Wednesday, October 31, 2007

unfinished thoughts

I’m trying to find words for:

… what hospitality feels like.

When you walk in a door and find that someone thoughtfully considered every detail, for you, good smells of good food, good music you’d choose yourself, good warmth and a readiness for good conversation.

… what a great celebration feels like.

When something as right as a hard-working marriage covenant is forged from the ashes of sorrow, and when the goodness of the wedding ceremony itself causes people to say, “yes, that’s the truth. That’s the way it is.” When the bride and groom are bold enough to have Ezekiel’s dry bones as a metaphor, to admit “we were dead, and it would take a miracle for us to breathe again.” And they do breathe, and everyone witnessing wipes their own eyes, weeping like weeping is contagious.

…what dressing up feels like with young kids and corsages and shiny shoes and suitcases.

… what reunion feels like, seeing fifty people I’ve not seen in decades, about sitting on a ledge with my good friend Keith, swinging our legs and chatting merrily as we used to, though we are dressed as middle-aged people and not as kids barely out of college.

… hospitality of total strangers, what a difference it makes to be welcomed sight unseen.

… what it feels like to fail at some things, to be unable to restore order and repair to my home in the way I would like, to feel unable to create a hospitable place for myself and others, to feel at a loss for beauty and peace in my own living room.

… what it feels like to be welcomed simply and easily by my extended family.

I’m trying to find words but rushing to manage other words, for homework, for the work involved in the next few days of parenting. The theme of hospitality is stirring in my mind so much, when the “cup of cool water” offered is actually a warming cup of something life-giving and heartening…

Monday, October 29, 2007

which is worse?

... the Hallelujah chorus with the syllables "Mah-Su-Za-Kah!" or a kazoo version of Dona Nobis Pacem?

And why must we stop at only one musical horror when both could happen at the same time?

My son says, "that could actually be a little bit 'noying." Um, yeah. 'Noying, that's what I was thinking.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

tilt-a-whirl life

My friend Linda asked me to describe my graduate school program—in the midst of my academic notes from August, I found this paragraph that serves as a nice metaphor:

The dizziness is not the altitude. The dizziness is my world as a tilt-a-whirl, the sudden swing to the side, 360, 360 degrees again and so fast. Long ago, that ride made me laugh and clap my hands, if I was not too crushed into the side of my spinning red car. Perhaps like the amusement park ride, I bought the ticket hoping for the adventure, and am now complaining of my spinning head.

But with a smile creeping up—the dizzy is what I paid for.

My MFA in Creative Writing is just over two years of schooling, including five “residencies,” or ten-day academic sessions. The residencies just happen to be located in exotic, beautiful locations, but that’s another story. (Tell you about the next one in a minute.)

In addition to the residencies, each school year is comprised of a Fall Quarter, a Winter Quarter, and a Spring Quarter. Each quarter is about three months long, with three due dates for “packets” per quarter. Each packet contains 20-25 pages of my creative writing, new or revised from the previous packet, plus any annotations I’ve finished from the quarter’s reading. This quarter I need to turn in twelve book “annotations.” An annotation is “a little bit like a writer’s journal. But thoughtful.” Hmmmmm. I’m still wrapping my head around this annotation-thing.

In addition to the annotations and the creative writing, I write one “critical paper” about a literary issue, 5-7 pages long, each quarter. In total, I’m turning in nearly 150 pages each quarter, and three quarters in a year equals nearly 450 pages, and my program is two years long. Whew!

Some of the books I’ve read and annotated so far:
The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
Modern American Memoir, edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley
Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative NonFiction, by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
(these titles are to help me understand the breadth, history and craft behind the great essays and memoirs—I’m reading to see how these writers do what they do.)

In addition I’ve read two “common readings” (books all the MFA students read and discuss together, the poets, the fiction writers, and the folks in my Creative NonFiction genre). Eliot’s The Four Quartets and a wild translation of Genesis by Robert Alter.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows does not count, unfortunately (though it did take quite a bit of time and energy, it’s not considered ‘literary’), and I struggled to put down the new fantasy novel Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet. (I heard him read the first chapter in Santa Fe, and I can’t wait until Christmas break to finish it!) Neither can I count my “professional” reading of crafting magazines.

I also read Dillard’s The Maytrees because I was begging for fiction, and I hope to move onto Scott Russell Sanders’ A Private History of Awe, and Reading Like a Writer. In addition, I’m expected to read The Image Journal of the Arts and Religion, and Books & Culture, which I read anyway, and Orion magazine is a favorite, filled with great writing.

My packets of writing are submitted to my faculty mentor, Leslie, and I hope to read her memoir Surviving the Island of Grace this quarter. She lives in Alaska, my school is in Seattle, and I still live north of Boston. As a freelance writer on the side, my magazine editors are in California and New York. It’s a beautiful internet world!

