A Poem for Palm Sunday

In this week of marches and protests, I’ve been thinking about activists. Why does it feel scary to join in? In contrast to so many other times in history and places around the world, we are free in this country to gather, to protest, to march.  The worst that could happen to us is an arrest; in other regimes we could be tortured or killed if we gathered to walk the streets with signs or if we shouted slogans and asked for change.

These words from Luke 19 about Palm Sunday seem particularly fitting today.

 “…they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. As He was going, they were spreading their coats on the road.  As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, shouting: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.”  But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” 

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I imagine a woman in that crowd, I try to put myself in her shoes. She was likely illiterate; her culture would not have valued her; it was a time of oppression and fear. Hailing allegiance to Jesus would have been a defiant, brave act.

Even Stones Cry Out

As I walked they thrust palms in my hand
so close I could touch Him
and the mangy ass.
For once I did
a brave thing, too
shouted Hosanna 
called out King
I had never heard the sound of my voice so lifted, loud.

I took off my coat, put it down.
Scared as shit, I
joined the throng
We moved through streets
crowds growing
all of us caught up in
laughter
in possibility

Caesar’s guards watched
blood hungry, spears ready

This is no place for risk
I live in confines
I breathe under the weight of ugly rules.
When I go back for my coat will they take me?

Strange how this Jesus
gives me what I cannot give myself
how He makes me more than I am

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Photos courtesy of Karen Heyse

Poem: Innkeepers

Living in a tourist area has given me a new appreciation for one little aspect of the Nativity account. I know innkeepers now, along with people who run gift shops and clean hotel rooms and serve in restaurants. Theirs are bi-polar lives: a manic pace in the summer, a dearth of activity in the winter.  My friends here are people who like people: they enjoy their visitors and customers;  they like the conversations and the interchanges with vacationers. But I can tell you that they get tired. Nearly two million people come here in the summer and fall, and it’s a grueling pace to keep.

For many years I’ve written a Christmas poem. Now that I know a few innkeepers, the words from Luke caught my eye this season as I read through the advent account.  Here’s imagining…

“..and everyone went to their own town to register…While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room available for them in the inn.”  Luke 2:3,7

 

Innkeepers

They grow weary of crowds, of laundry relentless
of chatter continual, the same questions again and again

When there are no rooms, there’s little to be done
The sty, with the stink of animals
at least was something
 
Who doesn’t know, he was surely thinking
that the town would be full, the hotels all arranged months ahead.
But here is a man, and here is a woman
so ready to burst, so weary.

A midwife had to be found
blood and muffled screams
the girl alone
laboring with strangers

and then shepherds with stories
searching for a baby
chiding the man for the stable
saying give them a better place
saying these people are better than they seem

 

 

 

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Filling up October

It’s been a month since I’ve last written here. Nothing particularly eventful happened in our lives here, so I was a little short on ideas to write about.  A few years ago, I wondered if retired life would feel boring and unsatisfying. But no, it never feels boring. Our month was plenty full, and we are content.

Here are a few of the “ordinary” happenings that filled up October.

I’ve said it before here, and I’m sure I am not finished repeating it: living in a pretty place is constant entertainment, a perpetual gift.   We take walks in the changing woods, exclaim at the colors.

 

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We drive out of our way when we run errands to see if the water is choppy or calm in the harbor, if it is still or wavy on the bay.

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It is pretty driving to the grocery store or library.

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The sunsets and sunrises make us get out; often when we see the clouds full of color, we stop what we are doing to go outside to watch. The beauty all around us makes us pause, makes us linger, and in so doing we remind ourselves of what’s good and lovely and true and wonderful in this world.

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IMG_9897Land to table    We live two miles from an apple orchard. We love their honeycrisps, and when they were selling a bushel of their Cortland “seconds” for only $9, it seemed right to buy them and make applesauce from scratch. But that was an all day project.

Books. I’m in two book clubs. Here are my top three favorite books from the past few months.

            The Sparrow. This book has haunted me. I’m not a particular fan of science fiction, but when a team of Jesuits befriends creatures on a new planet and are martyred as a result, well, it’s just sad. Within a few days of finishing the book, I watched “Silence,” a recent (and moving) film about Christians who are persecuted in 17th century Japan. As a person of faith myself, both of these made me think a lot about the ways we share our beliefs with others and  what sacrifices I would make to hold on to faith.

