A Call to Right

A plastic bag dangled from the door of our mailbox, a thin cardboard box raincoated against the drizzly, winter day. Suspecting the box contained a book I’d ordered, but not remembering which title I was awaiting, I walked briskly home, my yellow lab changing his trot to a sprint to keep up with me.

bookWhen I freed the box from the bag and tore it open, a thin, green volume slid out—Kim Stafford’s latest collection, The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. kimThe son of poet William Stafford, Kim greets the dawn each day as his father did, “writing the date, a few sentences about the previous day, then an ‘aphorism’ (a thought, a pattern observed, an idea…), and then a poem, half a poem, or notes for a poem.” While some of this writing eventually ends up as published poems, Kim finds that, “mostly, this custom allows me simply to settle my spiritual accounts for the day, and then to proceed with some modest added clarity to thread the needle of modern life by taking action.”

Like many of us, Kim especially sought clarity in the days following the 2016 election. So he leaned on his daily practice to consider a path toward healing the schisms that only deepened after the divisive election season. These considerations led to thirty poems about the work we all have to do if we’re “to be one people again.” The book’s title poem speaks to the source of our unity.

The Flavor of Unity
     El sabor que nos hace únicos.
                                ~ Inca Kola slogan

The flavor that makes us one cannot be bought
or sold, does not belong to a country, cannot
enrich the rich or be denied to the poor.

The flavor that makes us one emanates from the earth.
A butterfly can find it, a child in a house of grass, exiles
coming home at last to taste wind off the sea, rain
falling into the trees, mist rising from home ground.

The flavor that makes us one we must feed
to one another with songs, kind words, and
human glances across the silent square.

You can listen to Kim read this poem on a post by the PBS News Hour.

 

It’s rare for Kim to use rhyme, but in “Righter” he puts it to good use to issue a challenge—with humor.

               Righter

When things go catawampus,
when silences abound,
when nations reel from troubles
and tyranny is crowned—
by writing, be the righter,
and see what can be found
for remedy and comfort
by writing stories down
of all our old connections,
then pass your blessings round —
for people long divided,
restore our common ground.

Kim’s “Citizen of a Troubled Nation” especially spoke to my feeling called to write.

   Citizen of a Troubled Nation

Vast your calling: Serve everyone.
Small your power: One voice.
Clear your path: Honest words
Certain your days: Struggle.
Vast your purpose: Make history.
Focused your goal: A mere footnote—
                                       That sings.

Kim writes at the beginning of his book that poems from it can be reprinted at will, as long as they include this acknowledgment:

Reprinted by permission of the author from The Flavor of Unity, by Kim Stafford (Portland, Oregon: Little Infinities, 2017)  www.kim-stafford.com.

Ever since I met Kim Stafford when he was guest faculty in my writing program, I’ve adopted his morning practice (usually a good bit after dawn) to begin the day with some small bit of clarity. Here’s something close to a poem that I wrote, the morning before the presidential inauguration:

The Pen is My Tool

to build bridges,
to tear down walls
of fear and hatred,
to open doors
and hearts.

My pen is a tool
I need to sharpen
and oil and set
firmly on pages
and put into others’ hands.

I hope that Kim’s poems I’ve included here speak to you. If so, it’s likely that the other twenty-seven in the book will as well, so I encourage you to purchase a copy for yourself, and perhaps a few extras to share with others. You’ll find ordering information by searching for “The Flavor of Unity: Second Edition” at www.lulu.com. When it arrives in your mailbox, open the package, make a cup of tea, and let the flavor of unity in these words fortify you to act.

Writer Island

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I live on an island. Not a tropical isle, but one in the Pacific Northwest, with rocky, cold-sand beaches, bald eagles roosting in cedars, and great blue herons squawking as they skim the bay near my house. At least half a dozen times each day, I can see a Washington State ferry, our link to the mainland, coursing its way here.

Most mornings, I retreat to a small writing space that once was my son’s bedroom. My only company is my yellow lab/Shepherd, Buddy. It’s my own writer island. Why, then, would I board a ferry to a neighboring island to write?

The simple answer is evident in this poster:

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Leaving the solitude of my home office gave me the chance to study again with my friend and writing mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. This time, she taught at Orcas Artsmith, leading a prose workshop, “Make It Move!” I was hoping for inspiration to make my pen move, and I wasn’t disappointed.

