Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, May 22, 2022:

Acts 16:9-15

Psalm 67 (4)

Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5

John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

I find these post-Easter, pre-Ascension, pre-Pentecost lessons poignant. I feel this ache for both the disciples and Jesus. They've suffered an almost inconceivable trauma, a wrenching death--and now, some time for them to be together again, to have barbecues on the beach and a few last instructions. But Jesus must know that soon he'll be gone again. The older I get, the more this seems one of life's central lessons: our loved ones will soon enough be ripped away.

This Gospel lesson addresses that dilemma of being a biological being. Jesus promises us a Holy Spirit, a Counselor. He promises us His peace. He tells us that it is not peace as the world understands it, but a different kind of peace.

Of course, that's the central message of Christianity. The world offers us many false comforts. Feeling like someone's ripped a hole in your life? Buy more stuff. Feeling so rushed that you can't hear yourself think? All you need is a new cellphone that costs several hundred/thousand dollars to keep you more in touch. Hurry, hurry, busy, busy--all to keep earning money so that we can keep buying more stuff that doesn't fill our deep emptiness.

Christ came to show us the way to deal with the pain, loss, and emptiness of being human. Fix food for each other and then eat together. Again and again and again. Invite people who don't have enough food. Share our goods. Don't hoard our money for the future, but invest in community. Don't save up treasures on earth. Trust in God, who will not leave you orphaned and alone. Instead of hiding from pain, face the pain of our own lives and sit with the pain of others.

Jesus tells us plainly: "Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." That's a tough commandment for most of us these days. But Christ clearly tells us not to give in to our anxiety, to resist fear-based thinking, to cultivate a consciousness of abundance, instead of focusing on scarcity. There's enough for us all, and we will not be abandoned. Act like you believe Christ's words, and eventually you won't have to work so hard to believe it.

Jesus doesn't give us a view of a God who waves a magic wand to get rid of all our troubles. Jesus shows us a God that wants to be there with us, through all of life's events, both joyous and sad. Jesus shows us a God that will help us in our troubles if we ask, but not necessarily make them go away. Jesus shows us the idea of God as a partner, a partner with tremendous resources so that we need not be afraid or troubled.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Five Duplexes

 Yesterday, I wrote this blog post about my process in writing duplexes. For those of you new to this poetic form, you might think of it as an exploded sonnet. It's a form created by the poet Jericho brown; to see one of his duplexes go here, and to read about how he came to create this form, go here.

For my seminary class, I wrote 5 duplexes, which I have pasted below.  Duplex #1 is the first one that I wrote, #2 is the second and so on, in chronological oreder.  I wanted to see which lines were from my collection of evocative lines that weren't used in poems of mine, lines from the last 10 years of writing. Those lines I have highlighted in green. I got more experimental as I continued writing each duplex. I believe I stayed true to the spirit of the duplex, even when I didn't follow the form specifically. However, I do worry that I'm like someone who says, "I'm writing sonnets only they have 13 lines and nothing rhymes"--my silent response has always been, you may be writing something but it ain't a sonnet.

Let me also stress that this effort is my first attempt at the form, so I'm judging them through that lens.  In no way do I mean to claim that my duplexes are in the same league as Jericho Brown's.

I want to remember that as I wrote these duplexes, I did move lines around, but I don't have those very first drafts to compare with the finished drafts. I am now experimenting with using abandoned lines in a looser framework, and I'll post one of those poems later. 

This writing process has been great for a number of reasons, but primarily because part of the work is done. I have enough distance from these evocative lines that I don't remember what I originally planned to do with most of them, and that's part of the process that seems essential to me.  Having a broken wrist means I can't write by hand on a purple legal pad which has been my process for several decades. I've always wanted to experiment with a different process, and I'm trying to look on this as an opportunity, not a burden.

Duplex #1

 This body, a country with no maps,

A patchwork of loose scraps and poor stitches.


                                                I keep the quilts made by a spinster aunt.

