these magazines—fortunately, I don’t remember which one. The envelope was thick, not the usual postcard, and I wondered momentarily as I took it out of the mailbox at the end of the driveway if they’d sent an apology for harassing us every week for all these months even though I had sent numerous handwritten notes explaining that Paul Meek had passed on and would not be renewing his subscription. (This was a time when we were far less used to just dumping whole loads of mail in the recycle bin.)

Instead, the letter started off, “Dear Paul,” and went on with the most maudlin and begging kind of diatribe—how he had been such a long-time subscriber that they just couldn’t understand his betrayal now. How if they had done anything to displease him in the pages of their magazine, they hoped to make up for it with the fabulous new content slated for the coming months. How if he continued to care about his own standing in the world based on the insights this magazine gave him, then he would surely re-subscribe NOW! They allowed as how they wouldn’t raise the rates, even though they had the perfect right to do so because he’d let his subscription lapse. This went on for bpth sides of 2 solid, single-spaced pages with red ink used here and there for emphasis. Then came the clincher: They just couldn’t stand to lose someone who had been a member of their x-publication family for so many years!

My little 13-year-old head didn’t exactly explode, but the use of the word family evoked in me a bitter sarcasm about commercial enterprises who made grandiose, even delusional claims to try to guilt people into continuing to buy their products. I envisioned the pained look that crossed my mother’s face every time she took in a pile of this exhausting mail. By now I myself had burdened her further with my two broken bones and a diagnosis of diabetes. In fact, my grandfather’s actual family had enough to deal with and was getting pretty tired of this crap.

I decided that afternoon that hand-written notes would no longer do, and I sat down with my mother’s typewriter. “To Whom It May Concern,” I typed for the first time in my life (though I have typed it many times since then), “my true family has been writing to you for months to explain my lack of desire to renew my subscription to your magazine. Their missives have been ignored, and you continue to bother them, so I now take it upon myself to write you.”

I paused. Then I pressed the keys once more, click-clack, with the tears bulging but not spilling from my eyes.

“I am dead,” I wrote, “and unless you deliver to heaven, nothing you publish will reach me. You are not my family, and I wish you would quit bothering my family. While not on the pages of your magazine, this constant sales harassment is offensive, and none of them will be subscribing.”

Wondering if I were breaking the law and feeling like a rebellious crusader, I signed my grandfather’s name with a childish, girly flourish, and then folded it neatly into the automatic-return, no-postage-required envelope and put this letter out for the mailman. I don’t think I even told my mother about it.

Though I’m relatively sure now that my letter had nothing to do with it, that we had just reached the end of the natural life course of their pleas, we indeed never heard from x-publication again. I patrolled the mailbox for weeks as though I were anticipating a secret love-letter, making sure, feeling vindicated, hoping that someone had been at least embarrassed.

My grandfather with my brother and me, about 1963.

Nowadays, receiving the green card with Cameo’s name on it, I feel a little differently. First, of course, Seminole County will not be sending me missives for months—they provide a check-box for just such circumstances as a regular part of pet ownership. And SC is not a commercial enterprise, so there’s not a matter of them trying to get someone, anyone to just write them a check whether or not there’s anyone there.

It’s also true that I will be printing out a form from the Internet and filling it out and attaching a fee for a new little cat, the pesky Paka, who has since attached herself to our household. The life cycle is shorter with pets, and we are perhaps more prepared for their loss and their replacement. There is no replacing your grandfather, but while no two pets are ever the same, new ones appear to fill the gaps the gone ones leave behind.

Perhaps it was getting the reminder cards, but yesterday I took up all the cat beds in the house and washed and dried and re-arranged them. A couple of these beds had been used primarily by Cammie in the last weeks of her life, and the other cats haven’t touched them since. They have sat empty in Cammie’s favorite spots, reminding us of her absence. This weekend, I felt ready to have them used by other cats. We’ll see if the other cats are ready, or if they would rather they could send me a letter to the effect that she’s gone and I should get rid of her things.

I’ll try to pay better attention than a bureaucracy would.

How Can We Work Together?

Photo courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The presidential election is over, and one of my enormous stressors has gone with it. We are all relieved, whether our candidate won or not, though I’m sure those of us who supported President Obama are more relieved than Romney-ites. Even now that the election is past, however, there’s been a lot of talk about the “two Americas” we now live in, how divided we remain.