With our group of ten, Ana Maria reviewed how good stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, move—through the growth of characters, unfolding plotlines, shifting scenery, and emerging meanings. Additionally, good stories move readers when they strike a chord, stir emotions, and change us. Ana Maria then posed the question, “Is there something about a way a story moves that moves us?”

After we each read excerpts of writing that touches us, we generated a list of characteristics that move the story—and the reader:

  • Concrete details
  • Repetition of images and sound—like a heartbeat
  • Shifts and surprises
  • Honesty
  • A bit of humor blended with the grief of loss
  • Descriptions of acts of compassion
  • Juxtaposition of big concepts/ideas with the small.

korean-war-veterans-memorial-pThen we turned to our own writing, generating a list of scenes or moments that have moved us. When Ana Maria asked us to choose one, I circled my note about the day I visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial, thinking of my father who had served as a Marine in that war.

For the rest of the morning, Ana Maria led us through a series of exercises using craft techniques that help carry readers from one emotional state to another:

  • Use active verbs (rather than forms of “to be”)
  • Note character gestures – the ways they touch and move
  • Look for a larger cultural context.
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Kangaroo House – Orcas Island, WA

In the afternoon, we scattered to our own “writer islands” to work (or walk, nap, read) individually. After dinner, we gathered again at the inn that served as home base to have dessert and to read from our work.

The next morning, I left the workshop with the beginnings of an essay, a list of fourteen other moments that moved me that just might make their ways into my writing, and a few more tools in my writing toolbox. Could I have accomplished as much had I sequestered myself in my writer island office for a day? Perhaps. But I would have missed out on the wisdom of a gifted teacher, inspiration from other writers, and the luxury of a day free of the distractions that swirl around my desk.

And I would have missed the dessert.

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Three More Ways Blogging Helps

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Writer and teacher Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew started 2017 with her blog post Six Ways Blogging Helps You Be a Better Writer – And Person. She described precisely the unexpected benefits of blogging that I’ve found since I was convinced to blog nearly seven years ago.

6Here’s Elizabeth’s top-six list, with my reflections on how it matches my own blogging experience.

  1. Blogs put a writer in conversation with real people. Not many readers comment on my posts, but it’s a medium that easily allows for an exchange between writer and audience.
  2. I have more patience for the slow work of writing. I agree with Elizabeth’s suggestion that, “This might seem like a paradox.” My three book-length projects required three to twenty years to complete, and I typically spend weeks to months crafting essays. Those are long stretches to remain in the “not-yet-finished” state; creating two or three posts monthly helps me persist with the longer works.
  3. Deadlines are great. My deadlines are soft; no one chastises me if I don’t meet my goal to post mid-month, end-of-the-month, and an Afterthought the last day of each month. But they’re strong enough to keep me thinking, reflecting, and writing, even when I resist.
  4. Regularity means major productivity! Nothing, not even my MFA program, has helped me generate as much new work in addition to my major writing projects.
  5. Frequency teaches us about listening. Again, Elizabeth speaks my mind. “The writing leads the way. Over the years I’ve come to have great faith in this process.”
  6. Blogs are a bellwether of what works. When readers convey in some way that my post has made them think, or that they agree—or disagree, that’s useful feedback about themes and topics I’m writing about.

Now, 257 posts later (258 counting this one), I can add three more ways that blogging has bettered me as a writer and a person.3

7.  My blog is a way to promote the work of other writers I admire. Re-blogs of others’ blog posts or links to authors’ writing (like Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew) can lead my readers to discovery of someone they might not have read before.

8.  wavesI can combine photos (such as this one of the wintry wind on the bay near my home) and other visuals with my writing.

9.  Blogging allows me to experiment with different writing forms— interviews, book reviews, and poetry. I still struggle with the trial-and-error nature of any creative pursuit, including writing. But I know that risking “failure” helps me challenge the notion of perfection, strengthens me to rack up the hours of practice, and usually results in the thrill of “aha” moments.

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That brings me to nine ways that blogging makes me, and my writing, better. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the boost to keep me at it throughout 2017.