                                                At night, they whisper secrets while I sleep.


Quilts keep watch over every yearning.

All our hopes tucked into dense batting.


                                                How do we sense a pale hope obscured?

           Smell of decomposing cedar stumps,


Some days the backyard garden explodes.

I wanted stars or sacraments in my hair.


                                               Instead I'm stuck with scraps of bread dough.

                                               My very bones cry out to make peach cobbler.


Box of recipes and a rolling pin,

Every map routes back to the body.


Duplex #2

 I have a canoe, and you have a gun.

I have memorized the tide charts.


                                                I know how to navigate at night.

                                                I have a system of hidey-holes.


I can food for the hard times coming.

You dream of harsher firepower.


                                                But killing doesn’t need such drama.

            I know which plants heal and which ones poison.


Overlooked nursery, needled forest floor.

I see a path ahead hidden to most.


                                                Bread crumbs and bird seeds blaze a true trail.                   

            Faint thread of tiny tracks and stitches.


I thread the needle between extremes:

Paddle faster, duck and cover.

 Duplex #3

 Does the anchor resent the always tugging ship?

Think of the caretaker yearning to break free.


                                                She sings the ancient lullabies each night.

                                                By day, she hums the whaling songs.


We wail at every indignity.

The prophet rails at the ships frozen in the harbor.


                                                Old men and their gods and endless labor

           She has no time for the ancient lies.


With scarves and lighting, we cast our spells.

Each swirl in the atmosphere spells out our doom.


                                                We move inland, far from the threats of the sea.

                                                We ignore the petulant pleas and curses.


Cartographers of a new climate,

We anchor ourselves to a new ship.

Duplex #4 

House of justice built in hurricane country,

Sturdy enough until the storm hits.


                                               The storm hits with a careful cunning.

                                               It knows how to find the sweetest spots.


The storm reveals the structural weakness.

My joints predict the barometric truth.


          The floor joists will never be the same.

          Society’s feet ache with arthritis.


We stepped carefully around the rot.

Bones ground to dust, beyond recognition.


                                              The house has good bones, such potential,

                                              If only a contractor would call.


We have signed the contract, mortgaged all

To make the repairs to this house we share.


Duplex #5

I sew hole in my heart with birdsong threads

This is not the angel song I strained to hear.


     Other spirits keep company at night.

    The harmony of pain and potential.


Pain beats the battered pot with a wooden spoon.

Potential plucks your grandma’s dulcimer.


                                         I collect the lonely instruments.

                                         I whisper a lonely lullaby.


The lonely have their own time signature.

I no longer recognize my own.


                                         I see the blurry shapes of past loves.

                                         Blurred by time, burnished with threads of dreams.


Threads of dreams, threads of birdsong, stitches sure.

My heart, a monastery, a homeless shelter.




Monday, May 16, 2022

The Process of the Duplex Project

I have been somewhat superstitious about writing a blog post about my seminary project that involved writing duplexes in the style of Jericho Brown. I didn't want to write until I got feedback and until the work was graded--I'm not really sure why. But yesterday, our teacher returned our work, and so I wanted to write this follow up.

I wrote a series of duplexes for my Religion and the Arts class, Speaking of God in a Secular Age. Throughout the semester, we circled back to the work of Jericho Brown, and I remembered various articles I had read about his process in writing the duplex.  I remember reading that he went back through all of his old notebooks and copied out lines that he hadn't been able to use in publishable poems. At the time, I thought that was a marvelous idea. I loved the idea of cutting out the lines and strips of paper that I could then arrange and see how they spoke to each other. I wanted to do something similar.  But life being what it was at the time, I never got around to trying it.

For our final paper in my seminary class, we could do a creative project, so early on I proposed writing duplexes, and happily my professor approved. I spent a few hours going through poetry notebooks from the past 10 years looking for evocative lines of 9 to 13 syllables, which I typed into a Word document.  I had every intention of cutting them into slips and arranging them. My rough draft process for poetry has always been a handwritten process, and that's what I envisioned with this project.