       A Gentleman in Moscow. Much lighter than the previous book, this fictional account follows the life of a Russian count who loses his freedom and his way of life in the Russian revolution. I knew very little about this time and place in history, and it was a good way to find out about it.

            Gilead. This was my third time reading this one. Ten times more would not be too many. Marilynne Robinson makes ordinary lives beautiful. She helps us see that loving the people we know well is about the best possible thing we can do in this life.

Closing up the cabin. There’s a lot to do to shut down a place for eight months. When lots of people have cooked and eaten, played, bathed, and slept in a place, there are signs of their fun. And though we are good about cleaning as we go, the cupboards and the oven had crumbs by the end of the summer that needed attention. Despite the continual vacuuming, there was still sand just about everywhere. The refrigerator door was full of condiments, kindly left for the “next” person, but it’s time to dispose of them. The winter curtains need to replace the summer ones. We’ve already carried up the kayaks and the beach umbrella and the deck chairs. Today we brought in the lawn mower and trash cans; we put away hoses.  I’ll be sad to close it down for the winter, but October was full of cabin chores.

Writing. I’ve finally joined a novel critique group. We meet every other week and send things for review the alternate weeks, so, guess what? I actually have a reason to make myself get over the obstacles and just get working on this novel of mine that’s been in process for about ten years. Yes, I’ve got to rewrite parts. Yes, I need to work out some plot inconsistencies. I’ve even had to change my main character. What I liked eight years ago I don’t like as much now. But meeting with four other authors who are also in process with their novels means I’ve committed to at least making progress. Although that’s a bit scary, it’s also a very important thing I did this October.

The Usual. There’s a lot more: church once a week, a Bible study once a week. Several meetings throughout the month with my favorite non-profit, Write On, Door County. Exercise. A friend needs some help learning to use her new laptop. A dinner out here or there. The demands of a dog who needs way more attention and exercise than we usually want to give. ( It’s a good thing he’s adorable.) Working a little bit in my little consulting/publishing company called Sand Beach Press.   The list of little daily events could go on.

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We are heading into our third winter in Wisconsin, and besides the people that we left in St. Louis, there’s very little that we miss about our old life.   Yes, our lives are slower-paced here, compared to when we worked at jobs and lived in a city. A little less busy, perhaps, but certainly not empty.

All in all, October was a pretty great month.

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Poem: Man of the Upper Room

In this week before Easter, I have spent time again reading the accounts of Jesus’ last few days on earth. The Gospels report the events, but I am always drawn to the people that must have been so affected by those events.

Here are my thoughts on one of them, the host (restauranteur?) who provided that last supper for Jesus and the disciples.   (For extra background, read Mark 14:12-15 or Luke 22:7-13.

Jesus remembered the Passover, eating that Seder dinner with his disciples in the tradition that would have been done by Jews in Jerusalem for centuries. But He also knew His own death was coming. Along with other Christians, I see powerful symbolism in His death – a new sacrifice for a new kind of Passover. I’ve hoped to hint at that with this poem.

Man of the Upper Room

 Of course you can use this room, I said to
those friends of His, riding high on
celebrity, renown.

And yes, I’ll keep it a secret
promising to keep away onlookers, the flocking crowds
who wanted to gawk
see scales fall from eyes
watch magic food multiply inside baskets.

Yes, I’ll have extra basins of water for your feet
Though I hardly thought they’d need it
walking as they did that week on green palm leaves
fame growing, applause ringing
smiles ubiquitous.

There will be enough lamb for the dinner, I assured
and spent the day slaughtering.
Blood of goats and sheep
flowed into the mud just outside the door.

All is ready, I told them.
But I was not ready

He washed my feet
made me eat with them.
Kindly, He said my lamb did not
particularly matter.
And, there was to be more
blood, His blood.

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Read.

I’ve been trying to keep my blog posts a-political. This might explain why I haven’t been posting much recently. ( You know the old adage? If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.)

But I will say that I’m heartbroken by the direction our new administration is taking on human rights, on health care, on immigration, on the environment, on education, on the arts, on free speech.   If you are like me and you don’t like these new policies, please speak up. Call your elected officials. Give money to organizations that will work against the damages of these new policies. March. Protest. Pray. And read a book or two.

Yes, read.