I have searched my mind for a way to extend an olive branch to the many people I know and care about who don’t see eye to eye with me on politics—or who don’t seem to look even in the same direction. While I continue to think very ill of those in power in the Republican Party, and while I do believe that there are many in it who are out-and-out bigots of various sorts, I also know some people who are not this way. It’s hard for me to understand them, but I wish we could find ways to come together somehow. Naïve, perhaps, but sometimes our most naïve hopes are the most necessary.

What I want to say right now to anyone who might have voted for Romney is this: Take heart. No, not because the House remains largely Republican and grid-lock remains a real possibility. Take heart because the Dems’ goal is not to personally harm you.

* You will still benefit from the economic recovery underway now due to changes in policy introduced under the Obama administration.

* You will still be able to worship as you see fit.

* You will still be able to counsel pregnant women. You will still be able to adopt children that might otherwise be unwanted or born to those unable to care for them.

* You will still be able to rest assured that should you develop a chronic health condition (such as the diabetes that I’ve had since age 11), you’ll be able to get or keep health insurance and receive the care that you need all the more.

* You will still be able to hope for a secure retirement through the continued existence of Social Security and Medicare. No one will be expecting you to become your own investment expert or to risk the security of your elder years on vouchers.

* In the next election, the Democrats will still be trying to convince you that their policies are better for the nation than Republican ones, but no one will be trying to keep you from voting based on your demographic profile.

* You will still be able to marry whoever you want to marry. And to divorce legally should you desire to do so, no matter your religion, even though that’s frowned upon in the Bible and by the Pope and many other religions. You’ll still have the ability to remain in a less-than-happy marriage should you so choose.

* You will still be able to join the military and serve our country and receive opportunities for high-level technical training that may support you after you leave the military. You won’t be thrown out of the military because of who you love.

* Even so, you will likely benefit from a foreign policy based on diplomacy that is more likely to keep us out of wars that you or your children or your neighbors would otherwise have to fight and our taxes would have to pay for. You will benefit from the extraction of the U.S. from its current involvements in war where that is possible. You will still be able to welcome our soldiers home, as more of them finally come home.

* Your children will still have educational opportunities that, while not equal across the board by any means, will be supported as a right and need of our citizenry. You will be likely to continue to receive correct change in your transactions at the grocery store because the young man or woman working there will more likely have received well-funded schooling and something to eat to fuel his or her brain for learning when a developing child.

* You might even still have the opportunity to hear a symphony or view great works of art or receive in-depth information through NPR or PBS or work supported by the NEH, NEH, and NIH.

* You will still have access to some of the most reasonably priced, safest, and cleanest publically provided water in the world.

* You will still benefit from all the clean-air, clean-water, and other environmental regulations that protect our basic health and protect the future of our planet. You will benefit from clean energy policies that will combat the global warming that endangers us all.

* And when disaster strikes, FEMA will be there to make sure that you get help as soon as possible in a nationally coordinated effort. FEMA will not be privatized into some crazy quilt of corporations worried about making a profit on your misfortune.

We will keep taking care of you. The thing is that more of the rest of us will be more likely to be taken care of, too.

Democrats aren’t interested in taking anything away from most American citizens (though perhaps some more tax money from the wealthiest). We are interested in making sure that we all have basic care and opportunities. That even includes you, even though you might not return all of us the favor if you had won.

Yesterday, as I did my brief volunteer stint at the Obama volunteer coordination office in Casselberry, I really enjoyed myself. Because of my arthritic foot, I no longer feel it possible to torture myself with canvassing (which I have found utterly depleting when I’ve done it in the past), so I was doing data updates, keeping the various files organized, helping prep and send out the canvassers, providing snacks and water bottles, and generally helping out around the office.

As I greeted returning canvassers, I was touched by the reports from the field. We had men and women who came back from neighborhoods with stories of residents who had hugged them and thanked them for still being out there getting the vote out. I knew that my own brother still pounded the pavement in Massachusetts, working hard to re-elect State Representative Carolyn Dykema and helping to support Elizabeth Warren in her senatorial bid. My brother has been passionate about politics for as long as I can remember, and he’s an inspiration to me in his ability to withstand the confrontational nature of it all. I hoped that he was getting as friendly a reception in his last-minute forays as our volunteers were in Orlando.