I did not anticipate breaking the wrist of my dominant hand three weeks before the end of the term.  I had papers due for a different seminary class at the time that I had my injury, and I experimented with the voice recognition software that's part of my Word program.  I was able to write those papers more easily than I anticipated, so I chose not to ask for any extensions.

I decided that I needed to try a different way of writing these duplexes. I was not going to be able to cut my lines into strips and hand write other lines around them.  I decided to try writing with a combination of cutting and pasting lines into a Word document and using the dictate function to speak lines that would join them. 

I looked through the document of lines that I had created and chose one that spoke to me.  I started with this line:

This body, a country with no maps,

Then this line came to me:

A patchwork of loose scraps and poor stitches.

I continued to create this way. I would go back to the document of evocative lines when I got stuck. I consulted a few of the duplexes written by Jericho Brown, but it became clear I wasn't following his model exactly. However, I liked the work I was creating, so I continued.

We had to write an essay to go along with our creative project, an essay where we showed how are creative work was informed by the theological work that we did. I decided to make it clear that I knew that I wasn't following the duplex model as precisely:

“As I have been working on writing duplexes of my own, my brain has come back to the difficulties of writing both duplexes and theology. I think that I understand the form, but the longer I work with individual pieces, the less sure I am. I take risks and go in different directions--am I writing a new form of theology/duplex or am I demonstrating my lack of understanding? Each line of my duplex speaks to the previous line, but it's in a different way than the way that Jericho Brown does it. I am following the model, yet I am not following the model. In the end, I am pleased with my poems, and I have stayed true to the idea of a duplex as Jericho Brown has explained it in numerous places.  Similarly, we think we know how to talk about God, but the more we do it, the more we discover all there is to say and what must be left unsaid. We work within a form like the duplex, and we find it both liberating and maddeningly--much like writing theology, much like talking about God in a secular age.”

I am happy to report that I got a good grade on my project. In fact my teacher said, "While these 5 duplexes may not conform to Jericho’s rules with exactitude, the more impressive achievement here is that you have melded your own unique writerly voice with the haunting-ness of the duplex form. And while each poem stands well on its own, what makes the series particularly impressive is the way you weave them together through common threads, themes, and images.”

Since this post is already quite long I won't post the 5 duplexes here. Later I'll create a separate blog post around them--something to look forward to!

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Sorting of the Books

I spent the better part of yesterday sorting books.  It is clear to me that we are moving into a phase of life with more moves and less book shelf space, so it’s time.  I started the day feeling a powerful sense of catharsis as I sorted through books, and I ended the day in tears and exhaustion. It's a strange process the sorting of books. Let me record a few reflections.

--I used to keep books thinking that I would reread them, but it's become clear to me that I usually check out new books from the library rather than read my old books.  I used to think that I would have complete collections of authors’ books, and in my 20s that seemed perfectly reasonable. Now that plan will require a lot of bookshelf space. All of this to say, I've been hanging on to a lot of books that I no longer need to hang on to.  Getting rid of those was the easy part.

--Lots of books have sentimental value for lots of reasons, and I tried to sort out the reasons as I sorted books. I kept a few of them, a representative from each of my major life phases. I was able to get rid of a lot of them.

--I have hung on to lots of books for the teaching career that it is now clear I am not going to have. I am not going to be teaching in an MFA program, so I don't need various works that once seemed cutting edge. I don't really need all of these books of literary criticism to teach literature. I am not going to be reworking my dissertation into an academic book. A lot of those books are headed off to live with someone else.

--I am now comfortable getting rid of books even though I once spent lots of money on all these books. I supported individual artists by buying the books, but it doesn't mean I need to hang on to them forever.

--Along the way there were sadnesses as I looked at inscriptions and thought about the people who once bought me books as presents. I tried to feel gratitude for all the people who have loved me in this way while also letting those books go.