Solace has come for me recently in the rich discussions that have centered around books. For the past four weeks, I’ve taken a class at The Clearing

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with 25 bright, intelligent, interesting women to dissect and discuss four books written by African American women. ( Dessa Rose, Brown Girl, Brownstones, The Bluest Eye, The Women of Brewster Place.)

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Each book took us into the lives of characters weighed down by racism, poverty, and oppression. The circumstances are grim; some characters survive and some do not. We feel heartbreak at their suffering, and the irony of this is not lost on any of us: there are no African Americans sitting among us. Door County is a place of mostly white skin where many of us can go days without seeing a person of color. Yet, every person in this class wanted to understand, wanted to learn, wanted to know how to address the needs of those in our country who have been hurt  because they are black.

We came to know the characters of these books.  We could see how we are different, and more importantly, how we are the same. We examined the issues of race, of white privilege, and we learned about the mistakes we ourselves have made. We listened to those among us who have taken action: one woman was a social worker in urban housing projects, another a principal in urban schools. On a neighborhood housing board, one woman forced banks to abandon their practices of redlining. Another adopted black sons.

So although we were heartbroken each week with the stories we read, we were also heart-healed by the knowledge that there are ways to bring about change. This all happened because we discussed books.

Better yet, just a few evenings ago, I was invited to a “book exchange.” We were encouraged to bring up to five books to exchange for that same number to take home. We drank a few glasses of wine, ate some good food, and then were asked (one-by-one around a circle) to share a title of a book that had affected us in our lives and a book that we have read recently that we liked.  (The hostess has subsequently compiled the list  WHICH I AM NOW Attaching 2017-book-swap-1 and emailed this list of everyone.  What a gift, right?)

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And in that room of readers, a picture slowly emerged of thoughtful women who want a world that is a good and kind place for their children. Thinking is important to them. Love is important to them. Treating others with respect is important. The beauty of words and the beauty of places and the beauty of people are valuable and worth fighting for.

I was reminded once again what research has told us for years: people who read are more empathetic than those who do not. All the qualities that it takes to be our best selves? We can learn these things when we read: bravery, long-suffering, friendship, courage, sacrifice, perseverance, love.*

In a country that with each passing day seems less kind, the time that I have spent with readers this week has given me hope.

Reading will not save us.

But it can help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*And on the flip side,  a society that does not read degenerates into people that are not good and not kind; they choose ease,  mindless entertainment,  and selfish pleasure over thought. They are  easily manipulated and swayed.   ( Think Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984.)

 

Words in the Woods

A few weeks ago, a fellow teacher and I took girls into the wilderness for a little writing class. Just as I expected, good things happened.

When I taught high school in St. Louis ( before retiring two years ago,) one of the best parts of my job was taking kids on “Summer Seminar” trips. We’d travel far away from the city so we could hike and kayak and camp in tents on the prairies and by rivers. But we’d also read science articles and discuss literary essays and respond to historic documents right out there in the woods. I saw kids engage in learning in a way that they’d rarely done in my classroom; their questions were authentic, their ideas original and non-contrived. (You could read a lot more about how much I loved these experiences in an article I wrote for National Parks here. )

So when I had the opportunity to help organize and implement a “Camp out/Write In” program here, it seemed the right thing to do. I can’t say enough good things about Write On, Door County, which is the organization that sponsored this event. Write On offers programs and classes for all levels of experience and age groups in order to nurture and foster writing. The workshop that I taught a few weeks ago was just one of many that have been offered this summer.

But of course this campout involved work. We needed tents, cooking stoves, pots and pans. (And lanterns and coolers and tarps and camp chairs.) We needed to plan meals and shop for the food. Would we have vegetarians? Would we need gluten free foods? And then of course, we needed to plan how to structure the time, to figure out the best way to provide good writing instruction. But that could vary greatly if we had 13-yr-olds sign up vs having 17-yr-olds sign up, so until the last minute, we’d have to be flexible. Oh, and what would we do in the rain?

So there was a lot to think about and plan for. It’s a weight to be responsible for the safety and happiness of other people’s kids. So we planned and provisioned, and then… we showed up and waited for our kids to arrive.

Here’s the thing about the wilderness. It makes you a bit vulnerable. It takes away other distractions and helps boil you down to the real you. And here’s the thing about writing: it makes you articulate what you think and believe. It helps you remember. It helps you figure out what you’re feeling, and it gives you clarity about your life.