My father before him maintained long years of involvement in politics—I remember him working at the polls in South Knox County back in Tennessee all those years ago. I remember him working long hours and coming home exhausted. At first I didn’t understand why he felt compelled to do it. But he provided a great example for my brother and me—we both find our ways to participate and to care about the future of our country. Everyone in my family has always felt compelled to understand the issues and to vote at the very least.

Late in the afternoon, I went to drive one voter to the polls who’d had knee surgery and couldn’t get there on her own. She was a funny lady—she was perhaps 65 years old, but it was hard to tell because her face had been altered by too many cosmetic surgeries and her hair dyed a brassy blonde. She was dressed to the nines to make the short foray around the corner to the polling station and had managed to pull on high-heeled black boots. I teased her that they might not be good for her knee as she limped into line, and we hoped together it wouldn’t be too long. With me in my jeans and sneakers, my hair in a frazzled mess, we couldn’t have looked more different. There was one car in her driveway and another sitting on the front lawn, but she told me that her roommate’s car wasn’t working and she didn’t want him to drive hers. The lawn had turned scrubby and long spikes grew up around one car’s wheels. I thought about all the tensions in her life and her dedication nonetheless to voting, and to voting for a candidate who respects the middle-class and the diversity of our country. At least superficially, it didn’t look as though we had much else in common, but we had that. (Well, maybe our poor yard care, too.)

When I got back from this errand, I stood in the office doorway watching the hub-bub and suddenly felt moved by what had surrounded me all day. I tried to imagine the same excitement and camaraderie at the Romney headquarters, and I knew it would be missing a crucial ingredient for me, even if I believed somehow in Romney’s policies (which I don’t). We’ve all seen the photos—at the convention, at the various rallies, at the headquarters around the country, at the concession speech—and The Daily Show has long ago made fun of this—but the uniformity of Romney supporters always stuns me nonetheless.

On the other hand, as I stood in the doorway of the Casselberry Obama office, I felt like a citizen of a great nation built on diversity, built on multiple backgrounds and a celebration of this broad range of humanity. Even in this single small office, we had volunteers young and old, white, Latina and Latino, African-American, East Indian, and various other shades of the human rainbow. We had one lady who swooped in in her Mercedes and others, like me, who showed up in ordinary or beat-up old cars. One woman came without a car at all, and I drove her over to a nearby neighborhood to canvas on foot. One woman sported a large “LGBT Community for Obama” pin on her T-shirt. An older black gentleman loaded provisions to take to those standing in the long lines expected after five p.m. One young mother brought her five-year-old daughter, who filled in with the hi-lighter all the columns that her mother checked off. Then I gave her some paper and she drew us all pictures of little girls beaming from the pages, the sun beaming above them. I taped them on the wall with the pictures of Obama and teased her that maybe one day she would be running for president.

The voter rolls we were updating were filled with names indicating all kinds of origins—plenty of Johnsons and Joneses mixed in with Rodriguezes and Garcias. I noticed names that were Greek, Arab, Indian, Russian, French, and African. I felt glad that immigrants to the U.S. no longer feel a need to Anglicize their names, and glad that I couldn’t even assume that these names were those of first-generation Americans. Decades ago, the country was conceived of as a melting pot, where we all were to blend in—that was the time when my ancestors came here from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, and France. That was one kind of diversity, but also the time when people tended to change their names to something more “American” soon after they landed here in order to “fit in.” I wondered about names that might hide negative parts of our history—slavery and Native American displacement. Nowadays, however, instead of the melting pot, we use the metaphor of the salad bowl—in which we mix but don’t have to blend to the point of disappearance or uniformity. And this is the country I love—one based on a mixture of people, both those who came before and those who continue to come as well as to be born into this rich amalgam.

At the Obama volunteer office, we were not all the same, and yet there we were, all working together. The challenges remain enormous, in spite of Obama’s fortuitous reelection and some fabulous wins in the Senate. I hope we can meet these challenges all together as a nation, even though we are not all the same. There’s a model for doing so in the Democratic party, and I hope the Republicans can join us in that.