--Every so often I saw the handwriting of people who had borrowed my books, people who had permission to write in them. One of my best friends, who has since died, borrowed my Norton anthologies when she returned to school to finish her BA, and her writing is all over the books. Those are tougher to let go.

--A lot of these books represent hopes and dreams, even though I've moved on to different hopes and dreams. There's a sadness to seeing them, even though I'm fairly satisfied with how my life is turning out. Those books are going away. Perhaps they will help someone else who has those hopes and dreams of my younger self.

--I had a small crying jag meltdown when my spouse held a battered recipe box with recipes that I had copied from my mother's recipe box and said that he didn't know why I wanted to keep either the box or the recipes. In a way he's right--we don't cook those things much. But I thought of my 21 year old self copying those recipes imagining what adult life would look like and the thought of just trashing them made me sad. It's a small box, and I'll likely be keeping it.

 --Part of what makes letting go of books so hard is wondering what will happen to them. I'll take them to the local library where they will probably end up in a friends of the library sale. I want to believe that readers will find them. I wish the library would keep them but I know that they don't really have room for the resources that they have right now, and the move is on to more electronic resources and less paper.

--It’s the largest sadness: realizing that we are not part of a culture that values books very much and an even larger sadness in realizing how little we value ideas, book length ideas.


Friday, May 13, 2022

The Feast Day of Julian of Norwich

 May 8 is the feast day of Julian of Norwich in the Anglican and the Lutheran church; in the Catholic church, it's May 13.

Ah, Julian of Norwich! What an amazing woman she was. She was a 14th century anchoress, a woman who lived in a small cell attached to a cathedral, in almost complete isolation, spending her time in contemplation. She had a series of visions, which she wrote down, and spent her life elaborating upon. She is likely the first woman to write a book-length work in English.

And what a book it is, what visions she had. She wrote about Christ as a mother--what a bold move! After all, Christ is the only one of the Trinity with a definite gender. She also stressed God is both mother and father. Her visions showed her that God is love and compassion, an important message during the time of the Black Death.

She is probably most famous for this quote, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," which she claimed that God said to her. It certainly sounds like the God that I know too.

Although she was a medieval mystic, her work seems fresh and current, even these many centuries later. How many writers can make such a claim?

Julian of Norwich would be astonished if she came back today and saw the importance that people like me have accorded her. She likely had no idea that her writings would survive. She was certainly not writing and saying, "I will be one of the earliest female writers in English history. I will depict a feminine face of God. I will create a theology that will still be important centuries after I'm dead."

That's the frustration for people like me: we cannot know which work is going to be most important. That e-mail that seems unimportant today . . . will likely be unimportant hundreds of years from now, but who knows. The poem that seems strange and bizarre and something that must be hidden from one's grandmother may turn out to be the poem that touches the most readers. Being kind to those who cluck and fuss and flutter about matters that seem so terribly unimportant is no small accomplishment either.

I think of Julian of Norwich’s most famous quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Would Julian of Norwich be pleased that so many of us derive comfort by repeating those words? Or would she shake her head and be annoyed that we have missed what she considered to be the most important ideas?

I remind myself that she would have such a different outlook than I do. She was a medieval woman who served God; she likely would not even view her ideas as her own, but as visitations from the Divine. If I could adopt more of that kind of attitude, it could serve me well on some of my more stressful days when divesting situations of my ego could be the most helpful thing that I could do.

Today, I shall try.  And tomorrow too.  And by this trying, I will embody the Julian of Norwich quote about all being well.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Post-Op Follow Up

Yesterday, I went back to the hand surgeon for my post-op follow up.  Overall, everything is looking good. The hand surgeon told me that my surgery was more complicated than he was expecting it to be, and he was expecting it to be complicated. He had to use a different kind of a plate to hold everything in place where it should be, but it seems to have worked.