The next packet is due on Monday, then the final packet of this quarter is due in the first week of December. I’m still developing my topic for the critical paper.

In March, my next writing residency is on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. The guest faculty include Patricia Hampl, a notable creative nonfiction writer, and David James Duncan, one of my all-time favorite authors.

I’m still hoping to find a working “routine” for writing, but so far I’ve had no routine weeks! I’m still “unpacking” from a two-week sojourn to the Midwest, with children, and the coming week is filled with two special concert dates, Halloween, a second-grade Lantern Walk and one eight-year-old birthday party. Oh, and then that packet due date. Did I mention we might be ripping up the floor of our condo? After the birthday party.

Up to this past week, I’ve been madly in love with my writer’s life, and though I still am, I’m feeling the sweat on my brow, wondering how I will get this reading done. I miss writing as I did last year, and I need to re-assess that for next quarter, to make sure writing itself feels more central. But that’s all for later. For now, I read, I read, I read, and I look forward to the writing of fresh material, as soon as I get the chance to sit down without a fabulous book in my hands.

How does it feel? It feels great. It feels important and life-giving and like my life is an adventure once again. Go tilt-a-whirl, go. Dizzy, I can take.

Friday, October 19, 2007

morning report: return from road trip

I’ve just poured the first cup of coffee in my own home, after waking in my own bed from a pretty good sleep—my first morning following an eight-day road trip with children. As we drove in last night, children opened windows to “smell for home” and Madeleine announced she smelled salt air half an hour from the coast, her nose curling her whole body into a smile. I woke to the sound of geese migrating, to the smell of ocean and fishing, and I feel the same.

The trip to Pittsburgh and Indiana is richer than I can describe just now. Again and again I wanted to turn myself into a sponge to soak up goodness, laughter, affection, and I wanted to turn myself into a camera to memorize landscapes, sunsets, the subtle colorations of fog and starlight. Even a long moment being lost in Cincinnati found me gazing into a sickle moon, just before it tucked behind a rain cloud. (I found my printed out directions—which were honest-to-God strategically located for half of my visit—under a stack of children’s books, which was under a pile of jackets and raincoats, in the passenger seat of the car. And after being lost for far too long, I walked into a house where the table was set and the dinner smelled like heaven, a warm welcome.)

A large package on my desk turned out to be a dozen gorgeous copies of Living Crafts magazine—I open the first copy to find my two articles and I see I’ve been listed as “contributing editor,” complete with a photo and short description! The magazine is BEAUTIFUL from cover to cover, and if you have any inkling of craft love, go ask your bookstore to get you a copy.

Now I’m off to pour my second cup of coffee and make my favorite breakfast, then to address the vast collection of luggage, housing bathing suits and turtlenecks and craft supplies and everything in-between. Kids are home from school, toodling quietly (so far) with books and baseball card collections, just happy to be out of the car for a foggy day by the sea. Thoughts and images will settle out soon, as the clothes and travel necessities find their ways into drawers and closets and notes take shape in my journal, next to the coffee mug.

Monday, October 15, 2007

road notes

Wednesday, I obsessed over my 45 pages of homework, a “packet” of creative writing and book annotations, and after six hours of work I hit the “send” button. Whew! The next deadline is in three weeks.

Thursday I packed a car for ten days of travel, including a wedding weekend with formalwear duties, including cave trip gear, including everything that I can think of. It’s the most unplanned car-packing that’s ever been, and the car looks like an explosion of kid-stuff inside. Scott removed a suitcase to fly home, today, and it’s great to have extra space to fill with the sweaters and jackets and stuffed animals.

The wedding weekend—so much to say. The two words floating in my mind are “transcendent” and “gutsy.” Then I skip straight to “the new heavens and the new earth.” I’ll see if I can write more.

And now sitting in a friend’s home, getting ready to visit Farmland later today. My father is not well. I’ll see my brother, spend time with my grand-nephew. My kids’ open hearts charm me—I said something about us staying with “my friend,” and they corrected me by saying “our friends, now.”

Wish me luck. October is the month to travel in the Midwest—so beautiful. But October is another word for “homesickness,” too, some longing that won’t be fulfilled this trip, either. I want to find a way to feel it, to not ignore it even if I’m tending children and managing maps. I’m praying for a heart wide open, for fearlessness, for God’s spirit to rush through, for healing, for peace. Farmland. Praying for a good time in Farmland.

Then there’s more road trip, too.

Much to say—not much wherewithal to say it this morning, but I hope to catch you up soon.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


I'm pulling together thirty to forty pages of work-- it's my first "homework assignment" in ten years, my first literary reflection in twenty-five years... cross your fingers...

Meanwhile the days are eighty degrees, in October, which means weather perfection: cool breeze, hot sand, beach full of surfers nearby. We spent Thursday afternoon at the beach, with pizza for dinner as the sun retreated into a hazy sunset.

more soon...