Self-Help

Snowflake obsidian, with its supposed healing powers. Even if for me those are symbolic, it soothes.

Today, I want to offer my version of a self-help project. I had to laugh when this idea came to me last week because it resembles in some ways the same kind of saccharine self-help project that all the fake happiness gurus promote. Once again, I find myself making what is perhaps a narrow distinction: my self-help project, I believe, is different in that it acknowledges the full power of negative things in my life. It simply is an attempt to create a space, albeit small, where I can retreat from some of those negative things.

This all came about because several people suggested strategies for coping with my return to campus from my lovely year of sabbatical—my trainer suggested that I spend time between classes going through my assigned stretching exercises—“It will be more crucial now more than ever,” she said, “in order to keep the stress from making you seize up again.” One friend noted that I should make a common practice of shutting my office door. And my dear friend Gigi said I needed to fill up my pockets with snowflake obsidian and create an altar in the corner of my office.

I liked all of these ideas, but dwelt a little bit on the last one. To what could I make an altar that would transcend the moment? And would I want one that everyone who walked in my door could peruse and comment on?

I decided instead that I would make a sabbatical-in-a-drawer.

Note that I am still in the idea stage of this project. I have cleaned out a desk drawer at work and started collecting things to put into it—photos of Bruce and the cats, little tchotchkes that remind me of far-off places and people, beautiful fabric, and, yes, bits of snowflake obsidian, that healing gem. I’m also planning to buy a calligraphy pen and some nice paper for a list of my stretches and some little reminders, such as “Think about what you want versus what your ego wants” and “What’s different now?” Maybe I will even include a small frame to remind me to keep shifting my attention from the unhealthy scene right in front of me to the wider horizon or the inner landscape.

One of the things I really like about this idea is that it won’t be out for everyone to see. Rather, when I have a few minutes and need a little rest, I can simply close my door and open the drawer. In it I hope to create a little magic and a lot of distance from the day to day that so often burns me out. It may be a little like the wardrobe in the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Yes, these worlds of the imagination have their own dangers, but they are ones we can confront, ones we long for.

My desire to keep it private makes it a little odd for me to write about it here on the blog, but one of my friends said she really wanted to share the idea with another friend of hers, and we started talking about the whole concept of sabbatical and how we could import that into our daily work lives. People in most walks of life, after all, don’t have the option of official sabbaticals, though I did find some web resources for those wishing to negotiate one in other professions. I heartily recommend you do so if you can. At any rate, even for those who have the possibility, there are few of them and they are very far between.

Many of us also live with heavy workloads and a lot of stress, even when we love what we do. And many of us work nearly non-stop, seven days a week. Few of us any longer have a designated day of rest, much less any longer period of time when we can pause and reflect on our work.

Until I looked up the word in the dictionary, I hadn’t really thought about the relationship between the words “Sabbath” and “sabbatical” (duh). But the idea of sabbatical goes back to the Bible and Leviticus 25:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses on Mount Sinai, saying,

“Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them: ‘When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord.

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard and gather in the fruit thereof,

but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest unto the land, a Sabbath for the Lord; thou shalt neither sow thy field nor prune thy vineyard.”

And, of course, to Genesis 2:2-3:

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which he had made.

And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made.

This ancient acknowledgement of the need for rest and refreshment after labor is one that is increasingly lost. Even in academia, sabbatical no longer really means “rest”; rather, it means working independently outside of the classroom. (We are required both to submit a plan of work in applying for one and to send in a report on our accomplishments when we are finished.) So, in one sense, my transition back to the classroom has not been difficult—it isn’t as though I have gotten used to doing nothing much. I have simply shifted my attention back to student work and less toward my writing, but the fact of work has remained continual.

Emotionally, however, sabbatical was indeed a vacation—I didn’t have to deal with the office politics that eat up so much energy and create such feelings of despair in me. And so I find that I can create a sabbatical-in-a-drawer—a little free zone of emotional sustenance and beauty in a sometimes challenging world.

I would love to hear about other sabbaticals-in-drawers that any of you make or similar ideas that help you keep your sanity and find moments of rest and emotional nourishment. These are, after all, requirements of life.