So, when seven girls who did not know each other hauled gear and set up tents and killed bugs and then sat down to write, we heard some pretty powerful utterances.

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When we gave them some prompts to get them writing down words, these seven girls sitting under green trees put words together in ways that could awestrike a person.

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On the first go round, they were a little bashful about sharing their work. But their words were good, and after awhile, it just felt good to hear what each other wanted to say.   More than one girl’s family isn’t happy and that made us sad, but writing and sharing helped. Another has felt like a misfit for years. She hasn’t been able to “succeed” in sports or popularity, but she has certainly found a way forward with her words.

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We were gone for only two nights and three days. We hiked and we swam and ate good food and we told stores around a campfire.camp2.jpg

And as these young women girls filled up several pages in their journals, they thought about themselves. When they shared their words they were kind to each other and affirming. So they went home feeling a little more empowered to live their lives.

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So, I remain a believer in this combination: take kids to the woods. Ask them to think, ask them to write. Then be ready to tear up at the beauty of, the power of their words.

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I’m not exactly young anymore, and it’s getting harder as the years go by to sleep on the ground. But I’m glad I went camping with these kids because I’m just not ready to give up being witness to the magic that happens when kids in the woods write down words.

Writing v. Selling

Writing a book is one thing. Selling a book is an entirely different matter. My first children’s book (called Good Morning, Door County) has been in print for just two months now. I’ve had a lot to learn about marketing and retail. It doesn’t come easy or naturally for me.

I spent three long days over the 4th of July weekend manning a booth at a local craft fair. I passed out stickers to kids and held out copies of our book to literally thousands of people that walked by. Would you like to look at a copy? Here’s a brand new book- want to read? Kids, do you want to see the book I wrote? Can you find the hidden cherries on the page? Do you like the happy cows? Do you visit Door County often?

Of course, one really can’t say these things sitting down. Enticing people to look at my book meant standing up and being friendly. So that’s what I did for three long days.

Here’s what was wonderful.

  • I had kids who stayed at the table and read EVERY single word.
  • I had kids tell me they loved my book.
  • On the beach page, where there are numerous children pictured, two sisters put a name on every one of those people. . that’s you in the hat.. and that’s Aunt Alice, and that kid is Charles….
  • A mom took a picture of me, the author, with her daughter. Her six year old was pretty impressed when I signed a book especially for her and thanked her for buying my book.
  • Three siblings fought over who got to carry home the family copy. They each wanted their own copy.
  • I witnessed some pretty great parenting. Some pretty patient moms and dads, despite the crowds and the general exhaustion from having watched a 4th of July parade or having walked several blocks from their car or hotel, took the time to either read the entire book to their children or let their child read to them.
  • People who want to write books of their own wanted to talk. I had conversations with some pretty creative people.

 

On the other hand…

The life of a vendor at a craft fair is not something I want to continue.

Many of the vendors travel from far away and spend their weekends setting up these temporary stores. They hope for crowds with disposable income, for a good “spot” in the show, for good weather.   They second guess why sales rise and fall. Some are happier than others. I’ve decided it’s a hard way to earn a living.

People also get a little territorial. (I made a mistake of walking part way into my neighbor’s booth area to give a very bored-looking little boy a sticker. This was apparently a big “no-no” in craft show etiquette. Of course, when I was corrected I apologized. But with my very thin skin, I didn’t sleep well that night, and I felt bad that I had offended.)

Thankfully, many stores have agreed to sell the book. Most shopkeepers started off with 10 or 12 copies, to see “how they’d do.” But now, within weeks, they are ordering more, so maybe this means my craft fair days are winding down.

Even so, I still have a lot to learn: invoices, book keeping, tax records, spreadsheets. Who knew that being an author meant learning about sales?

When we moved to Wisconsin, I had hoped to write, and I have. Writing the text of Good Morning, Door County (32 pages)  was not very complicated, and I have to admit that sights like this make me pretty happy to be an author.IMG_2144

My other writing projects will likely be a little less marketable. (I’m not really expecting a book of poems and essays to make it to the NYT best seller’s list.)  I’ll write because I like to, and, well…because I need to.  And I’ll sell, but don’t hold your breath waiting for me to like it.