Doing Hope

This October, I once again became a Chicago Cubs fan. I like to think I’d always been one, starting in childhood in Chicago when I’d listen to Cubs games on the radio. After my family moved to Southern Illinois, my dad and I still cheered for the Cubs, watched their games on TV, read the sports pages, and every year hoped for a chance at the World Series—or at least a few wins.

bosse-fieldIn my mid-twenties, my dad died. By then I was living in Southern Indiana and occasionally went to minor league Evansville Triplets games at Bosse Field (third oldest ballpark after Wrigley Field and Fenway Park). A few years later, newly married, I moved to Seattle. Without my Cubs-cheering dad and so many miles from my birthplace, I turned my fading baseball interest to the Seattle Mariners. That eventually disappeared as I became disillusioned with professional sports’ shift from, well, sport to entertainment.

At dawn on an April morning this year, my husband and I helped move our son and daughter-in-law from Washington, DC to Chicago. We loaded their possessions into a rented truck and their compact car and took turns driving on the 700-mile trip. We pulled into their north side neighborhood around 8 pm. Once again I had family in Cubs territory.

winThroughout the spring, I noted the return of my hope about the Cubs – this might be the year, the first time since 1908, that they’d go to the World Series. My interest, and hope, grew all summer and into the fall, the playoffs, and finally the World Series. Call me a fair-weather fan, but the Cubs’ historic win restored my appreciation for baseball and my loyalty to my hometown team.

A World Series title for Chicago wasn’t the only thing I hoped for this fall. I had similar feelings about the 2016 election – hope for a more progressive agenda, hope for the first woman president, hope for a shift in Congress. Sadly, shockingly, by the time I went to bed on November 8, the only shift that seemed likely was toward environmental destruction, health care dismantling, violations of human rights, and military escalation. As the reality that my country had elected Donald Trump began to sink in, distress replaced hope. Right on its heels was the question, “What am I to do?”

work-that-reconnects-pngThis wasn’t the first time I’d felt despair or had questions about my role. I’d sat with anguish about climate change for months, and finally registered for a workshop created by Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, systems theory, and deep ecology. Two of her students were offering “The Work That Reconnects,” November 11-12. The timing couldn’t have been better.

hopeTo prepare for the workshop, I’d started reading one of Macy’s books, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. The “mess” I was focused on was climate change, but the book’s introduction made it clear that Active Hope can apply to any situation.

The word hope has two different meanings. The first involves hopefulness, where our preferred outcome seems reasonably likely to happen. If we require this kind of hope before we commit ourselves to an action, our response gets blocked in areas where we don’t rate our chances too high.

Kind of like how I’d come to think about the Cubs, and, I have to admit, efforts to save the planet. For some time, my hope—in both cases—fluctuated based on how I rated the chances of “winning.” Macy describes the second meaning of hope as about desire—knowing what we hope for or would like to happen—and becoming an active participant in bringing about those desires.

Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have… Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.

During the workshop, we sang, we grieved, we raged, sang some more, and listened. One of the most transformative exercises for me was sitting in a circle for the Truth Mandala. The leader presented symbolic objects that we could take turns holding: a stone to express fear, dry leaves to represent sorrow, a stick for our anger, and an empty bowl to symbolize our hunger for what’s missing—our emptiness. And where was hope? The leader explained that the very ground of the mandala is hope.

I gripped the stick and spoke of my love for the power and beauty of words and my anger about ways they’re being misused to foster hate and distrust. Then I lifted the heavy rock and acknowledged my fear of speaking truth to power, of being misunderstood, of unwittingly hurting others, or of being perceived as naïve.

After each of us spoke, the rest of the group acknowledged us with the words, “We hear you.” At the end, the leader honored the truth each of us shared and pointed out that each object in the mandala was like a coin with two sides: the courage to speak our fear is evidence of trust; our sorrow is for those things we deeply care for; the anger springs from passion for justice; and to be empty means there’s space to be filled.

By the end of the day, I felt clarity about my question of what I’m to do. Rather than weighing my chances and proceeding only when I feel hopeful—like I did with the Cubs—now, my intention is to DO hope by listening and writing my truth. I don’t know yet what form that will take, but I intend for my words to come from a place of love, grounded in what my Quaker faith has shown me: there is something of the Light in everyone. No exceptions. And every time I feel afraid that I’ll be misunderstood, or viewed as gullible, I’ll remind myself that the other side of that coin is trust; that my anger springs from my passion for justice; my tears come from deep love; and my emptiness offers space for my words.

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