Best of Times, Worst of Times

Posted on

You may have noticed that I’ve gotten a little flaky lately. It happens to the best of us bloggers, though I have managed for more than a year to be fairly consistent in my twice-a-week schedule. It’s frustrating to go to a blog that sounds exciting or that is promoted on another blog or website only to find that its author has only ever posted once or twice ever or spends more time promising to “get back to it” than saying anything else.

But, as those bumper stickers used to say, Shit Happens.

I can’t feel too badly about it, either. One of the things about a rich life is that it is full of “so many things that we should all be as happy as kings” (to quote Robert Louis Stevenson). Or, at any rate, we should all be as overwhelmed with options and decisions and demands as kings, kings that are more than decorative anyway.

It’s been a wildly rich time around here—some of it wonderful, some of it just the painful maintenance of life and home. What has been great about it for me is that I’ve been able to keep some kind of productivity throughout, even if it hasn’t always been Joyous Crybaby. This is new for me—usually I am easily derailed. But this week, in spite of having our entire house re-piped, with its concomitant chaos of workmen and about thirty holes in our house’s walls; in spite of having to move all my clothes out of the closet and empty two tall, six-shelf bookcases in my study (still not restored); in spite of late-breaking announcements of class-size increases at my university and the requisite revamping of syllabi; in spite of whole new episodes of politicking over UCF issues; in spite of Jupiter’s cancer being back and him often to the vet again—I have kept working, on both the Oxford project and a new essay that I finally sent off on Monday.

I’ve tried to think about what has made this difference for me. One thing was a simple suggestion made by my therapist—when I started freaking out about the same old crap coming my way compliments of my employer, she said to me, “Try thinking about what’s different now, not just what’s the same.”

This has been a great strategy for me. Although I love my career choice and being a professor of creative writing, I have a frankly sometimes lousy employment situation. (Most of us do at least from time to time or in some ways. It is not a good era for workers of any type, professional or otherwise.) For a while, I didn’t think I would be able to tolerate it much longer, and one of the things that I’ve worked on this year is to change my ways of dealing with this work-related stress. I had to quit letting my university define me, and I have made great strides in that regard—expanding my community outside UCF, re-focusing on my writing rather than my service to the university in the way of curricular and course development, committee work, and other thankless and frankly mostly ultimately useless tasks.

Many things in my work life have changed for the better over the past year, and so I keep thinking about those things, not the same-old-same-old things. Many new opportunities have opened up, and I am sorry only that I won’t be able to do everything.

This blog has been a part of those good changes. Bruce told me this morning that I now have 322 subscribers, and I said, “Wow. Last time I checked it was just 50!” That’s exciting to me.

I also added a few new features to Joyous Crybaby this past week—I added an “About Lisa Roney” page—for those people who find the blog without knowing me already—and I set up pages to list the art, songs, movies & TV, and writing that I sometimes feature in posts. About this last—I would love to hear from my readers with more suggestions about that feature. I can at first just list artists or particular works, songs, movies, TV episodes, and particular pieces of writing or authors—and then later, if you want to do a guest post on them, great, or maybe I will incorporate more commentary later on—and then I can link them on the lists. So let me have suggestions, via the comments section or email at roney dot lisa at gmail dot com.

Bruce quibbled with me about this last—he said, “But ‘All Along the Watchtower’ doesn’t make me cry. I think of it as more of an angry song.” Indeed, I am terrible at titles and had a hard time figuring out how to succinctly label those pages. Any suggestions are welcome.

Another thing that Bruce pointed out is that there might be room for yet another one of those pages that would include a list of a different kind of writing—that is, more analytical stuff as opposed to the experiential literature currently listed. This might include analyses of happiness, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided or Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria or of sadness in relation to the arts, such as James Elkin’s Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. There’s even a new book out by Adam Brent Houghtaling called This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music. I’m going to have to look that up, but I want to be careful not to try to become too much of an archivist.

I leave you with a hallmark quote from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It is, after all, the 200th anniversary year of his birth, and I think he would understand perfectly the relevant bumper sticker, though a man of his times would likely have resorted to the minced oath of “Stuff Happens.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In the meantime, thanks for hanging in there during further blog evolutions. And happy crying!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 355 other followers