When I saw the X rays, I was surprised by how the plate looked. I was expecting it to look like a rectangle laying horizontally across my wrist. Instead it looked more like an interesting cocktail toothpick, more like an artificial bone, which is probably closer to what it is.

I was surprised by my reaction to the taking off of all of the material that has swaddled my wrist since the surgery of Monday, May 2. There's always some part of me that expects with surgical dressings removed, all of the stuff that's supposed to be inside will fall outside. I felt the same way when my spouse had back surgery--the bandages came off and I was expecting to be able to see his spine, but of course that's not how it works. 

The X ray tech reassured me that I was not going to be able to move my hand and undo all of the surgery. It was a message that I needed to hear. As I moved through the appointment, I compared my experience post surgery with my experience of April 28th when I first went to the office. Even though I still feel some pain, I'm not feeling the same kind of pain when I move my arm.

I now have a different kind of wrist protector. Now I have a cast. The person who does the casting asked me what color I wanted, and I said purple. As she was wrapping my arm, I thought wait it's the wrong liturgical color--I should have chosen green. But I do love purple, so it's fine.

I had hoped that when all of the postsurgery swaddling was removed, my finger mobility would come back. I still have stiff and swollen fingers, and I have trouble straightening them. The good news is that it's fixable. Off I will go to the person who specializes in hand physical therapy which will be different from the wrist physical therapy that I will do later.

I am still disturbed by all of the destruction that happened from a tiny fall. It's not like I went skydiving. I fell the distance of maybe two feet onto grass. I am trying not to feel spooked about it all. At some point I need to get back into my habit of daily walking. At some point I hope my digestive system is recovered enough from the antibiotics that I can do that. I went out yesterday to get some of those special yogurts with extra probiotics, so hopefully I can rebuild my gut biome.

It's getting easier for me to sleep with a cast and easier to go about regular life with a cast. Yesterday my doctor told me I can exercise and drive get back to regular life as long as take care to keep the cast dry. I have found that having a cast on my arm (or a splint, or a bunch of post surgeries stuff swaddling) is an interesting conversation starter. I am amazed by how many people have broken their wrists and how many people have had to have surgery. Again I am trying not to feel spooked about it all.

But I do feel a little spooked by it all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

 The readings for Sunday, May 15, 2022:

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6

Gospel: John 13:31-35 

In today's Gospel, Jesus gives what may be the hardest commandment yet:  he tells us to love each other.    I think of all the other things Jesus could have required of us, and some part of me wishes for one of those.  Give me some dietary laws!  I can follow those.  But loving each other?  How do we do that?

Jesus isn't instructing us to manage our emotions--we must also be outwardly obvious that we're loving each other.  Jesus says "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (35).  It's not enough to say we love each other--it's a public declaration, by our actions.  For how else will everyone know?

I want to protest--I want to tell Jesus how busy we all are.  But I know that Jesus will have none of it.  Jesus tells us firmly that we are to love each other. He doesn't tell us how, but he shows us. This Gospel lesson comes after the washing of the disciples' feet and a leisurely dinner.

Here are two ways we can show love:  by serving (the washing of very dirty feet) and by slowing down to be present for each other (the dinner).  I'm not suggesting that we be too literal.  The ways of doing this are as varied as our personalities.

Refusing to bash others verbally could be our modern equivalent of foot washing. We could show our care not by lavishing attention on physical bodies, but by lavishing our attention on the good qualities of others.

We live in a culture that prefers to argue, to fight, to tear down. Focusing on the good qualities of others seems as intimate in our current climate as foot washing must have seemed in the time of Jesus.

We could send notes of appreciation, so that people feel seen and loved.  We could send care packages.  We can donate food to food pantries.  On and on I could go with these suggestions.

Choose the one that calls to you and decide that this will be your ministry. Know that you will have to gently refocus your efforts time and time again, as you move along. Fortify your efforts by asking God to help you, so that you can glorify God, so that everyone will know the God you serve by the efforts you make to serve others, by the love that you show.

In this way, we can repair the world.